January 25, 2000
by Elliott Lauderdale
One may plan for the future of our communities by reviewing our past. This occurred Tuesday morning, January 11th, at the regular monthly meeting of Mobile United. These meetings are always open to the public and take place the second Tuesday of each month in the 4th floor Cooper Room of the International Trade Center, 250 N. Water Street. Coffee is ready at 7, and the program runs from 7:30-8:30. Founded in 1972, Mobile United's mission statement reads: "Mobile United is a diverse leadership forum dedicated to improving our community by deliberating public issues and encouraging action when appropriate."
During the meeting, the committee chairs for the upcoming year shared their plans, most of which are tied to Envision Mobile-Baldwin County. There were a surprising number of references to University of South Alabama (USA) personnel in the works for next year. In fact, several of the committee chairs and Steering Committee members are from USA.
Robert Edington, the General Chairman of Mobile United, spoke of the group's origin in the civil rights movement. The non-governmental organization was then and is now a forum to bring together groups who at times had refused to speak to each other. Mr. Edington spoke of the continued importance of the organization's focus on reaching to the broader community. Visitors ought not to shy away from well-known community leaders.
As the committee chairmen made their presentations, several themes emerge that involve learning to cross boundaries. Educational institutions such as USA can help the community in finding appropriate models, and designing and collecting empirical indicators of how we are doing in our attempts to reach Envision goals.
George Crozier of USA's Dauphin Island Sea Lab emphasized the importance of helping our fellow citizens understand the concept of sustainability. Environmentalists, communities, and businesses can find common ground in a focus on the long-term maintenance of our quality of life. Dr. Crozier noted the two Green Awards awarded in December to organizations which recycled buildings -- the pleasing renovations of the former Wal-Mart in Daphne by Thomas Hospital and a tire company by Mobile Recycling.
Ben Harris, Chair of the Race Relations Committee, spoke of the unfinished business of maintaining deliberative discourse -- he mentioned the ongoing process of self education begun two years ago. The "Unfinished Business" format for discussion starts a frank discussion of racism, sexism, and inequality by establishing some common ground of shared values and recognized successes at addressing serious problem. Youth Leadership Mobile's director Carolyn Walthall invited Merceria Ludgood, this year's winner of the Alfred F. Delchamps award for creating community by forging unity from diversity, and this discussion will be continued with high students from throughout the county at Bishop State as part of their Martin Luther King learning program. These groups find progress in how their diverse leaders enjoyed each other's differences. The sometimes heated discussions left many of the participants dissatisfied with their level of mutual understanding. Further person-to-person action was indicated.
Beverly Cooper of the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, chair of the Education Committee, emphasized the need to continue to improve the funding and quality of public school education. USA trustee Judge Herman Thomas, Dean George Uhlig and Professor Gayle Davidson-Shivers of USA's College of Education have contributed to this committee's work toward Envision goals.
Bay Haas of the Government Committee emphasized the importance of having accurate measures of problems and progress. He praised the help of Dr. David Johnson and Jennifer Teason in the Sociology department at USA for their technical help with "Progress Indicators for Coastal Alabama: Benchmarks for Envision Mobile-Baldwin." The Harbinger got a preview of the draft document for 2000. This document's introduction describes its purpose: "The Progress Indicators project is the component of Envision that measures how well we are doing at meeting those goals. Measuring progress is very important because it helps keep us focused on our objectives, and can help us determine which of our efforts are achieving success and need to be continued, and which ones may need to be re-thought."
Previous articles in this column have discussed the Envision process and statement. For a copy of the Envision Community Plan and annual reports, call Ginny Russell in the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Community Development Department. The 2000 Edition of Progress Indicators will be released at the annual meeting of Envision Mobile-Baldwin to be held March 1 at 8 a.m. in the Daphne Civic Center on Highway 98. Contact Angela Erwin at 431- 8621 about attending the annual meeting.
