Commentary and conversations about life in Richmond, Indiana

Community Life

Pat Heiny on consensus building and making hard decisions

Pat Heiny has lived in Richmond for over 47 years, and brings an incredible amount of energy, clarity and thoughtfulness to her community building work. She’s served as a teacher, facilitator,  consultant, board member and leader, parent, friend, advocate for children, and in so many other roles. We talked about some of Richmond’s opportunities and challenges ahead, and how Pat sees the importance of communication, building consensus and asking good questions.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.

The book that Pat quotes from is Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.


The below transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors or omissions.

Pat Heiny: It’s very interesting to look back over the history of Richmond in the period of time I’ve been here. As you know, my husband teaches at Earlham and we came in 1970 because he was going to teach just for a short period of time at Earlham and I was a licensed teacher and I just assumed I would get a job and did not even get an interview. And later here I found out that it was because my husband taught at Earlham. When you think about the 70’s and the relationship between Richmond and Earlham, it was very adversarial. However, over the past 47 years, I believe Richmond now sees Earlham as a tremendous asset and that in itself is a great change.

A few weeks ago on one of the social medium, however you want to use those, I won’t say which one, somebody in Richmond commented and lamented the fact the zoo was no longer in the park. Now what you have to know Chris is and what concerns me about Richmond and it is underlying a lot of our challenges is we have a long memory. And we have people who’ve never been anywhere else and the old days were always the best. I gotta tell you about the zoo because my leadership experiences started long ago. When we first came to town I was one of the first teachers in the teachers bargaining team because we didn’t have one when I came. I was always trying to give voice to people who didn’t seem to have a voice.

But I ended up on the park board in the mid 80’s. We’d had a director for years and years and years who had done some good things but we needed to move forward and we had this zoo. Now it was an animal exhibit and it had been named one of the 10 worst by the American Humane Society. It had notoriety. There were monkeys that you could stick your finger in because you were that close. There were three big buffalo, there was a bear, there was a lion. And to the gentleman’s credit, people had these animals and they didn’t want them anymore so what do you do with them. So they started this animal exhibit.

We worked and worked and finally thanks to the insurance company who would not give us liability insurance because the zoo was so horrible and we had a master plan done. However, the point was we were never going to compete with Cincinnati and at this time, this was the mid 80’s, at this time the zoo movement was really being regulated highly. I was always in public positions to make decisions that nobody else wanted to make and I thought as I thought back over my experience on the school board, we’ll get to that a little later, how did we make public decisions because we had to make them in public. At the time, the fourth estate or the press was very, very involved. It was before active WCTV. The press was right there all of the time.

Our decision making was very transparent. I still have the newspaper articles that talked about all the discussions we had. It was all done in public and we listened to the public and I learned early on that when the public gives their input they are assuming they’re telling you what to do and you’re going to do what they say you want them to do. And it’s very difficult because I learned early on that there are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the truth, and I always worked and the part board’s experience gave me lots of practice and it became much more apparent to me that I had to really listen carefully, put myself in their shoes, do my own research but make sure that when I expressed my decision, I acknowledged and recognized the passion in their voice as they talked about their decision.

I think I still have the scars from the zoo.

Chris Hardie: When you think about having conversations and making decisions that are hard or decisions that we don’t want to make, to whatever degree we’re bad at that now why are we so bad at that as a community?

Pat: Because I don’t think we listen to one another very well and we don’t capture the underlying passion. So people think you aren’t listening because you don’t recognize their passion. Chris, some day I hope you have a conversation with Len Clark about how he balances what he learned about consensus seeking as an academic dean and using that in community. I have learned a lot from Len Clark and watching even my husband as he was the Faculty Affairs Committee convener and a few other things, how do you use consensus seeking.

So many people think consensus is just beating an idea to death until you get to the least common denominator, the worst possible thing. That’s not true. If you truly believe that everybody has a piece of the light as the Quakers do, you approach the conversation with respect. That’s not happening right now. If you do consensus seeking, you listen for the passion and the values that they’re expressing. If you can put yourself in their shoes and reframe, not say, oh, I think I heard you say, that’s just cheap. If you can really reframe what they are saying so that they know that they have been heard and then if the decision includes the best parts of everybody’s thoughts, but we aren’t doing that now, we aren’t listening to each other.

