Ask Questions in Seeking Answers

DSC00689In the last few posts on Ask Little Falls, I’ve brought up the fear of speaking publicly about the city’s problems and the need to thoroughly analyze issues facing the community.

How can we raise issues without ranting or getting everyone else unnecessarily worked up? How do we minimize blowback (on ourselves & our organizations) when bringing problems to the fore?

One secret is in learning to ask good questions.

When you ask a question in public, so long as your tone is one of genuine inquiry and not a veiled accusation, people shouldn’t see that as a negative. You’re not on the attack or being impolite. You’re seeking information, which helps in the analysis phase of solving the city’s problems.

So, what kinds of questions are good ones to ask?

When it comes to city or county government, because our country has been set up to be “by the people, for the people,” all citizens have a right and a duty to ask questions. Some good questions for governments include ….

How is our tax money being spent? What does that ordinance mean in practical terms? How was this decision made and who was involved in making it? Is this based on state law? What kind of data was used in creating this ordinance or making this decision? What does this law/ordinance/decision mean for average citizens like me?

When it comes to nonprofit organizations, one of the expectations is that these organizations operate with a certain measure of transparency as part of their nonprofit status. Their Articles of Incorporation, bylaws, and annual financial statement (the IRS 990) are supposed to be open to the public. Good questions for nonprofits include …

What is  your mission statement? How does the organization carry out its mission?  Is the nonprofit effective in meeting its mission? How is the nonprofit funded? Is it a membership organization? If so, how does one become a member? How is the board chosen? How long do board members serve? Is there an annual meeting? When is it ? Is it open to the public? Can the public attend regular board meetings? How does the nonprofit engage the public?

You can ask questions like these directly of government officials or nonprofit boards and staff. Watch how those questions are answered, or not answered, as the case may be. If government or nonprofits are not open to answering your honest questions, that tells you something. You may need to ask more questions, perhaps not directly to the organization, but by checking other sources. For example, the IRS 990 forms of most nonprofits can be found online through Guidestar. (Sign up for a free account in order to access the 990s.) Articles of Incorporation and bylaws for nonprofits can be ordered through the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office.

Even if you don’t ask these questions aloud to anyone outside yourself, the act of asking can help clarify your thoughts and allow you to do some analysis that can give you direction in moving forward on a local issue.

As you can probably guess from the name of this blog, it has been following the premise of asking questions in seeking answers. What questions do you want to ask?



More Analysis Needed in LF

DSC00640I found another bad news listicle this week, this one from RoadSnacks ranking the 10 worst places to live in Minnesota. While Little Falls did not make the top 10, it was listed at 15.

Bob Collins from Minnesota Public Radio’s NewsCut blog replied to this bad news list writing, “Data don’t lie, but the choice of what data to include and exclude lies all the time.” He points to a response about the RoadSnacks article by Aaron Brown of the Minnesota Brown blog, which says that “What did was look for the lowest population densities, highest unemployment rates, lowest median incomes, highest housing vacancies, lowest expenditures per student and highest student teacher ratios, coupled with highest crime rates per capita.” In its rush to look for the worst about Minnesota’s cities, RoadSnacks did not off-set these statistical measures by any of the positive measures.

When we examine Little Falls in order to improve the community (and, as we can see from the RoadSnacks list, it appears that every community could use some improvement), we have to make sure we analyze the negative, the positive, and the neutral.

While the RoadSnacks article indicates that someone somewhere is doing some kind of analysis of Little Falls, even if it’s just for the purposes of link-bait, how much of that in-depth analysis is actually done by those of us in the city for the city? If we don’t measure what is going on, how do we know when we’ve affected change? Or whether the actions we take are having a positive effect on Little Falls?

There are a number of trustworthy sources for data on the community, including the U.S. Census, the Economic CensusMinnesota State Demographic Center, Minnesota Department of Revenue, and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Here’s a 2013 study on County Health Rankings for Minnesota from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The DNR even keeps data on tornadoes and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tracks recycling in the state.

