Why Citizen Engagement: Roxane White at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Roxane White at TEDxMileHigh

Roxane White – TRANSCRIPT

The night of March 19th, I got a call that everyone hopes they never get in their life. It was Lisa Clements on the phone.

My Department of Correction Director had been murdered in his own home. Why do I start by talking to you about Tom? I start because Tom probably taught me more about civic engagement than any person I’ve ever worked with in my life. My first meeting with Tom was about budget cuts in Colorado, and the need to engage the people of Colorado in prison closures, and he said, “Rox, we’re going to have to go shut down a community. We’re closing a prison where we’re the sole employer, and we have to go tell them.” So we got in the car and went to Las Animas, Colorado, and we met with the community.

People yelled at us, and they screamed at us. They were terrified, and we escorted out with security at the end of the meeting. Tom’s death had nothing to do with that night, but it has everything to do with how we think about good government. We met with that community every two weeks, and three weeks ago we announced that we were bringing in new employers, that we had transformed an old prison facility into a rehabilitation place for people who are homeless. The community will once again have jobs and will once again have the opportunity to thrive.

But in the car, Tom and I talked a lot about democracy, and open and public dialogue, and why did we have to close a prison in order to get people to come out and talk to us? Why is it that free speech and open elections don’t seem to be valued anymore in America? And at the same time, across the world, we are losing democracy. Why is it that trust in government has decreased from 60% just ten years ago to less than 19% now? What were we going to do about it as a community, and what were we going to do about it as taxpayers?

Tom and I were people who never wanted to be in political appointment roles. We were people who just wanted to improve government, so we started the conversation: what do you do to re-establish trust, and how is it that every one of us as taxpayers participate in that process? We believe that first and foremost, taxpayers have to be seen not as taxpayers but as customers. Transparency in government has to become more relevant, and not be, as one of the earlier speaker referred to it as vomit, but as real data.

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There has to be fiscal accountability. There have to be great leaders in government. When government does all of that, it’s still not going to be trusted, unless we as citizens, we as customers, become more active. So let’s talk about what it means to be seen as customers. It means that customers, you and I, are entitled to results.

Our public employees must be treated with respect but so must we, as customers. Bureaucrats should be evaluated based on how customers are treated. There has to be transparency in government, and we have to take the time as citizens to learn about our government functions. In Colorado, we are fortunate. We have the Colorado Information Marketplace and every single strategic plan for every single department is published online.

There’s no excuses for us not to know what our government is doing, or why they’re doing something. But we also have a responsibility as taxpayers to understand exactly where our money is going, who is getting it, where it is being used? We must take the time to learn about it. It is easy to step back and say, “I’m done with government.” We can’t afford to do that. We see other countries in the world where that is happening, and it is not the right future for America.

We recently worked hard to write a book called, “Leadocracy,” that is to encourage every single person that is in this room to think about at some point in your career, not just complaining about government, but stepping up, doing a stent in government, being a great leader who knows how to analyze, allocate, and align resources. Figuring out what outcomes we want in government, and actually stepping forward and working on it; figuring out how our government taxes work, when we should be asking for a tax increase, and how we are moving results forward. And results that aren’t about political affiliation, or about a hammer, but results that are about influencing people to behave in a way that really makes sense. In government, we also have to have a sense of urgency, and we as customers have the right to demand that sense of urgency. Oftentimes we get told, “Well, that will take five years to do, that’ll take ten years to do.”

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We as customers have the right to demand a sense of urgency. We also have the right to demand that our leaders lean into conflict. What I mean by that is that our leaders have to do what Tom and I did that night in Las Animas: go and listen to people. Have the hard conversations. It’s easy to talk to the people that agree with us; it’s hard to lean into conflict and hear from other people.

I believe that if government takes that side of the responsibility, then we as citizens have to take the other side of the responsibility and truly become active in government. We can’t sit back and have less than half of the people in the United States voting. I remember, as a young child, I was seven years old of one of my first experiences of civic engagement. My sister and I had some friends who were with us for the summer. My parents were engaged in an exchange program in rural Montana.

We were all sent downtown to pick up the mail. We got to the post office, and we were stopped at the door, and we were told that we couldn’t get the mail. We rode home on our bikes, we went into the house, and said to our mom they wouldn’t let us get the mail today. My mom said, “Girls, sit down, you’re about to learn a lesson.” My mother called the US Postmaster General, and then she called our US Senators, and the next day we were all allowed back into the Post Office. The issue had been that the two friends that were with us were African American, and they hadn’t been allowed in.

My mom said, “Never sit back and watch something unfair happen. Pick up the phone and do something about it.”  Isn’t my mom great? Later as an adult, I was participating in my first candidate forum, and I raised my hand and I asked the candidates who were running for mayor, “What are you going to do about homelessness and how are you going to help people to have shelter?” One of the candidates said to me afterwards, “You know, you can sit back, and you can complain about it, and you can criticize government. Or if I’m elected, what I would ask you to do would be to step up and try to help end homelessness.” When John Hickenlooper was elected Mayor, I became the Chair of Denver’s Road Home, and have helped his efforts to end homelessness.

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That’s how I ended up in public service, because I got involved, I had something to say and a bureaucrat, as somebody who was becoming an elected official said, “Step up and help, don’t just sit back.” So I ask you all today to think about how you all can step up. Throughout Colorado we have active conversations happening on a myriad of issues from red tape to education to healthcare. Recently the Governor even called for a conversation to happen throughout the state on death penalty, which I have to say, I’ve ended up in more conversations about having conversations about having a conversation that I ever thought possible.

But out of it, it really is: are we willing to step forward and be engaged? There’s a non-profit called TBD Colorado that has been reaching out across the state in online surveys in community focus groups and educational forums asking the citizens of Colorado to help us determine our future in education, and transportation, and healthcare. We’ve had an amazing response from the people of Colorado, and last year, it changed policy in our state house and senate. We have 64 young people across the state of Colorado who have engaged with our marketing experts and our business leadership, and we’ve had over 200 people submit online videos about branding Colorado, and what makes Colorado a great state to live in and be in. We invite you to be part of that community conversation. Make a difference in terms of who we are as a state.

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