Chris: And do you think there’s room for that kind of process in all aspects of our community life from government meetings to board meetings to neighborhood relationships or does it work better for one type of community conversation than another?

Pat: I’ve learned from Len Clark that there are government conversations and this was true in the school board, it was true for Len Clark on the planning and zoning board. You have to vote because these are legal decisions. You have to vote. However, the discussion leading up to the vote can certainly include consensus seeking practices.

I have found that, when I was president of the school board I had very, very fiscally conservative folks and I had a lot of, I don’t want to say bleeding heart liberals but the people who really cared about what was going on with the kids. What I’ve learned through consensus seeking, thinking and decision making is if I framed the conversation we had to have like this, how do we balance our need for this school stewardship and the fact we have 80% of our kids on free and reduced lunch while we’re trying to help every kid achieve to his or her best. Wow, that changed the conversation Chris and I think if we each learned how to frame the conversation in a way that acknowledged the truth sitting around the table we could have more productive conversation.

Chris: And I wanted to ask, I mean you mentioned two examples already of cases where it might have been easy to say, easy to get discouraged or easy to be frustrated, the not getting an interview because of your husband’s affiliation with Earlham and then the zoo conversation. What keeps you going through some of the harder moments of organizational dynamics or flat out discrimination or things like that? How do you keep a forward looking outlook on things?

Pat: That’s an interesting question I’ve thought a lot about lately with this #metoo movement. Not that I had been sexually or harassed. However, I was in college in the late 50’s early 60’s and I wanted to be a math major. I was told it couldn’t because I was a woman and we were still expected to wear skirts to class. If you think about that that was only, well, it was 50, a few years ago. Things have changed so much but I will tell you Chris I am a journaler. I have kept a gratitude journal for about 25 years. What I have found is intentionally thinking about what did work puts in perspective what didn’t work.

My grandmother was a great influence on me and she even in her, I mean, she was born in 1901 and she lived to be 94. She always said, there’s a higher purpose for what you do, keep focused on that. And once when I went to a school board national conference I heard Suzanne Morris who was at that time with the Pew Charitable Trusts speak and say leaders have to have double vision. They have to always keep their eye on the big picture while filling the potholes underneath.

Chris: Interesting, wow. That sounds like a really motivating way to think about things and to keep you focused on the big picture and the day to day. Has that been your approach in general as to sort of keep one eye on the future and one eye on the day to day or how do you approach a given issue that you’re passionate about?

Pat: I try to do that. When Mary Jo and I compared the things we get involved in she likes to start new things. She helps start Girls Inc, She helped start really push the Women’s Fund and so some of those things. I like to take things that need to be restructured. I just get so excited when I get to think about restructuring the park board and reconfiguring how everything works so that we have a better park board. The same with the United. I was the first woman president of the United Way and we had to completely restructure our allocation process. Now this was back in the 80’s. It’s been restructured three or four times since then.

The same with the school board. So I am drawn to personal leadership where I get to use my gifts and talents. That’s part of the way that I think I stay inspired. Sometimes I find myself like today, Chris, I had 9000 emails, not quite. I have a lot of emails I need to respond to and set up meetings and this kind of thing and I just feel I’m not sure I want to do that. I want to go meet people and talk to them and say this is what we ought to be doing, not trying to set up meetings etc.

So part of the way I stay is I do journal and I really look at what goes well the day before. But I also have learned to pick things that fit me. Does that make sense?

Chris: Absolutely. I wanted to come back to what you said about having a passion for restructuring and I think you and I have had this conversation, I’ve had it with others about the propensity in Richmond to restructure things, spend lots of time on strategic planning, on survey and evaluating and then in some scenarios putting that information on a shelf, in other scenarios calling that an accomplishment in and of itself. There can be a hesitancy to actually take action and to make a leap of faith to make big changes. You’ve been a part of some organizations that have made big changes and you said to me at one point that somehow you feel like at times you’ve ended up being the person making all the hard changes or the changes that no one wanted.

How does an organization and how in your experience has it worked for an organization to overcome any fear it has about not just doing strategic planning but making big changes and what is that like, what can that be like when it goes well and what’s it like when it doesn’t go so well.

