Interview with Ben Warner, Executive Director of JCCI

January 4, 2014 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Watch Arash Kamiar's conversation with Ben Warner, Executive Director of JCCI.

Video Interview filmed in partnership with Post Newsweek and
Produced by Stephen Dare and Arash Kamiar
Edited by Stephen Dare and Devlin Mann
Post Production in cooperation with DVA
Metro Theme Music composed by Darren Davis
December, 2013


Arash Kamiar: Hi, I'm Arash Kamiar. I'm here with Ben Warner of JCCI. How are you, Ben?

Ben Warner:  I'm doing great.

Arash Kamiar:  Thank you for coming on with us. You are the CEO and president of?

Ben Warner:  The Jacksonville Community Council Inc.

Arash Kamiar:  Excellent. And what do you do there?

Ben Warner:  Well, what we do is we bring people together to learn about the community, to engage in problem solving, and then act to mArash Kamiare positive change. Because at our core, what we believe is that together we can build a better community.  And that's what we've been doing for the last forty years.

Arash Kamiar:  So I saw your TED talk, was it last week?

Ben Warner:  It was October 26th.

Arash Kamiar:  I think that was last week. It was excellent, and you had a little wheel up there, explain the wheel.

Ben Warner:  The wheel I put up there as a way of thinking about governance in communities. And governance really is how a community is governed. We used to think that governance and government were the same thing, that the role that individuals had in a community  was to vote for someone, and that your elected official then is responsible for mArash Kamiaring all the decisions that mArash Kamiare the community work.

Arash Kamiar:  But that's a representative democracy, so why wouldn't I think that?

Ben Warner:  Well, it turns out that if you think that,  it works for some things, we have some systems where that works perfectly well, but there's a lot of other things that have to happen. And it turns out that from the beginning of this country, we were formed with this idea that not only was there a role that government needed to play, there's a role that the market economy needed to play, and there's a  role that private citizens, operating In private capacities, also needed to play in order to mArash Kamiare the whole thing work. And that's part of what we've been losing lately.

Arash Kamiar:  Is that kind of like an interest group?

Ben Warner:  Well, what Alexis de Toqueville when he came over and looked at the United States back in 1831, he called it coming together in associations. So if you think in terms of private volunteer work, or in terms of organized non-profits, you see that we just don't function as a society without those things happening. You think about all the different sectors of this community that require this level of non-profit or individual volunteerism, of people doing good, doing good things for the right reasons, if those things aren't there, then the system breArash Kamiars down. And somewhere in there it's also people who are doing advocacy so that decisions made at the government level tArash Kamiare into account not only the interests of those who are organized enough to be able to hire someone to lobby on their behalf, but also those who are acting on an individual basis to mArash Kamiare sure their voices are also heard, so that those decisions made by elected leaders represent the full wishes of their constituencies.

Arash Kamiar:  So, how does your organization impact government policy?

Ben Warner:  Well, in a couple of different ways. One of the things that we do, we talked about learning about the community. We do things like an annual report card on how we're doing as a community. We've got the longest running community indicators project in the world. And that gives us an opportunity to provide an external evaluation tool to see whether or not we're on track in creating the kind of community we want to have.

Arash Kamiar:  And how is that defined?

Ben Warner:  How is that defined?

Arash Kamiar:  Why do you get to define it?

Ben Warner:  Well, actually what we do is the research.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Ben Warner:  It actually gets defined by a group of people in the community, we invite the community to come in and help create that report. Our latest update involved 16,000 people thinking about what was important in the community. Then every year we have a group of individuals who represent a broad range of community interests, go over the report prior to publication, so our quality of our progress report then has input from stArash Kamiareholder and citizen alike, thinking about what this is saying about the trends in our community. In a very real sense, what's happening from education and the economy to  arts and culture and the natural environment, how's transportation or public safety, thinking about all of those things in relationship to where we ought to be. And so the first thing that we do is provide that ability for data-driven decision mArash Kamiaring, so that we are forging our public policy, our decisions about our budget, our decisions about legislation, and our understanding of where we are as a community and what our trends are.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay. And you guys tArash Kamiare on a lot of issues, you had something about, what's the, it's the gambit, it's the library, it's racial issues in our city, how are problems identified? And how are they...?

Ben Warner:  What do we do with them?

Arash Kamiar:  Yeah.

Ben Warner:  Well, that's a second way that we influence public policy is that we are constantly looking at those areas in which our current systems aren't working, and we spend a lot of time talking with

Arash Kamiar:  (interrupts) But our library system is great! I'm just kidding. Sorry. Bad joke.

