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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008 07:04 am

Citizens in action

Springfield club brings discussion to democracy

Citizens Club founders Bob Gray and Rudy Davenport

One day three years ago, Bob Gray picked up the phone and called Rudy Davenport. The white Republican committeeman told the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that he wanted to start a club.

It would be something different for Springfield, Gray told Davenport, modeled after a 105-year-old Chicago outfit that poses tough civic questions and brings in local officials and experts to provide their answers.

Davenport had his hands full with a number of volunteer responsibilities with the NAACP and groups like Habitat for Humanity, but he agreed to sit down with Gray to hash out the idea. The longer Davenport listened, the more interested he became. Before that first meeting was over, Davenport was hooked on leading the citizenship effort in Springfield.

The universities lectured on public affairs topics every now and then, and other local organizations focused on specific topics like politics or religion, but there was no group that scrutinized quality of life issues for all citizens.

"The reason they did it in Chicago was because there was no other group that was holding aldermen, police chiefs, and fire chiefs, and city officials accountable," Davenport says. "That's why we wanted to fill that niche in Springfield. We did not find any organization that was doing that."

The pair crafted the Citizens Club, using Chicago's public affairs framework, and agreed that it would provide a non-political, non-partisan forum for capital city conversation. Gray and Davenport endorsed this ideal in their approach to finding members. Instead of calling on Springfield's usual cast of characters, they capitalized on their differences to pull in people of diverse racial, political and social backgrounds.

"What that ended up getting us — partially by design, partially by accident — is quite an interesting mix," Gray says. "While all of us come from different points, everybody has been able to leave their baggage at the door and engage in really serious discussions that apply to quality of life in the Springfield area."

No politics allowed

In Springfield, that's hard to imagine, but Gray maintains that the Citizens Club has gone out of its way to avoid taking sides on any issue. Even though members have varying personal viewpoints, their agreement on the importance of citizen involvement keeps them focused.

"All of us may have our feelings on certain stuff," he says, "but it's been amazing how well we've all worked together and brought people together who probably have fought each other for years."

At first Gray and Davenport, who both retired from positions with state government, tapped their share of state workers. But as word spread that the club was open to everyone, it soon became home to professors, judges, historians, former and current city employees, community activists, business owners, and, yes, even capital city bikers. Gray's e-mail list has grown to 400-plus addresses and last year 130 people paid $20 to sign up for full membership.

"We're open to the public and that speaks for itself," Davenport says. "You'll find that we are, in fact, diverse."

Seeing different faces in the crowd was the Citizens Club goal, he continues, and a measure of their success.

"I make progress by talking to and reaching agreement with people who are different than I am. Any progress that we are to make in America will certainly have a lot to do with finding middle ground with people who we do not agree with, in many things."

Kenley Wade, a native Springfieldian who worked in government administration for 28 years, now runs his own business consulting practice. As part of his job, he travels the country to review large federal grant programs that focus on children, schools, family court, mental health, and welfare.

When he joined the Citizens Club, he was impressed that the members of the organization could do what many of his clients could not: they reached beyond their individual missions to work together.

"What's fascinating about the Citizens Club is that you have people from all walks of life who came together around a premise that it will be a good idea to provide more information to the public and provide it in a different way," Wade says. "In the work I do in communities, I tell them about that experience."

Jim Donelan, executive assistant to Mayor Tim Davlin, also quickly noticed that a wide variety of people from the community had taken an interest in the Citizens Club's purpose. Just watching the co-presidents work showed that differences could be set aside, he says.

"You have Rudy Davenport and Bob Gray, different backgrounds, different political views, come together," Donelan says. "It was really kind of neat to see that."

When Gray and Davenport decided to form the club, their main mission was to provide an open forum for the citizens of Springfield. They wanted the community to understand the mechanics of city and county government, as well as other entities like the park district or the transit system. They also wanted to give civic leaders the chance to share their side of the story in face-to-face fashion with the public.