Pat: That’s a question I’m dealing with right now. In 2009 or so, when Mayor Sally Hutton received a report from Katz, Sapper & Miller, they were consultants who were supposed to say, okay, Richmond can or cannot be a life sciences hub. Whether we should get, all those kind of things. The main point of this report was that Richmond’s leadership never communicates, they never talked together. Everybody’s taking action separately, which is part of the problem I think that you are alluding to.

Mayor Sally said, okay, we’re going to get a bunch of people together. So we started the Council on Economic Vitality, found that they weren’t going to take action because that really wasn’t the point of that group but it was communicating and it was also identifying real issues. The people in the room all thought we didn’t have enough jobs. When Valerie Schaffer said we have jobs out the wazoo, we don’t have workers. Now we’ll talk about living wage later but we don’t have workers. So why don’t we have workers. Well, we don’t have people who have the training. We don’t have people who have the work ethic and we have people who can’t pass the drug test. That changed the tone of those meetings.

So they found out more information etc, etc. And we as a group said, okay, we need to think seriously about attracting, developing and retaining talent, that’s what we need right now. So they could identify that and then various and sundry committees worked on things because we weren’t very welcoming, but we didn’t take the next step.

Frontier Communications saw that we were at least trying and so they came in and said, you ought to apply for America’s Best Communities grant, so we did. Got through the first round but we didn’t get any farther because people wanted projects that were tangible but that’s a neither here nor there.

The plan really was of great plan to your point but it didn’t go anywhere. Mayor Sally died, all of these things. So Steve Borchers picked it up as the foundation’s kind of neutral and said, okay, we’re going to move forward. So Forward Wayne County came to be. Now within that plan that we had created for America’s best communities, there were four main focus areas, that if we would do something about them now we could have an impact on the overall prosperity of this community.

One is early learning, the other is educational attainment, getting more people through the system and to a place where they have some credential that would allow them to go to work. And employability, getting the skills. And the fourth piece has something to do with quality of place. It’s all around housing and neighborhood development. What I see as a challenge, people say yes, those are the issues. We have the early learning coalition out here trying to get more places in child care and preschool. We have educational attainment, the chamber’s doing things, Excel is doing things. Employability, we have Manufacturing Matters and Ivy Tech and next level jobs from the state. The housing study being done by the East Central Indiana Regional Planning Commission. And Mayor Snow is doing some neighborhood development.

But again, Chris, what we don’t have are people connecting the dots. There’s a lot going on and back to my long memory, people keep saying it’s such a bad place. How do we change the conversation because people are doing things and things are moving forward.

Chris: Do you think there’s a drive to or a need to see the sort of one true path of progress and that people are waiting for this one very exciting, very large scale project that is going to sweep Richmond away into this new era of prosperity. Is that what people are waiting for and how do you contrast that with what you described as lots of different organizations working on their piece of the puzzle on one part of it? And isn’t there room for lots of people to be working independently, I mean, we don’t want duplication or that kind of thing but can they work independently and instead of everyone having to agree on one path forward?

Pat: I agree. I just want people to acknowledge, people meaning the general population to acknowledge that we are moving forward. The day of, did you go to the Chamber Dinner?

Chris: I wasn’t able to go this year.

Pat: Okay. Well, the chamber dinner speaker was Jack Hess. Jack Hess is formerly head of the Chamber in Columbus, Indiana and when they did kind of a vision process they came to the conclusion that they needed an education employability coalition and then he became the chair of that. And now he’s doing some private consulting around collaborative efforts. Interestingly enough, the audience responded even though it was a big dinner and there had been cocktails etc, etc, he was able to get some very important points across in an entertaining way that kept people engaged after dinner.

He said the number one thing about a community that attracts people according to Gallup is openness. Columbus Indiana did a, they did an effort where they really did try to welcome everybody. Of course they have Cummins Engine which is kind of the big thing you were talking about. Cummins Engine and lots of other things like advanced manufacturing attract a lot of international folks and different cultures and Columbus was not very welcoming. They made a very intentional effort to welcome these people.

When we think about openness in our community, that is one approach that might help.

Chris: Do you think that we are an open community, that we practice openness?

