By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
Kentucky’s Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes recently said, “Kentucky is at its best when its citizens are engaged.” Thursday morning, she and other community leaders engaged the people of Williamsburg to increase their civic involvement.
They did so during a panel discussion, held in the Gatliff Chapel on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands, which co-hosted the event. More than 100 people showed up to hear and discuss ways on how to improve the overall civic health in Kentucky, which according to a report released by Grimes’ office showed civic engagement in the state declining in general.
The report was called the Civic Health Index, and was finished in 2011.
“It’s the first ever, and we hope it won’t be the last,” Grimes told the audience before the discussion began.
She pointed out there were three areas that Kentucky needed help in — community engagement, social connectedness and political engagement — and the program at the UC campus focused on all three.
In community engagement, Grimes’ report listed Kentucky below the national average in group membership, volunteering, giving charitable contributions of $25 or more and attending community meetings.
During that segment, several in the panel of seven community leaders brought out what they’ve noticed and what they’ve done to foster better involvement in their communities. The panel represented several walks of life, which is what Grimes wanted after she found something in the index’s research.
“We found in our database there was no way to communicate with the students, the pastors, the mayors and county government, and the people,” she noted.
She also found out that volunteerism is alive and well on the university’s campus, thanks to one of the panelists, student Elizabeth Davis.
“Service is why I came to this university. Community service and required volunteerism is absolutely great. Mountain Outreach and Appalachian Ministry (two of the programs) enhance the experience,” said Davis, who is a junior at UC.
She was backed up by another panelist, Dr. Michael Cosgrove, the university’s Vice-President for Student Services. He spoke about what he called the heavy commitment to helping others at the school with its various volunteer programs.
Cosgrove, in turn, was backed up further when a university student in the audience spoke to Grimes about his involvement with Mountain Outreach.
“It’s about the people and about the service. It means a lot to serve and help others,” said Brandon Nance, a junior at UC.
Marc Hensley, the director of Mountain Outreach at the University of the Cumberlands, told Grimes and the panel what Nance felt said it all for the school’s programs.
“I’ve watched this for eight years with these students. It’s like a light switch. They’ll give up their spring breaks. They’ll give up their summers to help with community service. They leave here as teachers, lawyers and community leaders. That’s what Mountain Outreach and these programs do,” Hensley stated.
Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White, Sr. was also on the panel, and told the audience about an internship program with UC students that involves departments in the county government. He stressed it was one of the ways government engagement was reaching the people.
Another form, called “regional engagement,” involving cities and counties in the Tri County area and southeast Kentucky, was brought by panelist Bob Terrell, a retired Ford Motor Company executive and Corbin community activist.
Williamsburg’s Mayor, Roddy Harrison, mentioned the PRIDE program as a community catalyst.
“One day, the city had over 1,000 volunteers who helped to cleanup the community. PRIDE teaches working together, responsibility and giving back to the community. And we try to have community programs in town. It brings people together, and they learn who the mayor is, who their council members are, that the police aren’t bad people. It brings the community together,” said Harrison, another panelist.
Rev. Bill Wright brought to the panel a spiritual side of community engagement.
“The spiritual means is a large part of the health of this community. We’re stronger because of the people who live in this community,” noted Wright, Pastor of the Main Street Baptist Church.
Social connectedness was brought up moments later. The Civic Health Index cited Kentucky above the nation in eating dinner with their family, talking to their neighbors and exchanging favors with neighbors, all on a frequent basis. The state ranked below the nation in talking with family and friends on the Internet or via email frequently.
When Grimes asked the audience, “Has social media (such as Twitter and Facebook) engaged you to be more responsible in your community, or has it made you isolated?,” one student thanked Harrison for the city for having a Facebook page to help him find out more on what the city is doing, and to stay connected with Williamsburg.
It was later noted that Facebook pages are also in use by the Whitley County Fiscal Court, the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department and Whitley County UNITE.
“Modern technology is a good way to connect, but it’s also a good way to bring people together,” said Wright.
Grimes pointed out, “This is not the end of the conversation. It’s just the beginning.”
The discussion closed with a segment on political engagement. Civic Health Index records showed in voter registration for 2010, Kentucky’s 66.9% was slightly above the national average of 65.1%, but was below the state’s 2006 registration of 73.4%. In voter turnout, the state consistently trailed the national turnout rate in midterm elections from 1978 to 2002, but stopped that streak with turnouts above the national average in 2006 and 2010.
Grimes opened the segment saying, “We wouldn’t be here without the people who lead us together. Education plays a role for those who stay politically active.”
As a panelist, Williamsburg Independent Schools Superintendent Denny Byrd tied together what his district did in the role of education and the civic process.
“I think technology’s a great tool, but I think you also need that human contact. Our school is very civic-minded. Our district honors our veterans. We work with the University of the Cumberlands, and we around 25 percent of our classes involve civics.”
Earlier, Harrison spoke in a humorous way about getting younger people to serve in government. “Education is the key. One vote does count. I know, because when I lost for mayor in high school by one vote, I found out my sister voted against me.”
When Grimes asked people in the chapel what gets them to register to vote, Sue Wake stood up and spoke. “Ever since I’ve been here on campus, there is one man who is adamant about getting people to vote. Dr. John Broome.”
Wake, Vice-President of Institutional Advancement at UC, looked at Broome and asked him, “How many students have you got to register to vote?”
“Lots,” Dr. Broome replied, getting laughter from those attending.
The discussion ended with Grimes thanking the audience and the people of Williamsburg and the region, adding, “I hope you will stay connected with us and we’ll continue to carry on the conversation. The goal is to bridge the gaps that this report identifies.”
Thursday’s discussion in Williamsburg was the eighth stop for Grimes on the 15-stop Civic Health Tour. Previous stops were at Kentucky State, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Western Kentucky, Transylvania and Northern Kentucky Universities, as well as the University of Kentucky.