89.1 WEMU

In The Public Interest: Focus On A Community Forum In Dexter Where Participants Listen And Learn

Dec 3, 2018

John Hansen (L) and Karl Fink (R), moderators and organizers of the Dexter Forum
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

There's a community forum taking place twice a month in Dexter known as "The Dexter Forum."  Karl Fink and John Hansen created and moderate the forum to discuss and share information about issues facing the community.

89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry spoke with them about how it got started, what's involved and who can participate.


About the Issue

Supported by the Dexter Wellness Coalition as part of the 5 Healthy Towns initiative to “help connect with others in healthy ways,” the Dexter Forum provides a non-partisan opportunity for interested women and men to gather to discuss and share information about issues facing the community.  All are welcome on a drop-in basis.  The group meets on the first and third Saturdays of the month.

About the Guests

Karl Fink and John Hansen organized and now moderate the Dexter Forum.  Karl Fink is a long-time resident of Dexter who served for a decade as a Webster Township trustee and as a Circuit Court judge for 18 years before retiring.  He maintains a law practice in Ann Arbor.

John Hansen, also a long-time resident of Dexter, started in the Dexter Community Schools, eventually becoming DCS Superintendent and later winning election to the state House, where he served two terms as representative for District 52.  After he left the Legislature, he continued in public service as a kind of interim everything--doing short stints as school superintendent in Willow Run, Brighton, and Adrian; township manager of Scio; city manager in Chelsea and Ypsilanti; regional director of the March of Dimes; and president of the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce.

What is the Dexter Forum?

The Dexter Forum provides a non-partisan opportunity for interested women and men to gather to discuss and share information about issues facing the community.  Most discussion topics are local, from roads to development to schools.  All are welcome on a drop-in basis.  Attendance is free.  More than 350 people have come at least once.  On average, about 50 to 60 people are at each meeting.  The point of the forum is not to advocate or endorse a particular solution, but to hear all points of view, listen, and learn.

Where and when does the Forum meet?

The group meets on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 8:30 am in the conference room of the Dexter Wellness Center, 2810 Baker Rd, Dexter.  Although the meetings end promptly at 9:30, informal discussions often continue for some time. After each meeting, John emails a summary of the discussions to a growing list of interested people.

When and why was the Forum started?

Karl and John started the Forum in February 2015.  They were each aware of a similar concept in Ypsilanti, the Fletcher Forum, created thirty years ago by the late Peter Fletcher, a prominent Michigan Republican and longtime local businessman.  At the Fletcher Forum, people of different political viewpoints meet every Saturday.

John and Karl wanted to start something similar in Dexter.  John and Karl have different political viewpoints, with one a Democrat and the other a Republican.  They approach solutions to public issues from different directions.  They wanted to make people aware that what is most important is that we approach solutions.  At the state and national level, people of different parties don't talk to each other.  And, they thought they could do something about that locally.  They credit the Forum's instant success to the fact that when they launched it, Dexter was in the middle of an emotional discussion about whether Dexter Community Schools should annex the Whitmore Lake school district.

Who usually attends a Forum meeting?

Usually up to 60 people attend.  About 50% have held, are holding, or are seeking public office.  The split between males and females is about 60/40.  Maturity is noticeable.

What topics are discussed?

The format for each meeting is simple, with the agenda is determined by 'those present.'  The discussions definitely lean local, with issues including roads, state and local elections and millages, commercial and residential development, schools, and drug use.  Many current and past local officials and candidates for office have attended and given attendees insight on issues.

The Forum is often addressed by candidates for public office.  Candidates speak from a platform painted to represent a stump.  They are limited to 5 minutes with time after for questions.

At the most recent Forum, three victors from the recent election were present for a round of applause.  The first topic concerned the method by which State Supreme Court justices are nominated, elected, and replaced.  Next, Voters Not Politicians folks were looking for suggestions of what to do next with their new found bi-partisan grassroots army.  Several attendees who worked as election inspectors spoke as to how well things were handled, even in the face of very high turnout.  Finally, the group discussed and took a vote on the name for the new elementary school.  The Forum covers many topics of interest in an hour.

In these times of partisan rancour and insult, do Forum discussions remain civil?

Although attendees have a broad range of political views and leanings, discussions are always civil.  Their goal is to 'listen and learn.'  Karl and John made it clear from the beginning that the Forum is not a debate club and folks have accepted that.  The point of the Forum is not to advocate or endorse a particular solution, but to hear all points of view, listen, and learn.  People open up in the room.  They have honest and frank conversations.  They have civil conversations during which they listen to one another.  

The Dexter Forum appears to be meeting a need unaddressed in this social media age.

In some respects, the Forum has taken on the role once filled by the local newspaper, especially the letters to the editor in the old Dexter Leader.

Karl Fink thinks that lack of a local newspaper creates the need for what they do.  John Hansen sees the Forum as creating communicators.  People who come to the forum are community-minded people who talk about things the rest of the week, too, and can put that correction on things [they may be hearing] in their social environment.  The Forum serves to put truth into the community.

How can our listeners start a Forum in their communities?

The first step is to attend one of the Dexter Forums.  The next one is Saturday, December 15, at 8:30 am in the conference room of the Dexter Wellness Center.  There is no set formula.  Each group creates its own culture.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu