Politics for People: Betty Knighton and the West Virginia Center for Civic Life

On tough issues like prescription drugs and coal, what can citizens really do to get some control over their future? Betty Knighton discusses in an interview with former KF research assistant Jack Becker. You can learn a lot about an organization by who they learn from. One of the folks Kettering has learned the most from is Betty Knighton of Charleston, West Virginia. Betty is a master of citizen engagement, someone who’s figured out how to work with communities around her state. But unlike many folks with a supersized talent, she also has the even rarer ability of being able to tell you how she does what she does. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Betty, either at one of Kettering’s many learning exchanges or in West Virginia, here are some of Betty’s unique insights into community engagement—in her own words. Since 1998, Betty has run the West Virginia Center for Civic Life. The center, which functions as an impartial organization supporting public engagement on tough issues in West Virginia, believes in the motto of National Issues Forums: “Understand. Decide. Act.” Three simple words, yet many lament we rarely see this attention to public issues any more. The poor state of public discourse in many communities around the country makes her work all the more admirable and worthy of discussion. And like many people Kettering works with, Betty doesn’t fit the stereotypical public engagement personality: she isn’t an elected official, she’s not trained professionally in public administration, nor does she have a degree in political science. Betty is a former high school English teacher who was working at the West Virginia Humanities Council on a literature discussion program for teachers when she became interested in National Issues Forums. Through the council, she began to form a statewide coalition of partnering organizations to help West Virginians talk and work together on issues facing the state. Eventually, their work grew into the creation of a nonprofit, freestanding organization, the West Virginia Center for Civic Life. Jack Becker: Can you talk about a current issue you’re working on? Betty Knighton: We’re currently working on a project about the economic future of West Virginia. Like so many states in rapid economic change these days, West Virginia is struggling to find ways to move forward on many fronts. There are conflicting ideas in some of these areas, especially in how the state should use its natural resources. For us to be useful to the state and to communities, we’re focusing on identifying conflicting perspectives and helping community’s frame those perspectives into constructive conversations. When we work with West Virginians to frame issues, we’re really engaging in a conversation with people about how they see the problem. The framing of the issue has to represent different points of view in order to help communities have a comprehensive discussion that leads to productive decisions. The framing of these discussions is integral to the integrity of the entire process. If the issue framework sidelines an entire group of people, it won’t help the state move forward in the way it needs. We’ve also seen how important it is that the organizers of community discussions come from different sectors—nonprofits, faith groups, government agencies, educational groups, the private sector. Not only does this kind of coalition underscore the openness of the process, but also it allows working relationships to develop that will have a major impact as communities move from dialogue to action. A big part of what you’re doing, then, is identifying when and where people come together, and sometimes catalyzing opportunities for that to happen. A lot of people are thinking about this as “civic infrastructure.” What are your thoughts on that? While most communities don’t use the term “civic infrastructure,” those that are most intentional in building opportunities for people to talk and work together are actually thinking a great deal about what civic infrastructure entails. Recently, we’ve been working with several communities as they are identifying the existing connections and relationships in their areas. They are asking themselves: Where do conversations occur naturally in our community? Or, what kind of informal relationships do we have that help our community move forward? People often have to think hard and dig deep to uncover what is happening in their communities since so much of it is outside formal processes and spaces. Everybody, from the mayor to any citizen, knows something about the civic infrastructure in his or her community. At the same time, nobody knows everything. The work community members are doing to “map” what is happening around them is increasing opportunities for connected work and for stronger relationships to carry that work forward. Some communities have developed ongoing spaces for community conversations. Huntington has a weekly process they call Chat ‘n Chew—open to everyone—as a time Huntington residents can come together, talk about local needs, and often, to work to address the needs they’ve identified. During Chat ‘n Chews, they are also enjoying a social time together and building a more connected community in the process. Many communities in our state are doing this, often at cafés or restaurants, over breakfast, lunch or dinner. What’s special here is that many people are intentionally building habits of coming together and to talk about issues. While these initiatives are all locally organized, we try to learn about what’s happening so we can share their practices with other communities in West Virginia. So I’m hearing that there’s a bit of a tension between rapid response dialogue and the more long-term work of building civic infrastructure. Is that right? In many cases, we’re seeing that communities that have been the most intentional about building—or surfacing—connections are the ones that are most equipped to respond to public issues. It won’t necessarily be done quickly; most of these issues are complex and difficult. But communities that have an informal infrastructure to support public framing of issues and productive dialogues are starting several steps ahead. When we work with communities, we try to help them build on the capacity they already have. Sometimes, people think they have to have a great deal of professional expertise and training before they can bring the community together for a conversation. While certain skills are very helpful for these community moderators and conveners, most often, it’s a matter of redirecting the skills they already have into a new, more public purpose. The language I hear you speaking is that of assets. Similar to what John McKnight and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute has worked on for years, you’re saying that focusing on a community’s assets rather than deficits can facilitate better problem solving? Communities do have infrastructures and capacities; they just don’t always recognize them. In our work with communities, and especially in our current work on the economic future of the state, we are working with communities to build on existing assets rather than to develop a list of deficits. It’s important for people to understand the severity of problems, though. For example, many West Virginians’ eyes were opened to the severity of the state’s prescription drug abuse problem in the 120 community dialogues that have been held around the state. Fortunately, they also learned about much good work that was underway, and they were able to build on that and set directions for new work to fill the many gaps. How does the infrastructure that supports dialogue impact the move to action? We’ve seen that the strong community connections that support deep and broad public dialogue are the key indicator of whether community actions will evolve. No matter how good the discussion is, community actions don’t just spontaneously erupt afterward. The connections and relationships that create the dialogues, coupled with the new relationships that develop during the dialogue, provide a solid infrastructure to support the hard work of planning and implementing community actions. It’s been exciting to see communities work so intentionally and with such deep insight into the importance of these connections. We’re trying our best to learn along with these communities and to share their work with others. Jack Becker is a former Kettering research assistant and current graduate student in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School.