Our kids deserve our respectful debate
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Guest columnistA reminder that respectful and civil debate is crucial

Our kids deserve our respectful debate

As local leaders look to gather support for an initiative that would raise property taxes but bring funds to programs for children, it is important to facilitate civil dialogue.

Brian Schreiber
Patrick Dowd, executive director, Allies for Children, at a press conference announcing the ballot initiative for the Allegheny County Children's Fund. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)
Patrick Dowd, executive director, Allies for Children, at a press conference announcing the ballot initiative for the Allegheny County Children's Fund. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)

These are extraordinary times. As noted in the Chronicle’s June 21 opinion piece, “The purpose of a newspaper,” the more polarized opinions become, the more we need lively, respectful debate over issues that are important to us. I couldn’t agree more.

Respectful debate between people seems harder and harder these days. A 2016 NORC Center for Public Affairs Research study found that 74 percent of Americans think manners and behavior have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades. Other studies during this time pointed to negative consequences of uncivil behavior: 79 percent say incivility in government is preventing action on important issues; 77 percent say the country is losing stature as a civil nation; 76 percent say incivility makes it difficult to even discuss controversial issues; 64 percent say they have stopped paying attention to political conversations and debates; and 61 percent say incivility is deterring people from entering public service. All the while, the issues keep coming, and the need to reclaim civility, sensitivity and thoughtfulness becomes increasingly essential in public life and community space.

The past few weeks have seen contentious national debate on immigration and the separation of children from their parents, arousing passions from people on various sides of the issue and reminding some of the darkest times for our people. Outside the headlines, a different conversation about children has begun right here in Allegheny County. A number of highly respected local nonprofit organizations are supporting the introduction of a ballot initiative to create a public children’s fund for at-risk youth.

The initiative, if passed, would provide a revenue stream for early learning, after-school and nutrition programs funded by a .25 mill property tax increase that would generate approximately $18 million in funds to secure social services for underserved children in the area. Supporters of this initiative, including Allies for Children, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, PUMP, Trying Together and the YWCA, to name a few, are part of a consortium of organizations who have seen strong returns coming from investing in programs that yield benefits for our children and our community: early learning, after-school and good nutrition. They are advocating because currently there is no reliable or sustainable way to fund these social services in our region.

From left: Tanya Baronti, director of United for Children, United Way of Southwestern PA; Susanne Cole, president and CEO, Pressley Ridge; Colleen Fedor, executive director, Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA; Beth Heeb, co-interim chief executive officer, YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh; Cara Ciminillo, executive director, Trying Together; Dave Coplan, executive director, Human Services Center Corporation; Patrick Dowd, executive director, Allies for Children; James Doyle, executive director, Higher Achievement Pittsburgh; Lindsay Cashman, advocacy and public policy coordinator, PUMP; Shenay Jeffrey, Board of Directors, advocacy and public policy committee chair, PUMP; and Brian Magee, CEO, PUMP. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)
While the JCC is not a sponsor of the proposed ballot initiative, we are watching the progression of this ballot initiative with great interest. Our new Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement strongly believes in the values of our founding mothers and fathers from the Irene Kaufmann Settlement that local residents actively engage in public life and support a vibrant American democracy. In reviewing Y-IKC documents, historical photographs, Y Weeklies and annual reports, our agency’s legacy is built on the premise that a strong democracy and engaged civil society foster prosperity for our local Jewish community, and help integrate the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship with active Jewish communal life.

Over the past 12 months, the JCC has hosted public forums and programs around topics as diverse as racism, the environment, domestic abuse, immigration and gun violence that have ultimately engaged thousands of individuals of all ages, walks of life and political views. We have involved public officials, spiritual leaders of multiple faiths, community advocates and interested citizenry in the conversation. The current effort around a children’s fund provides an additional opportunity for public discussion and information sharing.

Over the coming weeks, volunteer canvassers are attempting to collect more than 40,000 signatures on petitions just to earn a place on the ballot. You’ll see them in business districts and knocking on doors. And with that in place will likely come spirited conversation and debate throughout the community.

We support the Chronicle’s mission to “print pieces that will inform, engender respectful dialogue and educate on the wide variety of issues that are important to Jewish Pittsburgh.” As CEO of an agency that serves thousands of children each year, I understand the motivation of a number of our nonprofit colleagues and partners who are the driving force to petition for this ballot initiative. I also value the JCC’s history and fundamental belief that the issues that affect the citizenry of Allegheny County affect Jewish Pittsburgh as well.

Whether you support the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative or not, I hope that you will become better educated about the proposal. And as we have done for decades, I am positive the JCC will serve as a nonpartisan venue for hosting conversation and civil debate should the initiative be placed on the November ballot. We also will continue to serve as a district polling location for people of all backgrounds and religious beliefs to exercise their conscience as we have for decades.

I look forward to the dialogue. PJC

Brian Schreiber is the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

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