Michigan Democratic Party’s “Engage Michigan” conference engages Dems’ ears – and not much else

This past Saturday, the Michigan Democratic Party held their “Engage Michigan” conference. It was billed as a “chance to have your say as we discuss everyone’s ideas for forging a stronger, more prosperous future for Michigan.”

It was anything but.

Let me start this off by saying I did not want to write this entry. I wanted to write an entry talking about how delighted I am that the MDP has finally gotten their groove back and their mojo working and is ready to move forward with implementing a new approach based on feedback from Democrats across the state. It’s well-known that I have been down on the state party leadership and their apparent lack of interest in and promotion of grassroots-level activism that is currently motivating most Democrats in our state and, indeed, across the country. But I am happy to promote positive changes and am eager to see the MDP be an organization that is responsive and effective.

I was optimistic about this conference because I am friends with some of the organizers and, particularly, because Jocelyn Benson was the point person for the event. Unfortunately, I came away feeling like I had wasted nearly an entire day traveling to Lansing to attend the 9-hour conference.

The morning started out with rousing speeches by Jocelyn Benson, Debbie Stabenow, Debbie Dingell and others. These focused on Democrats VALUES.

Debbie Stabenow at the Engage Michigan conference

Stabenow pointed out the many accomplishments of the Democratic Party since 2008. “Democrats were the ones who modernized the GI Bill. We did that. Democrats passed a veterans jobs bill last week. WE did that.” She also pointed out that Michigan is the #1 state in the country for new energy patents. “It’s time we had an energy policy that creates jobs and protects the environment,” she told the crowd of around 1,200-1,500 Democrats.

Dingell’s community-focused speech was quite excellent. She exhorted the crowd to focus on what we value most in the Democratic Party: our commitment to each other and to community. “Not only CAN we make a difference,” she said, “We have the RESPONSIBILITY to do so. The notion that our communities’ weaknesses are not our problem is unacceptable.”

After the speeches, Eric Sapp of Eleison Group gave an excellent presentation on messaging which took us through lunch.

Notice anything missing here? Only at the very end of Sapp’s presentation (which will be available on the Engage Michigan website), was there any opportunity for actual engagement. Right before lunch, there was time for a handful of people to come to microphones to ask questions, several of which were not on topic and not answered. Attendees were invited to make their own “commercial” using the messaging points presented by Sapp, a task almost none of us will do as we head into the election season of 2012.

After lunch (which included apples from Washington state, much to the dismay of many in attendance), there were two break out sessions. The first was called the “VISION” roundtable.

Join elected officials, community leaders, and grassroots activists in an interactive discussion about linking our values to policy reforms.

The session I attended, “Solidarity and Opportunity” had over a dozen panelists, all of whom gave opening statements. The two-hour session consisted almost entirely of them talking to the crowded room. With ten minutes left in the session, attendees were given a chance to speak. I spoke with a community organizer from the Flint area who attended the “Justice” session and she reported much the same thing. Lots of talking TO the people in attendance but very little, if any, “interaction”.

By now the conference had been going on for five hours and I had yet to engage in anything I would consider “interaction”.

The second breakout session were “VICTORY” discussions.

Panelists will lead a dialogue and develop “action items” to engage communities in discussing our values and vision for reform.

This 90-minute session went much the same way as the first: panelists spoke TO the attendees. with 30 minutes remaining, the floor was opened to attendees. I got in line to speak and to suggest an action item but, after a handful of people spoke, it was announced that the session would be ending even though there were still about eight people waiting for their opportunity to speak and be heard.

As I said at the start, I did not want to write about this event in a negative tone. Certainly the speeches and presentations that we heard were good. Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Association was particularly eloquent in the “Union Members” panel discussion I attended. But there was no formal collection of ideas, no visible recording of “action items”, and, most importantly, very little opportunity for interactive dialogue.

I had hoped this conference would be an event that would show that the MDP has turned a corner and is eager to empower grassroots Democratic activists and organizers around the state. I had hoped there would be solid evidence that the MDP was willing to engage with us and hear our visions for the path forward in the coming year. Instead, what I saw was a series of presentations TO us. I didn’t come away feeling like I had an opportunity to be heard. Almost everyone in attendance is already active in the Democratic Party in Michigan. We don’t need cheerleading to get us to be more active. What will attact people to the Democratic Party in Michigan is a sense that they have something to contribute in terms of the direction of our Party and that they are supported and encouraged by the state organization.

