Local Voices Network Launches to Infuse
Creating Political Empathy
Rev. Everett Mitchell (l) will be a host for some conversations that
Kathy Cramer is planning to launch to infuse a healtjier dialogue
into the discussion of issues during Madison’s spring election.
communication that enables us to talk with one another, to get a sense of what is going on in each other’s lives.”
Rev. Everett Mitchell, who is also a Dane County district judge agrees.
“You get a sense that our communities are really divided because we don’t always hear each other,” Mitchell said. “I’m interested in this project because when you
go and campaign and spend time as a pastor to get to know different people, you realize that we don’t have much discord with each other. We have far more in
common than we do differences. And when it comes to family and values of who we are and what we want and what we want to see, we have a lot in common. All
too often, we don’t get the chance to really express ourselves and hear one another’s commonalities. On the political landscape and in the media world, it’s
whatever bleeds, it leads and it keeps people in these two different camps. But at the kitchen table or the round table or churches or gatherings, people are telling
stories. And those stories are always about their hopes, their dreams, their future and their fears.”
Cramer and some of her colleagues are trying to insert some rational spaces in Madison for some rational discourse and opportunities to listen in on people who
may hold different viewpoints from one’s own. It’s called a Local Voices Network.
“The project is designed to lift up the voices of people who aren’t normally heard in our local political process, but even more broadly than that, it’s motivated by the
idea that there is too many people feeling not heard and too little listening going on,” Cramer said. “It’s a public conversation network located here in Madison. There
will be groups of about 4-6 people who will come together and be led in a conversation by a host. All of the conversations will be recorded by a piece of hardware
that we’ve designed called ‘The Digital Heart.’ It glows when it’s on, a nice little red glow. And then those recordings will be analyzed and digested by a team of
engineers at Cortico, a non-profit. There will be a dash board that is created that people who participated in the conversations and our local candidates for mayor,
city council and school board and our local journalists will be able to use as a kind of ear to the ground to see what people are talking about and what they are
concerned about and where in the city they are talking and being concerned about these things.
“People will be able to see the full transcript of the conversations and hear the transcripts for themselves as well. During the conversations, one other important
piece is the host will bring in a highlight of conversations from another group in the city. So if they are talking about a certain kind of topic and they want to have the
group pause and say, ‘Well here’s how people are talking about that on the east side or the north side.’ ‘Here’s how a group of teachers is talking about that.’ They
will be able to bring in thoughts from other groups. So these groups of people talking will typically know one another and already have some level of comfort with
one another. But we do intend to get people to hear other points of view by importing those highlights of conversations into the conversation and by enabling people
to log on and hear what they want to when they have a need.”
Mitchell will be acting as one of those hosts. Within his own life and daily routines, Mitchell will be looking to hook in with already established groups who more
than likely already have a comfort level with each other.
“I’m not trying to recreate groups,” Mitchell said. “I’m just going to take the groups that I already have. We are already meeting together at the church. I’m already
meeting with young people. I’m already gathering young folks in different places. I’m just going to take the groups that I’ve already been convening to talk about
different stuff and just put the little thing with the red dot in the middle, turn it on and let people talk. I’m thinking about the kids in the detention center. I was thinking
about a lot of the young people in my church. This past Sunday, I had a lot of young girls who were talking about the pain that they go through, so I want to hear their
stories. I want to hear what they have to say and how they feel about the world and what their struggles are being young mothers, 20-21-years-old with multiple
children. I want to hear that because I don’t think their stories are captured well enough in our current dialogue. I just want to be an authentic host, which is not
about trying to pull people together whom you don’t even know, but rather saying, ‘I’m already in community. Let me go to the places where we are already organized
and listen to stories.’”
Cramer is looking for volunteers to help implement the project in time for Madison’s 2019 spring elections. She will be holding training sessions December 9-11 for
people who wish to act as hosts and for those who will help identify a diverse range of hosts so that there will be diverse viewpoints represented.