Pat: I worry that we have become a segmented community. In some ways because of the de facto segregation initiated through state education policies, when the state legislature said people can go anywhere they want to go to school without paying transfer tuition, we started finding, and this I found from the school board, we started finding folks who chose to take their children to Centerville or Northeastern because they didn’t like going to school with those children, however you identified those children.

So the de facto segregation based on socioeconomic, not necessarily racial or cultural has challenged the county and I think the community. We’ve segmented ourselves in that way. If we want to grow, from what I understand about economic development from Valerie Schaffer it’s that we’re never ever going to have the kind of employment we had when Dana was working International Harvester, all of those places were working full tilt. But we’re never going to get a Toyota, we’re never going to get a Honda because there aren’t that many of them anymore.

I don’t know how we are, how we get beyond that conversation to the fact that most of the people in Wayne County are employed by small business, entrepreneurial businesses, correct?

Chris: Yeah. My impression is between small businesses and smaller not for profits. That makes up a larger percentage of the economy, certainly we still have some big employers and some large entities here but that’s my impression too that that’s not the future is more of those large employers, it’s the smaller incremental growth that is harder to be patient with because you don’t always know when a business that’s starting in somebody’s garages is going to become an important part of the economy. But it seems like nurturing and encouraging those is something important that we can do.

Pat: That’s part of the openness.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I think I hear you saying that it’s important to work on these big challenges, early learning educational attainment, employability, quality of place and it’s important for organizations that think about that and people that think about that to be on the same page about how to move that forward if only so that we don’t waste time or waste money on fragmented efforts.

Pat: Exactly.

Chris: But that it’s also important for people not to get hung up on if we can’t perfectly recreate a past version of Richmond or if we can’t draw that one big employer that that doesn’t mean we’re not moving forward. Is that fair?

Pat: Absolutely. The other challenge for me Chris has been how do we engage more people in the actual work. When I look at the number of not for profits, you were president of the foundation how many years ago?

Chris: It’s been a couple, been about two or three years now.

Pat: Right. But if you look at the number of not for profits we just have a plethora of so many …

Chris: Is it too many?

Pat: Well, that’s a question of are there too many because how do they raise money. They ask the people who are in commerce and business for money. And somehow though the people who are asked for money all of the time say hey, wait a minute, can’t we just get together and you seem to be duplicating. I think about food pantries for instance. On the surface, it looks as though those are duplicating. Do we get them all in the same room and help them see which niche they can fulfill.

That is almost a rhetorical question but I know people have tried to do that …

Chris: And we had that conversation all the time at the foundation, between food pantries, another topic was even something like animal shelters. There was a divergence in the community in the last five years around the topic. When you think about people, non profits who are working to make sure that lower income families that kids in those families are fed and that they can get a breakfast and a lunch and a dinner. There’s a lot of people working on that and that’s heartwarming and touching but it is worrisome when you see lots of divergent efforts that could probably be stronger together.

I don’t know if that’s people worrying about if they have a particular point of view about how it should be done. They want to make sure they have that control or if it’s just territorialism or if it’s just because communication is hard and takes more time. I don’t know what the what the driver of that is but it seems like something we should figure out.

Pat: I think people have been people. I do know that at the Foundation in a recent conversation I had with Steve Borchers, he tried to get everybody together and it could have been, he believes it somewhat territorial and somewhat, many of them are church based and if you look at the, my goodness, all of the churches that are springing up without the mainline denominations name. Restoration, on and on and on and on because I don’t, that church doesn’t quite meet my needs so I’m going to start another one, I don’t know. Or is it too much bureaucracy from some of those places. I don’t know but I think we’re back to one of the major challenges and that is we have a community wide need to get together and talk about how to meet the needs.

I know that the foundation is trying to do that, I know that Susan Isaacs at the [Wayne Township] Trustee’s Office is providing a venue for that. The problem, Chris, comes back to what we started with and that was consensus seeking. Even when you get people in the same room, they feel defensive and don’t believe anybody else is listening to them. That’s been my experience recently about things.

Chris: You had mentioned conversations that happen on social media which I think I’ve written and spoken publicly about and how I see that as a generally a more harmful than helpful place for community conversations to unfold. I think there’s possibility there for a productive conversation but I think you’re saying even in settings where, whether it be a school board meeting or a board meeting or some other public forum, it’s not the online part that is the real problem there, it’s that people aren’t listening to each other and really caring about what the other person is saying, what their underlying interests are.

