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Connect the Dots

Will Thomas

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Over the past week, Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator, has been accused of blocking the Obama administration’s nominations for senior government officials, holding up a lot of the work that the Obama administration is trying to accomplish, not to mention leaving the Transportation Security Administration without someone in charge. Shelby is doing this to secure more funds for his pork-barrel spending projects (which, let’s be honest, will probably benefit us).

While Shelby surely is trying to make a point, he’s doing exactly what disenchants a lot of people about politics — playing games with the fortunes of lots of people and endangering us all. In recent years, there have been some movements across the country to reengage the public in community decision-making that’s kinder and gentler than the political games that are played in Washington.

Throughout the course of the last year, I have had the opportunity to be a Community-Based Research Intern through New College for a local non-profit organization called the David Mathews Center for Civic Life.

The Mathews Center, whose namesake comes from the former UA President and U.S. health secretary, seeks to foster the infrastructure, habits and capacities for more effective public decision-making.

In short, the Mathews Center attempts to remind people of the best ways to make decisions through conversations that lead to positive group action. Interns like me have been working in communities throughout the state to facilitate group decision-making on issues like health care reform, the war in Iraq, and our ongoing energy crisis.

As part of this internship, many of the other interns in the program and I had the opportunity to travel to the University of New Hampshire in July to a conference called No Better Time. This conference was for individuals all across the country who are interested in work similar to that of the Mathews Center, the work that engages communities in controlling their own destinies and regaining political will to work for the people. We discovered that there are many people out there who are looking for ways to make their communities work in a better way and met several students from universities around the country interested in this kind of work.

In light of this discovery, the Mathews Center is hosting a conference in March called Connect the Dots. The goal of the conference is to provide a forum for students, faculty, and staff who are interested in embedding democratic practices on their campuses and communities nationwide.

The conference, which will be held March 3 – 6, will give students opportunities learning to engage communities in ways that are being developed in every corner of the country, network with practitioners from across the country, and participate in concurrent learning exchanges that engage participants in these practices.

While I get to go as part of my involvement with the Mathews Center, I’d encourage each and every one of you, as well as your friends, to attend. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been working in communities for years, or if you’re simply interested in new and different ways of group decision-making that don’t involve the petty, partisan politics that is commonplace in our society.

Although I doubt Sen. Shelby will attend, I’d stand to argue that he has a lot to learn from the individuals attending this conference. Members of organizations such as the Kettering Foundation, the Democracy Imperative, Everyday Democracy and many others will be in attendance. Many of them have decades of experience in assisting communities in taking back their destinies from the kind of petty politics that divides our communities and take power away from the people.

So take a look at Connect the Dots, and find a way to get democracy back to you and your own.

For more information on Connect the Dots, visit mathewscenter.org.

Will Thomas is a senior majoring in economics and finance. He writes bi-weekly on Wednesdays.

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Connect the Dots