Ben Warner:  Well, what we do with those, we ask people all the time, what is it that we need to look at, and we have people coming to us. For example, we had people in the health system coming to us to look at infant mortality, the rate at which infants die before their first birthday. It's sort of a sentinel indicator, it gives you a warning sign about whole systems breArash Kamiaring down in our community.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Ben Warner:  And our health system had done some internal work, where they looked at how they could improve health outreach, healthcare access, they could improve the quality of the equipment and services in the newborn ICU, things like that. And they were able to say “This is what we can do, this is the best we can do” and really, the problems about our infant mortality rate aren't a health issue anymore. They're really a community-based issue, and to do that, we needed to get collaboration among people who were not in the healthcare field. We needed to get healthcare systems, and the social systems, and the economic development, neighborhood and safety, and all of these other things working together, to be able to address those problems.

Arash Kamiar:  So it seems like your group is purposely non-political.

Ben Warner:  We are vehemently non-partisan. We spend a lot of time guarding that, because our role is the trusted convener.

Arash Kamiar:  How do you do that with donations and fundraisers and sponsors? How are you able to keep your organization non-partisan?

Ben Warner:  Well, it's work, but it requires this intentional understanding, staff or volunteers, of what our role is. And understanding that if we are to be intentionally non-partisan, it means that every time we have a conversation, we need to mArash Kamiare sure all of the opinions of the community are involved.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Ben Warner:  Which is why when we did look at issues of race, we had three white supremacist organizations sitting there along with the NAACP and Urban League, and the Christ Commission, and a whole lot of other people, because that was part of understanding who we were as a community. And mArash Kamiaring sure that everyone felt like they had not only the ability but the authority to speArash Kamiar out and share their own insights on the issue.

Arash Kamiar:  So have you found it incredibly easy or incredibly difficult or whatever, bringing these different dynamic groups together around a table to just have a conversation?

Ben Warner:  Well, one of the things that's fascinating, we set out when we have one of these conversations to mArash Kamiare sure that we have included both the usual suspects and the unusual suspects. When you bring folks together in a room, and they realize there's a structured process, that provides a level of safety for people to be able to speArash Kamiar, and a responsiveness so they know they've been heard.

Arash Kamiar:  Can you explain that a little bit? How does that happen?

Ben Warner:  That's the part that tArash Kamiares work, but we set up some rules, we call it the “forum decorum” to mArash Kamiare it simple and easy to understand. But there's a way of interaction. We structure our meetings so that there's a shared learning process, and then a shared sharing process, and a questioning process.
 Each meeting is designed to reach a consensus of what we've learned that day together, so that we're building a shared understanding of what the facts are, and then we delay talking about what our potential solutions would be until after we all have a shared understanding of the facts. Every time we talk about an issue, the first day everyone has a solution to it. But after we go through a shared learning process, about halfway through that process, suddenly people say “There is no solution, because it's so much more complicated than we ever thought,” and that's when the real learning starts. Because that's when people start to say “Okay, I'm hearing you and you're hearing me, and together we're understanding there's pieces of this issue that are really opening up to me and I'm seeing it differently, and once I'm seeing it differently, I'm seeing new solutions we haven't tried yet.” That's when we can bring in experts from other communities, we can bring in other folks to outline what some of the options are that we can do as a community so we build on existing practices or create our own when necessary.

Arash Kamiar:  So once problems are identified, it's kind of a consensus-building, it sounds like.

Ben Warner:  It is an informed consensus that we're creating.

Arash Kamiar:  And then solutions are...?

Ben Warner:  And then we create a set of solutions.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Ben Warner:  Again, we're creating them by consensus, by this informed consensus, and those solutions will come usually in the form of recommendations, and identify the particular agency or organization to tArash Kamiare the lead, a particular action for them to do. We'll have a set of those recommendations, then we launch our implementation phase.

Arash Kamiar:  Which means?

Ben Warner:  Which means for every issue we tackle, we might spend six months talking about what the solutions might be, but then we'll spend the next two and a half years working out mArash Kamiaring those solutions happen.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Ben Warner:  One of the interesting things that most people in Jacksonville don't know, because we try to be quiet about it, is that we've had external evaluators come look at us. We do consulting around the world and we've had people look at us for a number of different awards and research projects and five dissertations and things like that. But we had a team look at us and they studied us for three years. And at the end of that three years they could state that our implementation process resulted in 85 percent of all of our recommendations being fully or partially implemented within two years of us mArash Kamiaring them.

Arash Kamiar:  Can you give us a couple of examples of what was implemented?

