To invite progress, change who’s in the room

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes the decision-makers who end up at the center of ire aren’t even elected politicians. But they still have constituents. A group in Cincinnati is bringing the powerful and the less-often-heard to the table.

COURTESY OF NICOLE FISHER
Cohear is an organization that brings together regular citizens and policymakers in Cincinnati to discuss a variety of issues. The group’s aim: for the meetings to produce better decisions for all involved.

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To the hyperbolic and divisive speech found in some political conversations, call it an antidote: A group in Cincinnati is facilitating meetings of the minds between decision-makers and real citizens.

Big-ticket projects can engender controversy, as they have in Cincinnati over a new soccer stadium and a hospital expansion. This is where the group Cohear steps in, taking seemingly opposing sides and giving them a chance to bridge the gap. “There is expertise in living something every day,” says founder Dani Isaacsohn. “What [Cohear] is trying to do is help decision-makers access and learn from that expertise and insight.”

Jennifer Foster attended a conversation between bus riders with disabilities and officials from the local transit authority this past September. “It’s been a blessing to actually see and be heard,” she says.  

Cohear has been bringing together citizens and decision-makers, but it has yet to address how to turn these early conversations into long-term, sustainable relationships. That’s next, says Mr. Isaacsohn. “These conversations, it’s a spark for [change], but you have to sustain engagements – put oxygen into that spark and turn it into a real, lasting relationship.”

When Aiden Lenox attended a meeting last year to talk about anti-bullying efforts in Cincinnati’s public schools, the high school sophomore expected to describe how he started a chapter of We Dine Together, a national initiative that promotes inclusive spaces for students to eat lunch.

What Aiden didn’t expect was for Mike Moroski, a Cincinnati Public Schools board member, to approach him after the meeting and suggest introducing his club across the district.

“It was exciting, and it really meant a lot to me to think that there’s other people, especially in authority, that would be inspired and interested in sharing [the program] with other folks in other schools,” says Aiden, who attends Walnut Hills High School.

This exchange of ideas, this collaboration, is exactly what Dani Isaacsohn had in mind when he started Cohear, the group that organized the discussion. 

Cohear has a simple objective: to help policymakers make better decisions by empowering members of their community.

“These conversations are getting different people in the room with people in positions of power,” says Mr. Isaacsohn, who has worked on several political campaigns and as a community organizer. “By changing who’s in the room, you’re changing what decision-makers are exposed to and are hearing, and you’re actually getting better insights.”

COURTESY OF NICOLE FISHER
Work on political campaigns helped inspire Dani Isaacsohn to create Cohear.

Two years ago, Mr. Isaacsohn received a grant from the city of Cincinnati to start Cohear, originally called Bridgeable. Since then the group, which is now privately funded, has hosted dozens of conversations – between refugees and a city council member, between African-American children and the assistant police chief. The result is a network of hundreds of “everyday experts.” 

“There is expertise in living something every day,” Mr. Isaacsohn says. “What [Cohear] is trying to do is help decision-makers access and learn from that expertise and insight.”

Cohear’s efforts are part of a larger trend of engaging ordinary people in brainstorming and problem-solving. And the kind of collaborative approach that Cohear emphasizes can offer an antidote to the often hyperbolic and divisive speech found in today’s political conversations.

Cincinnati, like many other communities, has been engulfed in such divisiveness in recent years. Several big-ticket projects, including a new soccer stadium and a hospital expansion, engendered plenty of controversy. 

Such projects are often managed by private or quasi-governmental organizations whose leaders are not elected, diminishing the role residents have in decisions that affect their lives. But this is where Cohear steps in, taking seemingly opposing sides and giving them a chance to bridge the gap. 

“I think a face-to-face interaction injects the humanity into the conversation,” says Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who used Cohear to set up a dialogue with refugees and is one of the group’s advisers. “[Cohear] puts people into a place that can be more honest, more open, and more vulnerable, and that makes for a richer interaction.”

Building a network

Part of what makes Cohear notable is the people attending its meetings. According to data collected at the end of every conversation, more than 60 percent of participants – most of whom are women – had never been to a meeting before, and nearly 75 percent of them are people of color. 

For Jennifer Foster, who has a disability that complicates her bus commute, it was “amazing” to help shape policy that is integral to her life.

“It’s been a blessing to actually see and be heard,” says Ms. Foster, who attended a conversation between bus riders with disabilities and officials from the local transit authority this past September. 

Ms. Foster has attended several conversations, and whenever Cohear starts a new project, she often suggests people she knows. 

Well-connected people like Ms. Foster are invaluable to Cohear. Mr. Isaacsohn credits this style of organizing to the work he did for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Ohio.

“[We] were empowering and training volunteers, who were owning their effort in their neighborhood and becoming catalysts for change and learning tools that they could apply in the future,” he says.

Bringing about change

Mr. Moroski, the school board member, was initially skeptical of Mr. Isaacsohn’s claims of authentic conversations, but the longtime educator quickly became a believer. After conversations about anti-bullying efforts, Cohear produced a detailed report that synthesized its many findings, such as the students wanting more peer-to-peer mediation of bullying and more clubs like We Dine Together to build each other up. 

Mr. Moroski was shocked. “That’s not the first place adults go,” he says. “The adults go to suspension, as opposed to how can we empower these young people to handle it not on their own, but give them the skills they need to handle it and then also create a system where it’s obvious who to go to.” 

Nearly 50 students, teachers, parents, and principals participated in these conversations. When asked if they wanted the efforts to continue, they all said yes. Mr. Moroski is excited for the challenge.

“How do you create a chain of command that is not only authentic, but has results that parents, students can see and that is meaningful and impacts behavior? It’s just difficult,” he says. “We’re trying to get better at it, and Dani helped us.”

Although Cohear has seen some success in bridging the initial gap between decision-makers and others, they have yet to address how to turn these early conversations into long-term, sustainable relationships.

That’s next, says Mr. Isaacsohn.

“This is something that is really hard and very few people [have] figured it out, so we get a chance to try and work on it,” he says. “These conversations, it’s a spark for [change], but you have to sustain engagements – put oxygen into that spark and turn it into a real, lasting relationship.”

• For more, visit wecohear.com.

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