In the beginning Gray and Davenport channeled these conversations through monthly policy breakfasts (these don't actually serve breakfast, just coffee — a running joke within the organization). They usually meet at 7:30 a.m. on the fourth Friday of every month at the Hoogland Center for the Arts to discuss timely topics such as local gas prices and the popularity, or unpopularity, of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. They invite one or two speakers, who give a brief presentation and then open the floor to questions from the audience.

Last month Brian Oaks, executive director of the Prairie Capital Convention Center, told the group about his ideas for expansion and asked for community input. Other meetings have hosted Mayor Tim Davlin, who appeared to discuss the state's pension predicament; Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson and Chris Miller, a UIS administrator, who talked about the city's minority hiring process; and Republican national committeeman Bob Kjellander and Bill Houlihan, downstate director for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who debated the potential outcome of the upcoming election.

Springfield residents attend Citizens Club forum.

There are plans in the works for future policy breakfasts. On Sept. 26, Gray plans to present information on the proposed constitutional convention. It's been 20 years since citizens voted not to ratify the state constitution, so they'll discuss the pros and cons of the Election Day decision. Also, in November, Gray hopes to bring in local Democratic Party chairman Tim Timoney and Republican Party chairman Tony Libri to debate the results of the presidential election.

As their organization grew, it installed a board of directors. And as community interest followed, the Citizens Club initiated what it now calls "fifth-week forums." Since many other organizations don't schedule meetings on the extra week that's built into some months, the board thought the date could provide added attraction. Plus, the club could start with four or five forums a year and work from there.

The two-hour forums aren't always structured in the same way. Sometimes the Citizens Club has presented a panel discussion and other times it's brought in experts to present basic information, then turned to a panel to offer pros and cons of the issue.

The Citizens Club took the latter approach in January when it presented a forum on the future of Springfield's water needs. To address the continuing conversation about the possibility of building a second lake, scientists and other experts discussed the water supply, the water demand, and the reliability of different water supply options like Lake II or nearby gravel pits. Two pro-Lake II and two anti-Lake II community members gave their thoughts and accepted answers from a packed crowd in the Hoogland Center.

Joan Walters, the program committee chair for the Citizens Club, moderated the forum and says she was astounded by the droves of people who fought through the snow to attend what turned out to be the club's most controversial forum.

"It was a winter night from hell," she says. "It started snowing, you could barely drive, and yet we had quite a number of people in the Hoogland Center. I thought everybody would cancel who was on the panel and that we'd have no one in the audience."

The forum was filmed by WSEC-TV/PBS Springfield. Walters was approached afterward by several people who watched the show and found it interesting. Needless to say, she says, the topic was also timely — the next day City Water, Light & Power asked ratepayers for nearly $85 million for maintenance and repairs, perhaps effectively ending the bid for Lake II.

"We've kidded around that we killed the lake," Gray says. "Obviously we didn't, but there is clearly no real push right now to build Lake II. The look at other options — we'd like to think we helped bring out a little bit of that."

"It gave us insight as to why people took the positions that they did," Davenport adds. "That's the only thing that we really have — people who can bring information. It's all the Citizens Club can do. But if it does that, then we accomplish something."

Tackling tough topics

Walters, the budget director for former Gov. Jim Edgar, had just moved back to the Springfield area from Seattle in September 2005 when she saw an advertisement for the Citizens Club. She went to one of its meetings, enjoyed the diverse group's conversations, and soon got involved with the program committee.

It's difficult to plan forums that attract an audience, Walters says. The program committee looks for relevant topics that will draw people out of their homes and away from their televisions. Some catch the attention of only a handful of people, while others fill auditoriums.

The Citizens Club's first forum, in November 2005, focused on emergency preparedness. Nearly 100 people attended to hear from speakers like Ralph Caldwell, director of homeland security and then assistant chief of police, and Tom Zimmerman, grants and program coordinator for the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. Club members say they brought these groups together at a pertinent time — two tornadoes spiraled through Springfield the following March.

