The organizers labeled the group conversation as one that should not involve political rhetoric, but given the topics selected that was a near impossibility.
Business, Economy, Education, Free Speech, Healthcare and Immigration are political issues, at least in the current environment.
Yet the 16 invited participants from five northeast Georgia counties worked hard to make the conversation nonpartisan at least, stating sometimes similar, sometimes different points of view respectfully and without direct references to parties or even to political leaders.
As a consequence, the event–held in Oconee County and sponsored by Conservative Republican Women of Northeast Georgia under the Engaging People In Conversation label–was one that participants said should be repeated in the future.
Joan Rhoden introduced the program for what she called E.P.I.C. Northeast Georgia, but the link to and sponsorship of the Conservative Republican Women of Northeast Georgia was prominent in the program.
Participants were recruited, nominated and selected based on their experience with the six topics covered at the event held last October at the auditorium of the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road.
The group was biased toward small business owners and educators, but it contained differences in terms of ethnicity, race and gender.
The moderator was local radio newsman and conservative commentator Tim Bryant from WGAU, who did insert a partisan reference to “Make America Great Again” into the discussion and made a pointedly negative assessment of single-payer healthcare and of others issues during the night.
The program listed the names of 18 participants from six northeast Georgia counties, but only 16 people were on the stage for what was labeled a “focus group.”
One of those missing was from Walton County, leaving that county unrepresented on the panel.
The event was open to the public.
“The E.P.I.C. questions were carefully chosen to prompt candid responses and were specifically designed to steer dialog away from political or ideological rhetoric while offering the kind of prompts that will lead to the stories that will make this evening informative and inspirational,” Rhoden said at the program’s start.
About half of the participants owned a business or had in the past, they told Bryant in response to an initial question.
Bryant followed by asking those with businesses to identify the greatest challenges they faced, and the discussion immediately turned to regulation.
Matt Thomas, who does real estate in Oconee County, pointed to the “countless hours and dollars spent filing tax returns and complying with ordinances and things of that nature that aren’t profitable--actually cost you money.”
Bryant followed by asking “how has your city or county hindered you from being as successful as you desire?”
What followered were complaints about Watkinsville, Athens-Clarke County and Winder.
Sign Restrictions Mentioned
Ashley Christiansen from Barrow complained that Athens-Clarke County had permitted chain restaurants that were in close proximity to her pizza restaurant there, putting her out of business.
She also complained that the city wouldn’t allow her to put a sign board on the sidewalk in front her store in the public right of way.
Joe Riehle complained that code enforcement officers in Winder wouldn’t allow him to put up a banner advertising his butcher shop.
“Does anybody have anything good to say?” Bryant said to laughs.“Who or what helped you along the way in your business, either through resources, advice, encouragement, or any other ways?”
Riehle mentioned the Chamber of Commerce and the small business center at the University of Georgia.
Another participant mentioned University of Georgia county extension agents.
Bryant asked participants if the economy had affected their businesses or families within the last five years.
Taneisha Brooks from Clarke County, who does grant writing as a consultant, said the economy has “taken its toll on the nonprofit world, so its hard to find funding and secure funding, and a lot of nonprofits really cannot afford to hire a grant writer.”
Trey Reed from Clarke County, who is in the painting business, said he “had the dream of owning the business and making it a success and I really wanted to be able to give other people jobs.”
“It just wasn’t happening,” he said, citing the tough economy of a few years ago.
Bryant asked the educators “what kinds of changes” they had experienced in their careers, unleashing a long list of complaints about state and federal mandates.
Low pay and few pay increases also were mentioned.
“We just seem to be changing the curriculum every year,” Laura Croom, a teacher, said, “But then you don’t get any training on that or any funding to help buy the supplies to do what they’re asking you to do.”
Belen Epperson, a professor who lives in Oconee County, complained about how technology is being used to teach Spanish, saying students are playing video games rather than learning how to write in the language.
What followed were several additional complaints about how students were using technology.
Brooks from Clarke County said she has a child in private school and a child in public school and the student to teacher ratio is 12 to 1 in the private school and 30 to 1 in the public school.