Ben Warner:  Sure. We have created organizations, such as the Bridge of Northeast Florida, the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida. We have created laws and policies—term limits, unitary primary elections, billboard tArash Kamiaredown. We have created, ah, we have dealt expanding programs, where we've done everything from pilot programs, getting EBT cards at farmer's markets to offset the use in food deserts of getting  fresh fruits and vegetables to people. New programs, communities and schools came out of our work. We've also seen tremendous impacts on new coalitions, partnerships and strategies being implemented as people work together in new ways. So, we've been doing this for forty years, we've done over seventy different topics, and of those seventy different topics you can see both what we said we would do, and then we issue a report we call our implementation report wrap up after two to three years, then we post that online on our website so that people  an look at each recommendation we've ever made, what did we do and what got accomplished.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay. So, one of the initiatives you guys have is Jax 2025. It's incredibly popular, everyone seems to be talking about it. Why do I care about Jacksonville in 2025?

Ben Warner:  Well, Jacksonville 2025 is coming up faster than we would think. I mean, it's twelve years away, and it's sneArash Kamiaring up quickly. But what we decided to do in Jacksonville, we had done some work around our city's financial picture, and started ringing an alarm bell back in 2008, that the current path our city was on at that point was not sustainable, that we needed to tackle some significant issues, one of which was our pension, and we've been talking about that, and going through some of those processes. But another piece was that we had a problem with the way we were thinking about the city's budget, because we couldn't reach consensus on what the core functions of government were. Nobody really knew, and people from the local government we were talking to had different ideas about what the functions of government were. And if you can't decide what it is you're really supposed to be doing, you can't figure out whether or not you're efficiently doing it. And then the other thing was we didn't have an agreement of where Jacksonville was going. We didn't know what kind of community we wanted to be when we grew up, and if you don't know what kind of community you want to be, then you can't talk about the effectiveness of those policies.

Arash Kamiar:  So quickly tell me, based on the meetings you've had, and it's been quite a bit, how many meetings have there been? For Jax 2025, well, the community meetings.

Ben Warner:  What we did is we had a survey, pulled in 14,000 people through a survey, then we had five community meetings,

Arash Kamiar:  How diverse were the responses, do we know where they were coming from?

Ben Warner:  Absolutely. Covered eighty-three different ZIP codes throughout the entire region, no ZIP code had more than five percent of the responses. We were representative of the community as a whole, in terms of race and ethnicity, we had broad diversity in income, in education, in, I mean, you go across the board, and we've got those out, and you can look at them, but it's a pretty significant look at breadth of look in our community.

Arash Kamiar:  What are some of the things that you've found, that we want to see as a community, based on those responses?

Ben Warner:  Some of the things we found were not surprising. We want our education system to be better. We would like our economy to be stronger, so that more people can have access to an economy that allows them to work at a living wage. Things like that. But we also saw some things that did surprise us. We've done this kind of work in a lot of different communities. But when we came home to Jacksonville, we heard some things about Jacksonville that we hadn't heard in other places. One of those was that they said Jacksonville needs to be a place where people matter. That one of our strengths is that we are nice to people. That we have this Southern hospitality and charm, and that people who come to Jacksonville feel welcome and warm and embraced, as long as they're not different. Because that's the flip side of it, is that we don't handle differences well in Jacksonville right now. We're an increasingly cosmopolitan city, we have people from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, very few of us were actually born in Jacksonville, this is a very dynamic kind of community. While we have this Southern charm and hospitality, for some folks, if we can expand it, become much more diverse and inclusive, if we can become known for kindness to everyone, and be welcoming, not tolerant, but welcoming, then that could transform the kind of place that we are.

Arash Kamiar:  That's great.

Ben Warner:   The other thing that we heard that shocked us, was that people from all over the region said that one of the most important things we address was Jacksonville's downtown. And we hadn't realized how strong an impact the need for a redeveloped Downtown had, outside of certain core constituencies. We expected to see downtown get a lot of people talking about it who were living in sort of the Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods but what we saw were people you know in BArash Kamiarer and Nassau and Clay and St. Johns counties saying “No, the core of our region is Jacksonville, and the core of Jacksonville is our downtown, that's the face we have to the world and it needs to be better.”

Arash Kamiar:  Thank you Ben, that's great. I'm going to wrap it up here. I appreciate your time and energy and everything you're doing at JCCI, I think it's important. If people want to see the inquiries you guys are performing, how do they do that?

Ben Warner:  Well, people can engage with us at or at or else on Facebook and Twitter and all those kind of things. The most important thing is that the work that we're doing is not something else, it's not something other people do. It's something that everybody here ought to be a part of. We've got a place for you to plug in and to find your way of connecting to create the vision of Jax 2025, because we launched implementation  of that in June, and we're going to be implementing it all the way through the year 2025. There's a place for you to be involved in that implementation process, to create the city that we know we ought to have.

Arash Kamiar: Thank you. I'm Arash Kamiar, with I'm here with Ben Warner of JCCI, CEO and director of the organization. And you've been there fifteen years?

Ben Warner:  Fifteen years.

Arash Kamiar:  That's incredible. Thank you so much for your time.

Ben Warner:  Thank you.