One of the few people that spoke at the “Union members” breakout was a young man who is a fourth-generation union member and Democrat. His action item, a good one, is that we all encourage our friends and coworkers to become Democratic Party members. Unfortunately, the MDP’s lack of support or, in many cases, acknowledgement of what is happening at the grassroots level is turning people off, discouraging them from becoming active Party members. They see little benefit in joining the Party which many perceive as a “good old boys” club of political operatives with little interest in feedback or dialogue. Many hold the MDP largely responsible for the debacle of the 2010 election that saw Democrats losing power and seats across the state. If the MDP was hoping to chart a new direction by engaging these people in the conversation about our way forward, I think they missed a great opportunity to do so on Saturday.

And that is decidedly NOT what I had hoped to write about the Engage Michigan conference.

Adding… If you attended the conference, I would love to hear your impressions. Perhaps my perception and that of several others I spoke with was unique. Did you feel like you had an opportunity for dialogue and interaction with the MDP? Let us know in the comments.

I am a chemist by day and progressive liberal blogger by very early morning and very late night. I live just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan with my lovely and talented photographer wife, Anne C. Savage. I am a vegetarian and an avid organic gardener who loves to cook. I'm heavily involved in county-level Democratic Party activities and am on the Washtenaw County Democratic Party Executive Board as co-vice chair for precinct organizing.
Chris Savage (aka Eclectablog)
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  1. Really.?

    We must have been at different conventions. I was at the one Lansing. The one thing my current job has taught me is there is not a lot you can do to change policy when you are in the minority.

    • I encourage you to write about your experience. I know I’m not the only one who feels the way I do but I am wide open to hearing about others’ experiences. Perhaps the three breakouts I either attended or heard about were unique and all the others were more productive. I hope that’s true.

  2. I think I just did. I went to the same two sessions you went to; the innovation and the union member’s session. I got the most out of Eric Sapp’s presentation. Last summer and fall I spent every Saturday and Sunday knocking on doors from August until election day. That’s the kind of information I can use when I’m standing on someone’s porch. Rev. Anthony left we with the energy to start that process next summer.

    • I totally agree with your assessment of Sapp’s presentation. That was certainly excellent. But I’m talking about the intention of the convention which, from their website, was a “chance to have your say as we discuss everyone’s ideas for forging a stronger, more prosperous future for Michigan.” Do you feel that they accomplished this? I do not.

      If I had known it wasn’t actually going to be a two-way conversation, I am honestly not sure I would have attended.

      Again, I really don’t want to be or enjoy being negative about this. I just really feel that the folks running the MDP are not interested in hearing from those of us “in the trenches”, only in talking TO us.

  3. I think the convention met the stated intention, and yes it met its mission. At the two breakout session I attended the panel consisted of a pretty large and diverse cross section of people. Quite a few people also got their say at the Q & A. There was also opportunities for one-on-one interaction. I don’t have the time or desire to hear from every single one of the hundreds of people who attended the convention.

    I think there are things they could do better to improve it, but to bash an inaugural event without offering a single concrete suggestion to make it better makes no sense to me.

    What really strikes me is that with all the attacks on working people that is occurring right here in the Michigan Legislature, all the Republican hypocrisy, the great ideas I heard Saturday and the inspiring speeches I heard this is what you choose to write about.

  4. I think my suggestions were rather implicit in my piece: make it truly “interactive”, a “dialogue”, and actually engage people and give them a “chance to have [their] say as we discuss everyone’s ideas for forging a stronger, more prosperous future for Michigan”.

    In terms of specifics, the breakout sessions shouldn’t have been panel discussions. They should have been brainstorming sessions lead by trained moderators so that the best ideas were heard, recorded, communicated and acted upon.

    I think it’s unfair to describe my reaction as exclusively bashing the event. I acknowledged the parts that I thought were good. I and others I talked to on Saturday simply felt they missed the mark widely in terms of what they said they were going to be doing which is engaging us in a conversation. If the MDP never gets pushback on the things we disagree with, they will never change. I feel it’s important that these perceptions are heard because, as Eric Sapp said so well in his piece, it’s not what you’re saying that’s important, it’s what’s being heard. It’s a lesson the leaders of the MDP should take to heart when it comes to their own members.

    Adding…this sounds like something the leaders of the MDP might say:

    I don’t have the time or desire to hear from every single one of the hundreds of people who attended the convention.

    That, I would suggest, is exactly the problem. Not much listening going on at all.

  5. I’m sorry, but I didn’t see anything but a generalization. How do more than a 1,000 people “get their say?

    The brainstorming idea is a pretty good idea, but it’s hard to pull it off on that large a scale. Perhaps a combination of the two. As for your bashing the event, I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

    I stand by what I said. Who has the time to listen to a 1,000 or more people? I thought we heard from a lot of people. I saw and heard a lot of interaction going on.


  1. […] posted this on November 15th, 2011 I received this very thoughtful response from Jocelyn Benson on my post criticizing the Engage Michigan conference. I thought it should be seen by a wider audience. Thank you for your feedback on the Engage […]

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