“The classroom to teacher ratio definitely has a big impact on what’s going on in the classrooms,” she said.
Freedom Of Speech
Bryant’s question on freedom of speech produced a lively discussion.
“I think people get defensive and upset about anything you say,” Brooks said. “There is so much going on, politics, there’s so much in the media, that you have to kind of watch what you say or you are going to offend somebody, regardless of what it.”
“People do need to chill,” Diana Perez from Clarke County said. “People need to relax and know it’s going to be ok. We’re here to work together, not against each other.”
“Sometimes it is better to listen,” Jacklyn Bendo from Oconee County said.”You learn a lot more just listening than speaking. “
“It is unfortunate that you can’t say anything nowadays because someone will launch a campaign against you,” Reed said. “It’s unfortunate that is has gotten to where you just can’t talk.”
“If you are not politically correct in what you say, even though what you say is your right reasons, the right things, people just shy away from you,” Riehle said. “That is so, so wrong.”
Everyone who spoke agreed that the country has problems with its healthcare system.
“The health care act has helped,” Tashawna Willoughby, a business owner from Madison County said. Without the Affordable Care Act, people who need care are not going to get it, she said.
“We can’t give our employees what they need,” said Linda Chambers from Clarke County, who owns a heating and air conditioning company. “We can’t give them the benefits that we would love to give them right now.”
“We want them to benefit,” Chambers said. “We want them to do well. Because if they do well, we do well as a company.”
Beth Warner from Madison County said that one of the key problems is that many people make money off health care but don’t provide health services.
“There are so many people who work in the bureaucracy of health care that have not one thing to do, not one thing to do (with) encouraging healthy (behavior) or healing. If you could get some of that out of the system, we might actually have health care we could afford.”
Bryant launched the immigration discussion by asking if anyone present was an “illegal.”
Epperson said she came to the U.S. legally from Columbia after getting married.
“I never thought about coming to America. But here comes a Gringo to Columbia and I fell in love with this Gringo,” she said.
Apperson offered a lengthy criticism of people who are in the country and are critical of President Donald Trump, though she did not mention Trump by name.
“ I respect the fact that who the American people elect for president, it doesn’t matter if I like him or not, but it is the American people that elected the president,” she said. Immigrants should “respect that,” she added to big applause from the audience.
Setting Immigration Limits
Perez said she entered the U.S. illegally with her parents when she was seven years old but is now a legal resident.
She favors continued protection for people who came to the country under similar circumstances, but she, too, was critical of those who have protested against immigration policies.
“We like our standard of living,” Laura King from Oconee County said on immigration. “To me its an economic thing.
“I mean, immigrants have a lot to offer. They are hard working. They are, you know, zealous. They love our way of life. But can we be honest and pragmatic about legal and illegal immigrants. How many do we want?”
“In what ways have the experiences of other panelists impacted you this evening?” Bryant asked in closing. “And is this the kind of focus group format, is this the kind of tool you can see benefitting our communities at large?
“I wish we could have more like it,” Riehle said.
“Hearing success stories” is helpful, Brooks said.
“Just having people from different walks of life, it brings a whole different perspective,” Willoughby said. “We need more open minds getting together--and not so many like minds getting together–for things to change.”
“I was very pleased with the evening,” Christiansen said. “I really enjoyed listening to everyone’s perspective. And I think we did exactly what we came here to do.”
I was not able to attend the E.P.I.C. session on Oct. 24 because it was at the heart of the November election season, but Sarah Bell did attend and recorded the video below. (E.P.I.C. also had a professional videographer present for its own purposes.)
Bell gave me the video shortly after she recorded it, and I uploaded it at that time, but I did not get a chance to watch it until now.
I am posting the video and writing about it now to provide an opportunity for others to hear the conversation.
Each of the 16 participants explained why she or he joined the program and gave a brief introduction, starting at 4:17 in the video.
The discussion of business begins at 11:40 in the video.
The discussion of the economy starts at 25:06.
The discussion of education is at 37:15.
The discussion of freedom of speech is at 1:00:30.
The dialog about healthcare starts at 1:14:30.
Immigration is at 1:31:03.
Closing comments are at 1:46:30.