After a January 2006 forum on identity theft, the Citizens Club put into motion an idea that had been churning since its inception. It held a three-part series called "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" that focused on race relations in Springfield.

The first looked at the city's institutional racism from a historical perspective, the second described Springfield's efforts, successes and challenges in race relations, and the third presented the case for achieving results for community benefit.

Wade, the vice-chair of the program committee and series moderator, recalls looking out over the crowd and seeing that the audience members were engrossed in the topic. They weren't fidgeting or talking to each other, he says.

Citizens Club board members Jim Donelan, Kenley Wade, Joan Walters, Bob Gray and Rudy Davenport

"I think we helped open the door a little bit with those three forums," Wade continues. "We said it's OK to have that conversation and to get through what might be sensitive moments for some people."

Over the next year, the Citizens Club delved into topics such as Springfield's energy future, which coincided with CWLP's agreement with the Sierra Club. They hosted a forum on economic development, inviting Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Bradley Warren and planning and economic development director Mike Farmer to discuss how Springfield could attract more companies and families.

The club held forums on higher education and jobs. Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Robert Morris College, Lincoln Land Community College, and UIS shared their plans for improving the area's growth and development, while several representatives from the Springfield Urban League, local unions, and construction companies discussed potential careers with public and private capital projects.

A city infrastructure forum followed on the coattails of the release of the Quantum Five Initiative report that detailed the area's needs, ranging from city streets to upgrades in the water and sewer systems.

The Citizens Club's most recent forum, held on Aug. 14, took another look at race relations. To commemorate the 1908 Springfield Race Riot, using guest actors and attorneys, the club reenacted the trial of Abraham Raymer, who was acquitted in the murder of the elderly William Donnegan.

The mock trial pointed out how the justice system worked, or didn't work, in that case. It encouraged the audience to consider whether there would be a different outcome today. Nearly 300 people packed into the Dove Center of the Prairie Heart Institute for the program, making it the most well-attended forum so far.

So what's next for Citizens Club?

There are several things its members would like to see happen. Early next year Gray hopes to organize a forum on healthcare, calling on experts from the SIU School of Medicine and Memorial and St. John's hospitals.

Wade, who participated in the most recent review of candidates for police jobs, wants to hear another talk on minority hiring. Since this is the first time a Citizens Club member was directly involved in the process, Wade says, he'd like to be able to share the reality of the situation with the community.

Wade and Walters both agree that a forum on elementary and secondary education is needed. There has been continual dialogue about moving Springfield High School, Wade says, but he believes the conversation should focus on the quality of education in the classroom instead of on the buildings.

Davenport and the others all believe that further exploration of race relations is needed, perhaps in the context of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration or the NAACP centennial commemoration. The other forums focusing on race were well-attended, sending the message that the community is eager to learn more about the history and future of race relations in Springfield.

Three years after Gray and Davenport set out to try something new in Springfield, a city that doesn't always accept change, they believe they've been successful. The interest in the organization has grown, as has the number of people offering suggestions for forum topics. Perhaps an even greater feat has been the willingness of civic leaders to participate openly in the forums and policy breakfasts.

Gray and Davenport now moderate a half-hour show on Cable Access 4 called "Citizens Forum" that plays on the club's ideas. They've also formed a partnership with Leadership Springfield, a development program aimed at young professionals, to encourage people in their 20s and 30s to attend Citizens Club events. Donelan, one of the younger club members and a former Leadership Springfield participant, says it's a perfect opportunity for younger citizens to learn about their city.

"We were all over that, what a natural fit," he says, "and a good way to get some youth involved."

The Citizens Club isn't in it to lobby or to count dollars, it's not even in it to count the number of people who show up. As long as people do come, even if it's a small core of people, Davenport says, the club is doing the right thing.

"We don't have an agenda," Gray agrees. "We're for putting Springfield's best foot forward and attacking, exposing, or focusing on those issues that really do affect the people of Springfield."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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