While checking on the details of this document, Green Suttles, a recent graduate of the USA Adult Interdisciplinary Studies program who now works in Economic Development Department at the Chamber, warned his former teacher not to assume that citizens understand that Envision Mobile-Baldwin is embraced and coordinated between our region's governmental and non-governmental organizations. In fact, without crossing of borders and cooperating, the Envision process and in particular the Progress Indicators would be impossible. As noted in the draft's introduction, the criteria for data used as indicators of progress are:
"1) In most cases, the information must already be collected by an existing organization in the community -- very little new data were to be collected;
2) The data must be quantifiable;
3) Data must be collected periodically, usually on an annual basis;
4) They must be relevant to an important community goal, usually one identified in Envision;
5) The data must be reasonably reliable and valid -- data which were judged by the group to be misleading or highly questionable were to be rejected; and
6) If available, data were to be gathered for the previous five years, so recent trends in the data would be evident."
Dr. Johnson noted the hundreds of volunteers and dozens of organizations, including Mobile United, Baldwin County United, and area Chambers of Commerce, that have signed on as Envision partners that made the Envision process possible. As an example of the many leaders that help make the collection of data and change possible are Envision Steering Committee members who are also our Honorable Mayors: Harry Brown of Daphne, Mike Dow of Mobile, Jesse Norwood of Prichard, and Tim Russell of Foley. The Steering Committee also includes community volunteers as well as other leaders from business, counties, education, chambers of commerce, and non-profit organizations on both sides of the Bay.
"For this volume, volunteers from throughout our two counties have gathered results for over sixty indicators of progress. We hope that these findings will be used to help meet our ultimate goal: maintaining and improving the quality of life in Coastal Alabama."
As noted above several of those volunteers come from our educational institutions, government and non-governmental organizations. Their knowledge and research skills permit the continuance of the process. Not only is the Envision process continuing and appearing to have some positive effects, it is also becoming more rigorous and refined. The 2000 Progress Indicators include several new measures. News organizations have played a role in making us aware of crucial threats to the quality of our environment. The 2000 Edition contains new measures of Ground Level Ozone and Toxic Air Releases. Previously unavailable indicators for Baldwin County have also been added. The draft also notes: "Other new indicators are Land Urbanization Per Capita which captures how fast 'green spaces' are being converted to 'built spaces.' There have also been attempts to improve our measurement of transportation and trade issues with two new indicators: Average Airfares for Mobile and Comparison Airports, and Container Cargo handled by the Mobile State Docks."
Dr. Johnson emphasized the profound importance of the indicator of green space. "We are rapidly converting green space to built space, even beyond what can be expected as a result of population growth. A good statistic is the one that for every new person added to the population from 1975 to 1996, 1.4 acres of green space were lost in Mobile County -- or for a family of four that would equal to 5.6 acres! The environmental costs of that are enormous -- no wonder the Dog River is filling with sedimentation."
The cooperation that has been so crucial was far from immediate. Organizations, like regional planners, do not readily share information that might reflect badly on them. The endorsement of leaders such as those noted above is crucial. Now that the process has begun, all parties have come to understand the importance of fair and accurate information in avoiding counterproductive controversy. The indicators identify areas on which to concentrate community efforts, but they also point out successes. For instance, the gap in per-capita income between Mobile and several southeastern comparison metropolitan areas has been cut in half over the last fifteen years.
As we have moved toward understanding complex concepts such as sustainability, the advantages of cultural diversity, and preventative medicine, continued collaboration is even more important. In the South we enjoy discussing relationships. The presentations at the Mobile United Meeting and the acknowledgements in the Introduction section of the Progress Indicators report provide us with a sense of our progress in linking town and gown. Dr. Johnson thanks Dr. Semoon Chang, a long time member of Mobile United, and Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of South Alabama and a member of the economics faculty, for sharing his data on the Mobile area economy. Dr. Keith Nicholls and Frances Beech with the USA Polling Group assisted in conducting the telephone survey for this project. USA President Gordon Moulton's service on the Steering Committee and his statements that community service is an important part of our job at USA makes a difference. Our examples of university collaboration facilitates the careful collection of data, its rigorous analysis, and its use in careful community decision making.
This article has reviewed some examples of this one educational institution's collaboration with community organizations through the Envision Mobile-Baldwin process. In future articles this column will take a more careful look at our progress, success and shortcomings. Readers are invited to help with the regional Envision effort and to make suggestions for this column about how to make these efforts more productive.