“Ideally, people tap into groups that are already listening,” Cramer said. “In the host script that we have, the questions are not, ‘Who you are going to vote for, for
mayor?’ Rather they are, ‘What are your concerns? What do you like about living in Madison? What brought you here? What brought you to the conversation?’ They
are designed to be very open-ended so that people can raise to the surface whatever concerns that they have and their own viewpoint on the way we live our lives
here in Madison. It’s not at all a focus group where we’re looking for a particular thing. It’s designed to raise up voices.”
The hosts will be able to check out a Digital Heart from any Madison Public Library. If room is available, hosts can hold their groups at the libraries, but they aren’t
confined to the libraries.
“We want to get hosts from all of the different segments of the community,” Cramer emphasized again. “We really want this to be about listening to people who aren’t
normally heard and having voices get attention that aren’t normally amplified in Madison. The key to that will be having a team of hosts who represent a wide variety
of us because people are probably going to feel more comfortable talking with someone they know and someone with a similar kind of background. Also those folks
are going to have, let’s say someone from the LGBTQ community, a better sense of who in that community, for example, isn’t heard and aren’t normally quoted in
newspapers. We want a wide variety of people to be hosts.”
Mitchell is interested in hearing from folks who are not normally a part of the conversation.
“I hope that this will give us just a different way to approach those in our communities that are not often heard,” Mitchell emphasized. “I’m big on this idea that
sometimes the best stories or the best people are the ones that we push to the margins. And I think just the little apparatus itself is like calling everyone back to the
center of the story. When I saw it, I thought, ‘That fits what I think.’ Take people from the margins and bring them back to the center. It’s their story that needs to stay
at the center for us to be the community that I think we can become. Just think of all of the different dimensions of our community who could benefit from just having
different minds around the table and talking honestly about the things that Kathy said they want to ask.”
While the first test of the Local Voices Network will come with the 2019 election. Cramer hopes that it will become a type of media outlet on the internet where
elected officials and others can get the pulse of the diverse electorate that resides in Dane County.
“It will be up to people how many times they meet,” Cramer said. “It will depend on demand. If we are surprised by how many people want to participate, we’ll have
to make sure that everyone who wants to can participate. But I imagine that people will be able to do this more than once. And I also know from my own experiences
that any kind of group project where you are talking about your stories and it’s a small group of people sharing their experiences, it’s a really great experience.
People go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize you experience this.’ And people will want to do it again. We do hope that this isn’t just an election season thing, that once the
election happened that the local voices network continues on so that people in our local elected offices can use it as a way to listen to what people are concerned
about and thinking about in this city.”
And today Madison, tomorrow the world.
“The hope is if we can figure out how to do it here in Madison, we can expand to other communities in Wisconsin and then across the country,” Cramer said. “Ideally
by the time of the 2020 presidential election, there will be this alternative network where people can basically talk with one another by talking to each other in these
long conversation groups.”
Cramer feels that America’s democracy is in peril because there isn’t that free exchange of ideas that leads to sound public policies. She hopes the Local Voices
Network will lead the discussion in the right direction.
To find out more on being a part of the Conversation Corps (the hosts and recruiters),visit https://goo.gl/forms/iAMvYLjabw1s5YoF3 or call Kathy Cramer at 608-347-
By Jonathan Gramling
While there are many factors that have led to the political polarization of the United States, one of
the most recent factors that have made an impact is the use of social media to hurl scorn at ones
opponents and call them names, leaving no room or time for real political policy discussion. While
millions know of President Trump’s Twitter barrages instantaneously, do they have any idea on
what has led to those positions or what the factual basis of those opinions are?
With the multitude of media outlets, blogs and websites that abound today, it is almost too easy to
get spoon-fed ideas and positions that reinforce one’s own positions without serving as a conduit
for ideas that may shed a different light on those issues, leaving people to live in their own little
silos of perception and ideas.
Kathy Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist, as been observing this trend and wrote a book
called The Politics of Resentment.
“So much of our social media is designed to incentivize communication that provokes,” Cramer
said. “The incentive is to post something that people are going to retweet or like. More often than
not, what we put out there is junk. It’s not along the lines of listening. It’s not intended to say, ‘Here’
s how I understand this.’ It happens sometimes, but not often. We think that there is a lack of