Building bridges to forgotten communities

Some of the standard methods for gauging public opinion on controversial issues include focus groups, public hearings, and email surveys. But what about the people who don’t have time to sit through a hearing, or whose names don’t show up on email lists, who are essentially unheard and uncounted?

Those are the people Dani Isaacsohn wants to reach with his new consulting firm Cohear. Isaacsohn actively seeks out the poor, the minorities, the single moms, the uncounted, and the unknown to help organizations that serve these people to hear them and understand their concerns.

“People are really hungry for that type of engagement,” Isaacsohn says.

There have been many issues in Cincinnati that would’ve benefited from early dialogue with residents and established better community engagement and investment.

The location of FC Cincinnati’s new stadium in the West End, a neighborhood with a history of being dispossessed for purposes of “urban renewal,” is one. Another is the expansion of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center into its surrounding neighborhood of Avondale, and its plans to demolish a number of homes for that expansion.

Those are just two examples of communities that have historically been underserved and underrepresented in public policy decision making. There are many more.

Isaacsohn began recognizing this in 2012, when he worked on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and then when he moved to Texas, where he was involved in voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

“I became much more interested in why people weren’t registering to vote,” he says.

What he saw was that many in underserved communities had become disillusioned with public life. Their streets weren’t getting paved; houses in the neighborhood were being torn down and not replaced. There was an attitude of resignation, which led to disengagement.

Aggravating that feeling was the often-stressed out lives of people working a couple of jobs just to make ends meet. They usually had little time or energy to get involved in community issues.

That’s why he created Cohear. The key to the concept is a network of more than 400 “bridge builders” — social workers, neighbors, pastors, teachers — who engage their students, clients, congregations, and friends. They reach out to someone they know with personal invitations sent by text, email, or in person.

The personal, one-to-one invitation greatly increases participation, Isaacsohn says.

Then he tries to make it easy to participate, providing transportation, childcare, and food. More than 60 percent of those who respond have never participated in such forums, he says.

Isaacsohn has worked with Greater Cincinnati Water Works to engage its customers in crafting a plan to replace lead water pipes, and he’s worked with Cincinnati Public School officials on the tough issue of bullying.

“You’ve got to talk to the experts,” he says. “Students who’ve been bullied and parents of students who’ve been bullied.”

Cincinnati school board member Mike Moroski is impressed with Isaacsohn’s work to prepare students and their parents for what to expect during the sessions, preparation that he says led to productive conversations.

He attended two meetings, one with students only and one with parents. “I just listened for an hour and a half,” Moroski says. “I got some of the most uncensored and valuable feedback that I’ve ever received.”

Isaacsohn’s group has also worked with Cincinnati State to connect with the Latino community and with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transportation Authority (SORTA) to engage its customers.

The goal with all is to create engaging, authentic, and useful dialogue that leads to better decision making.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist, Cincinnati native and father of three. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.
Signup for Email Alerts