Sustaining Citizen Action in the Time of the Coronavirus: A Q&A with Harry Pozycki

Pozycki has long worked to enhance community problem-solving through the Citizens Campaign; the pandemic has changed the way that work is being done
Harry Pozycki

Harry Pozycki has been a stalwart of community activism and transparency in New Jersey for decades, first as an advisor to Govs. Kean and Florio and, for the last 20 years, as leader of the nonprofit activist group, the Citizens Campaign. Co-founded with his wife Caroline, the organization’s mission is to restore service, civility and pragmatism to America’s political culture.

Instrumental in the adoption of the state’s Open Public Records Act and its Sunshine Law, which is designed to ensure public access to meetings held by government bodies, Pozycki has since sought to empower individuals and their communities to work together in solving their issues and challenges, large and small.

NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney first sat down with Pozycki a month ago to discuss his latest book, “Citizen Power and the Art of No-Blame Problem Solving,” and his venture to train and build up citizen leaders, or “civic trustees,” across the country.

A few days later, the coronavirus pandemic took grip of New Jersey, and in a follow-up interview last week, Mooney and Pozycki switched gears to discuss how community-building takes place at a time when everyone is in lockdown. The following are edited excerpts of that interview.

Q: Explain the campaign you were leading and the book you had written — all before we had even heard of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pozycki: The primary purpose of the book, “Citizen Power,” is to give people the know-how to become citizen leaders, and it’s clear now, especially given the coronavirus, that leadership is crucial at a time of crisis and local leadership is the most important of all. We see that now not only in the face of the coronavirus but also even during Hurricane Sandy, we saw that often federal and state government were not able to address some of the issues.

Q: How have you adapted since the pandemic took hold?

Pozycki: Meetings have not missed a beat. They’re meeting in Zoom conferences, and I certainly have felt the benefit, not only in the community, but the community that is solution-focused. You know, they say action is the best antidote to anxiety. We’re certainly doing that.

Q: How does your model work in even the best of times?

Pozycki: Specific trustees take a pledge that is call-specific, a pledge to keep my community better than they found it. It’s about practical solutions instead of pointing fingers and assigning blame. Trustees go through fairly intensive leadership training, much of which is incorporated in the book “Citizen Power” and learn a proven no-blame, problem-solving process by which they attack the issues that they identify as most important in their own community — not issues that are personal to them alone, but issues that affect the entire community. They then meet in monthly solutions sessions, usually approximately 24 trustees in a given civic trust.

Q: How do the sessions work?

Pozycki: In these solution sessions, they not only identify the issues, but apply a 10-step process by beginning to first drill down on a doable issue, something that they can have impact on rather than global issues that only cause worry and frustration.

The remaining steps allow them to shape the solution for their own community and then implement it through respectful presentations and partnerships with their governing officials, not only in the city government, but also in the school district, the planning board, and even in the local political parties where platform priorities can help to address issues.

Q: Where do these civic trusts exist?

Pozycki: Right now, there are four fully formed ones in Newark, Plainfield, Perth Amboy and Trenton. And there are emerging civic trusts in Paterson and Philadelphia.

Q: And how many civic trustees?

Pozycki: There are roughly 24 in a community, a little less in Paterson and Philadelphia. But there are also what we call national civic trustees. So all total, about 150.

Q: What training do the civic trustees receive and tell us the role of community colleges, a key piece outlined in the book.

Pozycki: Having learned how to enable citizens to go into service in their own communities as civic trustees, we decided on the ambitious goal of creating a national public service. And we found in our experimentation, because we have curriculum available at the college level … that the best place to embed the training and ultimately even to establish the civic trust was at community colleges. This allows the leadership training and the service opportunity that are fundamental components of any kind of public service at the national level. There are already several community colleges with the citizen leadership centers emerging in New Jersey, and several around the country, including the Community College of Philadelphia, Bakersfield College in California and others.

Q: New Jersey now has a new community problem of epic scale in the coronavirus outbreak, and of course a real challenge in convening people to help address it, at least in person. Talk about how your approach pivoted a couple of weeks ago and what’s happened since.

Pozycki: We normally have these monthly solution sessions with our civic trustees in their various settings. And we would get together, have a bite to eat, usually a light supper. And then we would go into a very disciplined agenda of problem-solving. Well, we’ve had to make the transition to doing Zoom conferences. So we’ve lost the opportunity to break bread with each other. And that’s certainly an enjoyable component that we no longer have.

But what I’ve noticed is that in the Zoom conferences of civic trust meetings, especially the first ones that have occurred, the trustees have gone from looking rather sober-faced to posting a lot of thumbs-up icons.

By the end of the meeting, we asked them how they wanted to address the coronavirus because they decide what they want to do on the issues. As discussion began, immediately it became clear that the trustees were focusing on what are the best-practice protocols for daily living in the face of the coronavirus. The protocols for physical health in the face of the coronavirus, financial help in the face of the coronavirus and psychological health in the face of coronavirus became the three top priorities.

Q: Are there examples of community action?

Pozycki: Most of the civic trustees have experience with either the creation of or the enhancement of auxiliary police forces, and there are these entities called CERTS or community emergency response teams. They are teams in each municipality, each with an emergency management coordinator. They don’t receive the extensive training that an auxiliary police member does, but they do get training in basic emergency response, pulmonary resuscitation, things of that sort. And it can be very useful if deployed effectively, especially with our first responders being under stress right now to, for example, take seniors to a doctor’s office to get a check-up or to make sure there’s food delivery for those who are not able to get it.

Q: When we first spoke a month ago, we discussed the need for your approach in what had become a toxic discourse in our public life. That has actually lessened a bit in the face of this emergency, as we are not seeing the same level of nasty rhetoric and insults. In general, do you see that as maybe a silver lining in all this?

Pozycki: It’s a truism that adversity builds character. And I guess you could say the crisis builds community. It’s certainly the case in terms of family and friends interaction. I can see that happening much more, but I think we need to look beyond the short-term, rally-round-the-flag sight of the coronavirus. We still have the engines of hate working at full throttle. You read the other day that Facebook and Google and other platforms are having a hard time keeping up with the daily hate-mongering. So that’s not going to go away. And until we address the leadership deficit in this country, we’re not going to have sufficient leaders to bring about the kind of confidence in government and service in government that’s required.

Q: Where do we go from here?

Pozycki: The bottom line is we need to restart chicken dinners. It is a nice thing, you know, when you arrive to a meeting and you’re not just sitting around waiting for a speaker or something. You’re all serving yourself up some food, some chicken and steamed vegetables and rice and grabbing a bottle of water and catching up with people that you share common values with. That’s a beautiful experience. So we’re preparing for that to resume, and I assume it’s closer than you might think. But in the meantime, Zoom conferences are very helpful. As I said, I’ve witnessed firsthand, that trustees’ moods change immediately when they realize, hey, we can communicate with each other.

Q: Any more you want to add?

Pozycki: No, I got a lot of work to do. We’re working harder than ever. We’re actually working more hours than we were in the past. So stay strong and take care.