Saturday, October 13, 2007

Want to save our state? Here's how

It's been 31 years since rumpled newsman Howard Beale ordered a generation to fling open the windows and declare:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

That's the line from the Oscar-nominated film "Network" everyone remembers, as it launched a thousand parodies and at least an ad campaign or two.But few people can recall the beleaguered Beale's soliloquy beforehand:

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter.

"Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be.

"We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'

"Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!"

Substitute an iPod, TiVo and Xbox, and it all sounds eerily familiar, if not a smidge apocalyptic.

In the past few years, I have had scores of conversations with Michiganders who have touched on these themes. There is a palpable frustration, even anger.

One thing almost everybody can agree on: Our state is in trouble.

But nobody knows how to change it.Enter the Center for Michigan, which is recruiting people from Benzonia to Battle Creek to brainstorm an action plan for the state in 90-minute community conversations during the next two months.

They're guaranteed to be more constructive — and productive — than screaming out your window.

The center, a bipartisan, nonprofit "think and do tank" outside Ann Arbor, calls this "Michigan's Defining Moment." After all, we have the worst economy in the nation, an abysmal rating with Wall Street, a shrinking population, threats to the Great Lakes, an ailing auto industry, a crumbling core city and a structural budget deficit that still hasn't been resolved even after last week's last-minute deal.

More than 80 forums will take place statewide, with Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Foundation and Battle Creek Unlimited throwing their muscle behind the effort locally.

The center's approach is one of pragmatism, not dogmatism, aimed at bringing the left, right and center together to set firm goals to revitalize Michigan before the 2010 election, when most state leaders will be booted due to term limits. Conversations will be underpinned by civility, something sorely lacking in cable news talk shows, the blogosphere or even the Capitol.

Rather than being bland spitballing sessions, the center wants residents' feedback in three key areas: how Michigan can grow, retain and attract a skilled workforce in a global economy; invest in our economy and quality of life; and reform government at all levels to be more efficient, modern and accountable.Organizers also want to inject some much-needed pride into our state.

After all, we live in a place of unparalleled beauty nestled between four Great Lakes, which is home to some of the best universities in the world and has given birth to a slew of innovations from Corn Flakes to cars.

That is fertile soil for a new, modernized Michigan to grow.

But how, you might ask, do these conversations differ from other periodic powwows to set the state straight?

Well, the forums aren't just for the usual suspects — politicians, CEOs, union bosses — though everyone's invited. But as center founder Phil Power stresses, this round of sessions is aimed at all residents, especially those who feel their voices are never heard.

Groups will meet again in the winter, and then the center goes full throttle for the election cycle, presenting the plan to legislators, holding state House race debates and even issue potlucks.

Sounds great. But as a cynical columnist, I had to ask: What if nobody cares and nobody shows?

"You gotta stir people," said the center's Executive Director John Bebow, himself a cynical former journalist. "People have great interest in public affairs if you ask them to participate. But who's been asking?"

After the budget fiasco, it's clear Lansing has a rather remedial understanding of our state's problems. Now's the time for the people to lead — and our leaders can follow.

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