Town halls good outlets

Town hall meetings have been popular vehicles for advancing the views of our political leaders. President Clinton, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Rudolph Guiliani, the mayor of New York City, have used them. Town halls meetings are part of the electronic age with CNN's Talk Back Live, where a topic is discussed amidst a studio audience, and viewers contribute via telephone. Despite the medium, the town hall format is a time honored and tested process that brings together a community's ideas for the good of the commonwealth. The people have a captive audience in their elected officials; a direct link, if you will. Their voices shape their surroundings, creating change by questioning the status quo and maintaining values by reaffirming the excellence in their community.

Every hamlet, village and metropolis holds some form of town hall meeting, even Arizona. The 66th Arizona Town Hall was held in Prescott this year. I had the privilege of attending the 11th annual Arizona Black Town Hall, held in Sierra Vista, in September of this year. Yes, that's right, I said the 11th annual town hall meeting. The Arizona Black Town Hall was founded in 1985 by a local attorney, Lola Rainey. The Black Town Hall is a non-profit, non-partisan, community based forum that seeks to address and provide solutions to a variety of critical issues facing the black community here in Arizona. Local officials, community leaders, academicians, students and civic minded citizens are asked to participate and contribute. They analyze and discuss a selected topic, each dispensing their particular brand of wisdom and unique perspective that is so essential at arriving at a consensus plan that will provide solutions for an entire citizenry. Participants investigate the selected topic by examining a background report prepared especially (usually by University of Arizona or Arizona State University) for that particular meeting. The consensus plan is compiled into a final report that is distributed to educators, policy makers and legislators, researchers, libraries, and community organizations throughout the state.

Critical issues facing the black community are, at the same time, shared and unique. Crime, violence, education, housing, homelessness, joblessness, and economic viability are issues that face every community is this country, large and small. Yet, for the black community, these issues are a disproportionate reality when compared to other communities. If we are to arrive at solutions to these disparate realities, we must be able to ask the right questions to the right people, exchange ideas, then focus on the goal of providing concrete, clear and accessible solutions. Who must ask the "right questions?" Local officials, community leaders, academicians, students and civic minded citizens. Who are the "right people" to ask? Local officials, community leaders, academicians, students and civic minded citizens. Those involved in the decision-making process must also be those who will be ultimately effected. The Black Town Hall provides such a process. "Grass-roots" is a trite and abused expression, used to convey to the recipient that the user understands his or her problem at "their level," and wants to tailor solutions that would address their unique situation. The Black Town Hall epitomizes the concepts in the grassroots approach by utilizing participants that have roots in their community, and employing individuals that will seek to solve problems that directly effect their lives.

Selected topics for the Black Town Hall range from strategies for community development, health care, and family, to education, housing and profiles of the African American male. The topic for the 1995 Arizona Black Town Hall meeting was "Youth Violence in African American Communities." The background report, published by Arizona State University, compiled and profiled data from a variety of sources, including the census report, Maricopa County and Pima County Juvenile justice systems, and the Uniform Crime Reports published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The report also draws from a long list of scholars, researchers; local, state and federal organizations; journals, quarterly reports, books and treatise.

Youth violence is an aspect of our society that has been portrayed to us on many levels. The poverty stricken teenager that knows no other way but guns and violence. The ruthless drug dealer whose only friend is the all mighty dollar. The innocent child that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The devastated mother whose face conveys the inevitable question why? The participants of the 1995 Arizona Black Town Hall questioned these portrayals and asked if they were based in reality. If so, why? What can be done and who is responsible for making changes? What are the necessary resources, where can they be obtained, and how must they be distributed? If these images are false, why are they being perpetuated? Who chooses to deceive us and how can they be stopped?

My experience, the answer to some of these questions, and some the solutions we arrived at, I will share with you in my next segment.

David H. Benton is the president of the Black Law Students Association. His column appears every other Thursday.

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