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VOL. 132 | NO. 13 | Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nonprofit Exercise Looks Toward, Beyond Trump

By Bill Dries

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At the end of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 futurist manifesto “Future Shock,” he wrote about a concept called “anticipatory democracy” as a cure of sorts for being overwhelmed by technological developments and other rapid fire changes.

As Friday’s inauguration nears, the changes that could follow it were among scenarios local service agencies considered last week in a daylong meeting.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“The simplest definition of anticipatory democracy is that it is a process for combining citizen participation with future consciousness,” Toffler wrote.

The concept was explored in a 1978 follow-up. The editor of that book, Clement Bezold, who worked with Toffler, is finding it has relevance in anticipating what a Trump presidency will mean.

Bezold and his team from the Institute for Alternative Futures were in Memphis last week for a five-hour session with leaders of nonprofit institutions, government leaders and representatives of philanthropic organizations – 53 people in all.

The session and the institute’s participation were funded by the Kresge Foundation and is the first of eight exercises in different cities and communities across the country.

“This is looking at alternative futures,” Bezold said at the end of the session. “But it’s looking in real depth at human services and human need and the improbable and all of the factors that come together around that.”

Dr. Kenneth Robinson, president and CEO of United Way of the Mid-South, said the group of organizations battling poverty and its effects on a daily basis and coordinating with each other don’t often get a chance to look that far ahead while “living in the weeds.”

But he also acknowledged many of those in the sessions have been thinking about what happens after Friday’s inauguration.

“Most of us were dealing with – given the presidential change, given the economy, given what we’ve known historically as status quo – how likely it is that things are going to sort of stay versus how desirable they were,” Robinson said.

The exercise goes beyond the next four or even eight years. The scenarios explored by the four different groups went through 2035.

“There’s an assumption for human services that funding levels will be cut and that there will be more movement to block grants,” Bezold said. “The question is what’s after the four years? What is in the 2020s.”

Bezold’s mention of block grants mirrors what local leaders – Democrats and Republicans – see as a likely path for TennCare, Tennessee’s version of Medicaid. A federal block grant was what the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam sought unsuccessfully in its talks with federal officials in the Obama administration about an expansion of Medicaid.

“If you think about swings in politics, might there be the equivalent of a progressive version of the tea party in 2019-2020?” Bezold suggested, based on what he sees as the rise of “equity” in work his organization has done for the World Health Organization, the AARP and private corporations.

“It’s an awareness of fairness and what that means, growing in multiple places,” Bezold said. “It goes in waves and there is sort of like a down wave at the moment. But on the other hand there are some parts of even Trump that include going after pharmaceutical pricing. But I think that all in all what may occur is that these communities need to understand what happens in that administration and get ready for it. In the 2020s there is the path where you have continued cuts and challenges, but there is a path to a different future.”

The scenarios also included a recession like the one the nation endured recently that was the worst since the Great Depression.

“Every seven years we have one, but most of them we forget,” Bezold said of one scenario that calls for a significant financial downturn in 2023.

Two of the four scenarios included full employment and the setting of a “living wage” as well as a guaranteed annual income for families of $12,000 a year for adults and $4,000 for each child.

They are what Robinson termed “pie in the sky” scenarios that come with serious questions about the role organizations play.

“The pie-in-the-sky scenarios were much more desirable,” he said at the end of the gathering with about 20 people in the room. “But they fell lower on the scale of likelihood. The challenge for us – we’ve got capacity in this room – is to decide how much effort and intentionality we might put in changing the curve of likelihood toward the scenarios that we find more desirable.”

Robinson said those from different sectors have the knowledge to help chart a particular direction.

“If this, then that,” he said, “and to ensure that we begin to put into place perhaps infrastructure and then strategy and then goals that might mitigate either the impact of the worst case scenario … or prepare us, guide us, propel us.”

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