Maybe let’s go to the school board experience that you had. How did you get from an experience where people weren’t listening to each other, how did you bring them together. You talked about reframing the conversation where there are other techniques that you used that seem to work.

Pat: We learned that even in a public board meeting, public commentary, we often did small group conversations. In other words, we set aside a public commentary time and we had five easels with pads and we divided the audience into those five groups and had a facilitator ask a couple of questions.

When people had a chance to see their work on the chart, that’s one of the things I learned early on in our facilitation career is if people saw their words in, I don’t like to use black and white, in color marker on the chart, they said oh, and if we started circling, this was a facilitation tool that I tried to use in public school board meetings even, we would circle common words and frame what we heard in using those common words, that began to diffuse some of that. Now, the public who was watching on television found it quite confusing but the other thing that I also used school board, I learned how to frame a persuasive speech.

Alan Monroe’s persuasive speech called the motivated sequence outline you can do in four sentences or you can do in four paragraphs or four hours. I learned that from Mary Jo who used to teach speech and debate. You start out with catching people’s attention. You then say okay, here’s the need, here’s what might satisfy that need then you visualize either the satisfaction of the need or if you don’t satisfy the need what might look like and then you call for the question.

I became quite adept at doing that within my little time frame that I had in a public school board meeting. Now you’ve got to remember that every school board meeting was televised and it wasn’t just televised live, it was rebroadcast and rebroadcast and rebroadcasted. There are days I went to when we were closing school and I’d go to Kroger and I’d try to go at midnight and somebody would say, that school board lady. Or if I was walking down the aisle at another time and Mason was with me and I was talking to Mason and somebody heard my voice because I have a fairly I guess distinctive voice and they’d come around and they’d say, you’re that school board lady. I just need to tell you.

But what that did was it really got the conversation if we framed it correctly to the whole public. I wish the city council would utilize that a little more. They don’t really have discussion much in public. They just kind of have votes and I don’t know where they do most of their discussing. Sometimes I think they don’t.

Chris: Yeah, it’s interesting because there are those public comment periods but you start to get the sense that the public comment period is there to appease the public wanting to feel like they’ve been heard but a lot of the decisions have either been made individually or maybe even as a group which raises some other questions about the purpose of a deliberative body like that but …

Pat: Exactly. Chris, do you think, I often thought that the difference between the school board and the City Council for purposes is one difference. But the other difference is partisan politics. The school board is not partisan politics. You didn’t run as part of a party and in today’s world … I’ve been reading an interesting book by Brené Brown who is, do you know her?

Chris: Absolutely, yeah.

Pat: I find her recent book, it’s called Braving the Wilderness. She quotes a person in here. I’ve got to find all my stuff, who says our big challenge is we should not look at conflict resolution because that means there’s a winner and a loser and this comes back to consensus seeking but we should look at conflict transformation. And the difference is that we look at the conflict as something we really ought to figure out. So how can we transform that into something we can solve and that everybody can solve.

When Len talks about consensus seeking, he says you’re going to spend the time on one end or the other, either up front in making the decision so that everybody will be engaged in implementing it at the end or if the decision is a five four decision, you’re going to spend all your time after the decision is made cleaning up the alienation, the rumors, all of those things. The mess that turns out on all social media contact.

Chris: Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Pat: I was just going to say if we start looking at problem solving and decision making as the entire process from oh, we have this issue and to the implementation, we would be better off then oh, let’s just make a decision about it and then try to implement it because that’s really making a mess. You started to say something, I’m sorry.

Chris: It’s occurred to me in different times that having the spotlight on whether it’s school board or city council or any kind of government agency or public serving agency, it’s tempting to say well, having the spotlight on is the problem, I think that’s why you see groups like city council try to do some of their deliberation in private. That’s hard from the perspective of wanting transparency and wanting accountability. And so maybe the issue is that if we’re uncomfortable with the messiness of consensus building and decision making that’s the thing we need to confront. If I run for public office and get elected or if I run for school board and get elected one of the big parts of the job is going to be having discussions where you need to come in with an open mind, you need to be willing to change your views and then build consensus toward something that’s going to work for everyone.