The point is, there is data out there and available for use in analyzing Little Falls. Rather than saying, “That’s interesting,” and going back to our hectic lives, why not figure out how to make that data work for us?

Intuition can tell us a lot about a community, but without digging into the numbers, we can happily delude ourselves into thinking things are changing … or NOT changing … and not know for sure.

What is your favorite source for data about Little Falls, Morrison County, and the State of Minnesota? Please share in the comments.


How Do You Know When You’ve Been Heard?

DSC00779This post was inspired by the thoughtful comments I received on last week’s post about The Fear of Speaking Publicly. If you haven’t already done so, hop over and have a read.

Last week’s commenters felt that when they spoke up, city leaders found ways to silence them and that people and the media were not willing to listen when they expressed their opinions.

This gets kind of deep, but I think it’s at the root of the issue: When you are expressing an idea or opinion, how do you know you’ve been heard? What does the listener have to do to make you believe that your idea or opinion is not being summarily dismissed? Is there some specific action or words the listener must take for you to know you’ve been heard?

As Shelby said last week, “We are becoming a community where people react to others opinions and not respond to another person.”

How, then, do those in the city’s power positions respond rather than simply react? Going a step further, because WE, THE PEOPLE, are part of this democracy, how do we learn to listen and respond so that others feel heard, rather than simply reacting?



The Fear of Speaking Publicly

DSC00816When I started Ask Little Falls last October (2014), the intent was to ask the citizens of Little Falls, MN, open-ended questions about the community in order to allow for discussions that would hopefully improve life in the city. I was hoping to hear from voices that we don’t typically hear on the community stage.

While I’ve received some feedback (thanks to all of you who have left comments!), there hasn’t been enough to represent a good cross-section of residents. I also heard from someone who said I should shut down the blog because no one was reading or commenting on it. At that point I shifted focus away from straight questions to providing commentary on life in the city as I see it. (It is by no means the only valid viewpoint of the community.)

It may not be obvious from the comments, but Ask Little Falls does have readers. Privately, people have told me they read it and have provided a number of reasons for why they won’t leave comments. It boils down to a fear of backlash, which keeps people from speaking publicly in any forum.

In a small town, backlash is very real. Your organization (business or nonprofit) may be ostracized and ignored. Personally, you might be called uncooperative and a crank. People may shun you for speaking up. It’s an ancient fear. When shunning meant casting someone out of a village, survival was at stake for the person being shunned. We don’t want to be cast out of the village, so we say nothing.

Believe me, I have dealt with no small amount of fear in operating this blog. I mull posts over thoroughly, choosing my words with care. Having been a blogger for the past 9 years, I have encountered trolls of a serious (as in making-personal-threats serious) nature. I have also dealt with backlash due to speaking up in other forums. Why don’t I just shut up? Go away and live my life quietly? Stop fretting about how Little Falls operates?

Because that’s exactly what those in power positions want citizens to do. Allow them to direct community affairs unopposed, as they see fit, whether it’s good or effective for the citizenry or not.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a benevolent dictator who could find a way to make everyone happy without anyone else lifting a finger?

That is not how American society was set up. The government at all levels is supposed to be “by the people, for the people.” Nonprofit organizations are also supposed to be accountable to the public in exchange for that nonprofit status. In order for this “by the people, for the people” accountability to happen, we have to have the courage to speak up … and the persistence to keep speaking when it seems no one is listening.

(That doesn’t mean becoming an annoying pain in the tuchus by getting grumpy about every petty little thing. Choose your battles carefully.)

If more of us had the courage to speak, fewer of us would be ostracized or shunned. If one person complains, it’s easy to shut him out. If 100 or 1,000 complain, not only is it practically impossible to shun them all in a town the size of Little Falls, the din of the collective voice is bound to be heard.

Raise your voices, people!

(No questions this week. Feel free to leave a comment about whatever is bothering you in Little Falls. And if fear has your tongue, remember that you can use a fake name when you leave a comment.)