Listening for a research agenda

In shaping our research agenda, we knew it was critical for us to reach out to community stakeholders to better inform our understanding of issues in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. To accomplish this, we organized a series of roundtable discussions with area leaders to discuss the big obstacles we face and some ideas to overcome them.

We asked our participants to identify the three most important policy obstacles facing our community. MIP staff later sorted these individual issues into broad categories. What we heard not only surprised us; it demonstrated the challenges and complexities of tackling urban policy.

What we heard

We found broad agreement on the key challenges facing our city and county. By a wide margin, the most important issue from all groups was spatial segregation and concentrated poverty. This consensus crossed the urban-suburban divide, professional sectors and political perspectives. Another recurring theme was the failure of institutional structures to promote civic engagement and efficacy. Finally, there was a specific focus on education, which we anticipated. What surprised us was that instead of focusing directly on policies controlled by the school system, there was a lot of discussion around systemic factors that impact education, like housing and land-use policy.

The cohesion of the recommendations from a wide array of interests and backgrounds gives us a strong path forward in choosing what to focus on in the weeks and months ahead. Here’s a quick look at three main themes that came out of our discussions.

Spacial segregation and poverty (22 identified issues)
In what was the most talked about issue at every discussion, poverty showed itself to be a dominating topic. Particularly, generational poverty and the idea that certain communities are both racially and economically segregated from growing opportunities in our city was of major import to almost every single participant. One locally elected official raised the possibility of doing a “disparity study” on the access gap between income and racial groups. Other participants looked toward housing policy as a way to disperse concentrated poverty and meaningfully integrate communities. Overall, there was general agreement on the lack of pertinent information for decision-makers on poverty.

Education (16)
Not surprisingly, each conversation touched on the role of education in supporting a thriving community. In particular, there was a desire for more experimental and innovative schooling models. One frequently mentioned idea was more broadly deploying pilot programs in individual schools to explore variations in curriculum and teaching pedagogy. There was a thread of frustration around the lack of data availability regarding resource distribution and equity within the school system. Finally, there was emphasis on the importance of early childhood education in later-life outcomes. Given the active conversation in Hamilton County about education, there was a lot of discussion about the importance of addressing the current weaknesses of the school system and how leadership can play a role.

Civic engagement (5)
One big challenge noted by several participants was a civic structure that often doesn’t promote public engagement in a meaningful way. Several community members and elected officials expressed the shortcomings of public dialog surrounding local government, often handicapped by a lack of information and narrow political agendas. The need for a centralized repository for local initiatives and pilot programs was also expressed. One elected official noted that new policy solutions should arise from a more diverse set of ideas, rather than conforming to predefined legislative agendas.

Other themes
Outside of these three themes, there were several smaller threads that stood out to us. Many of the challenges that were brought up had historic roots embedded in systemic structures, making them difficult to overcome. Another note was that because of the progress Chattanooga has made over the past several years, many community leaders have developed an unwillingness to deviate from a “scripted” success story and often ignore the prickly challenges and gaps in opportunity that still exist in our community.

Crime and safety (7) also ranked on the list of concerns, but there was an earnest desire to know how Chattanooga stacked up against its peers in terms of violent crime. Additionally, there was some confusion from participants about how effective the violence reduction initiative championed by the city of Chattanooga and its police department has been over the course of its implementation. This may be partly due to a disagreement on which metrics should be used to measure its success. Additionally, some noted the expanding population past city boundaries and the challenges law enforcement could face if crime shifts toward the unincorporated areas of the county.

Finally, housing (4) was a major factor in each discussion. Often, this was directly related to the question of poverty and potential solutions to economic segregation. A point raised several times was the differences in definitions of “affordable housing” among different interest groups in the area. There was an expressed need for a “gradient” of housing options, with a particular focus on housing for families between 60­ and 120 percent of the area median income. There seemed to be disagreement about whose role it is to provide that housing, but it is clear that local government will have to play some part in implementing it.

Our takeaways

We aimed to collect thoughts from a diverse group of people with different values and backgrounds, although we feel there is room for improvement. In the future, we need to engage more people of color and voices that aren’t often at the decision­-making table. The need for greater inclusion is made clear when those directly impacted by racial and economic segregation are not included in the conversation. Unsurprisingly, this is a scenario that is not uncommon to community discussions in our city. It is apparent to us that this lack of representation is likely a factor in reinforcing the structures of poverty.

Another interesting issue is the role of governance in spurring or discouraging engagement. The way that most individuals interface with their local governments is frankly limited. Those avenues include paying parking tickets, speaking for three minutes at a public meeting or calling 311 with a complaint. Beyond that, finding a way to build a relationship with a particular elected official represents a barrier to entry to the political process for some.

The big challenges discussed at each roundtable provide us with a daunting challenge in focus. Out of these grand issues, we have developed countless research questions that lead us down fascinating rabbit holes. Over the next several weeks, we are going to be defining a research agenda that uses these discussions as a starting point. Moreover, we are going to be hosting more of these types of conversations throughout the year to broaden the scope of topics and perspectives.

Personally, my big takeaway from these discussions was a reminder that public policy should not only be informed by data and metrics, but also by empathy and dialog. It is our hope that through this process of listening, we are better able to provide insights into how government and policy can work better to serve the community.

Our 19 participants included Michael Baskin, city of Chattanooga; Laura Cagle, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Cordell Carter, TechTown; Elizabeth Crews, Unifi­ED; Heather DeGaetano, Causeway; Michael Gilliland, Chattanooga Organized for Action; Larry Grohn, Chattanooga City Council; Yusuf Hakeem, Chattanooga City Council; Alex Lavidge, GigTank; Matt Lea, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office; Jerry Mitchell, Chattanooga City Council; Claire McVay, U.S. Senator Bob Corker’s office; Lori Quillen, Benwood Foundation; Keri Randolph, Hamilton County Department of Education; Ken Smith, Chattanooga City Council; Stratton Tingle, SoundCorps; Michael Walton, GreenSpaces; Donna Williams, city of Chattanooga; and Charles Wood, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Joda Thongnopnua

Executive director

Joda Thongnopnua has a background in communications and advertising. He worked with major retail brands, international non-governmental organizations, and startups prior to founding the Metro Ideas Project in 2016.