It seems like a lot of people don’t go into public life with that perspective, especially at the national scene right now. The conversation is all about winning, it’s all about stomping down the other side to get your way. And so, as a community I hope we don’t take our cues from the national scene as much as we do from what you’ve described as a school board approach or what Len Clark’s talked about is that we are a small enough community that we can afford to have personal authentic conversations that are messy sometimes and know that we’re going to come out okay on the other side. And it sounds like you’ve been you’ve been practicing and preaching that for a while now.

Pat: But you know what, we need to educate the public on what you just said because Chris, what often happened in school board deliberation we did have to have conversations in public and we tried to do that. Allen Bourff was very good, well, Ron Cross and I, I never wanted to sit across the table from Ron Cross because he would look at me with daggers because I often got just pretty close to, in private meetings I got pretty close to where I shouldn’t be in and in public meetings the same thing.

Here’s the public’s issue. They listen to a conversation and they take a point in the middle. They don’t allow people to change their mind, they don’t allow people to find more information, they don’t allow people to take into consideration all of the other viewpoints and news out loud. I tried to muse out loud a lot and show people the decision making process. Sometimes it got me into trouble and sometimes it doesn’t or didn’t. The big question for me it today’s work I’m doing because I have a lot of different pieces is how to take that approach and part of it is I wish I could teach everybody the consensus seeking facilitative approach.

Yesterday I had a church meeting. There were eight people who were clamoring for attention and all of a sudden, I could say, okay, as a result of what we’ve talked about already where is your head and what should we do next. Just a sentence please. And they went around the room and that brought everybody back to the center that we needed to focus on. That’s a simple question but I see myself in everything I do asking facilitative questions. I teach a middle school Sunday school class and I’ve tried to teach kids how to ask questions of each other which they don’t know how to do because they only know texting.

Chris: Seems like asking good questions is a cornerstone of the work that you’ve done in the community being able, maybe it has an agenda behind it in some cases and that’s fine too but teaching people how to ask their own good question so that if they’re a part of a conversation or in an organization where they’re confused or where they don’t feel like things are headed in the right direction or where they feel like there’s more to say that they can figure out how to broaden the conversation with asking good questions. And you also seem like someone who knows how to figure out the hard things that people aren’t talking about, the things that are going left unsaid and finding constructive ways to bring those into the light.

What are you working on next, like what’s your next project or passion that you’re thinking a lot about these days?

Pat: The early learning, we came to early learning. Three or four years ago Ivy Tech was celebrating their 50th anniversary by looking at complete college, in other words, what was keeping people from graduating from Ivy Tech. There were a variety of things. A, child care, transportation, access to technology. But more importantly it was preparation. And as we look back at their school career and the pipeline of educational preparation, it goes back to being ready for kindergarten, which goes back to zero to five. Because we started having that conversation we were brought to the attention of early learning Indiana which is a grant from Lilly that was looking for how do we increase the number of effective preschool and child care opportunities in the state and how do we get more kids involved in that.

We then were awarded a $25,000 grant to build a coalition in Richmond in Wayne County to really bring that question to the fore. I’m trying to spend some time doing that, figuring out how to get people and I’m not an early learning expert so I’ve brought around the table preschool teachers, birth to five, kindergarten readiness, that book, the reading program. There are people doing things and we’ve been gathering them together, first to get power from each other and secondly to ask so what are the barriers and we’ve been working on some of those barriers very quietly. So that’s one of my passions.

The other is Forward Wayne County. I’ve been trying to help Steve figure out how to build a coalition that works around that. At the same time, my personal passion and mission has always been giving voice to kids and I worry about that a lot with the school board right now. They have so many big financial decisions they have to make that giving voice to kids has been lost a bit. So I’ve been working a little bit behind the scenes there, working in our church to do that.

Mayor Sally had a great mayor’s advisory committee that brought kids together. Just trying to get kids into the forefront as many places as I can and that’s become more of a struggle in today’s world.

Chris: Well, it’s such important work and I think I could speak for a lot of people in saying we really appreciate how much of your life and time and energy you put into that work so thank you. And thanks for taking the time to share about it a little bit with me and for the Richmond Matters website.

Pat: Well, Chris, thank you.

Music is “Lucky Day” by Dee Yan-Key. Photo supplied.

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