Civic Nebraska’s Nancy Petitto on The Unify Challenge
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Jim Vokal: Can you have an honest, in-depth conversation with someone who’s your political opposite without having a total meltdown? One organization wants to help prove to you that it’s possible, and it might even make you a better Nebraskan. Nancy Petito is my guest today. Nancy is the Director of Civic Health Programs at Civic Nebraska. Thanks for joining me on Nebraskanomics, Nancy.
Nancy Petitto: Thanks so much for having me today.
Jim Vokal: All right, you’re sponsoring The Unify Challenge Nebraska, which is a way to connect Nebraskans in one-on-one online video conversations about the issues that matter to them. I appreciate anything that gets people out of their bubbles and to see people they might disagree with as people. Can you tell us more about The Unify Challenge and what you’re hoping to accomplish?
Nancy Petitto: Absolutely, so we teamed up at Civic Nebraska with an organization called Unify America to host what is the first statewide Unify Challenge. And we are so excited about this opportunity. We know and we recognize that there is polarization in this country and across our state, and so we saw this opportunity to do The Unify Challenge as a way for Nebraskans who vote differently, who have different backgrounds and ideologies, and really just different lived experiences—it gives them the opportunity to have an open, honest conversation with each other, and so we think this is a really important way for folks in Nebraska to build what we’ve been calling our “civic muscles,” and to bridge those divides so we can do what we think Nebraskans do best, and that’s to work together to solve problems and build stronger communities. So we really hope that folks across the state take part in the challenge and really just start talking to each other again, and like you said, sort of get out of those bubbles that we often find ourselves stuck in.
Jim Vokal: I’d be interested to hear a little bit more about the origins, Nancy, of The Unify Challenge. The founder is not actually a politico, but an entrepreneur who made some hilarious video games for years before launching this project. It almost seems like this project adds a kind of game-like quality to talking about our differences, so please expand upon that, Nancy.
Nancy Petitto: Absolutely, and yes, you have that exactly right. The founder of Unify America, he was really energized by some research that he had done where he found out Americans actually share many of the same goals and so Unify America was launched in January of 2020 to work on reducing some of that contempt, to show Americans that they can work together and build a diverse community, to find solutions and solve some of those big problems that we often talk about. And so I think that even with something as important and crucial as things like The Unify Challenge there’s still a creative and fun aspect that they’ve brought to this, and I know for myself especially having some of these difficult conversations can be really stressful and almost sort of intimidating, so I think the playfulness and sort of the game-like aspect to it just kind of brings back some of that intimidation-factor.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, I appreciate that and certainly agree. So I’ve had a chance to take a look at more polling around the Platte Institute lately of Nebraskans, and my sense is most people are not as polarized as politics suggests, but the people most involved in politics are not always representative of the general public, and politicians know their success is often tied to reaching those highly-engaged people who are convinced the other side is pure evil. So even if we can’t be normal people—because I don’t think anybody listening to this podcast is—how do we disrupt that harmful “Us versus Them” cycle and reward setting a better example in politics?
Nancy Petitto: That’s a great question, and I really appreciate you bringing that up. And honestly I think that’s why we need to step out of our comfort zones and start having these conversations with our neighbors, even if we disagree on some of the topics. At Civic Nebraska and even with Unify America, none of us think that this challenge is going to miraculously change anyone’s mind about certain topics and that’s not really the point. We just want to get folks talking again and getting closer to moving forward together on some of the issues that Nebraskans truly care about, and so we aren’t going to agree on everything and that’s okay. But The Unify Challenge is really meant to open up the opportunity to learn more about, you know, someone in rural Nebraska and what their lived experience is, and someone in an urban part of the state. And so I think that if we can come together across the state and start having those conversations it does take away that component of, you know, us versus them and really just gets us finding out that we agree on more than we think that we do and we can keep having those conversations and keep moving forward in a direction that we think is best to just improve the quality of life for Nebraskans. Because I think that’s truly what many of us want.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, it certainly is, and one of the things that I liked from looking at The Unify Challenge site is that there’s an acknowledgment that nobody’s perfect and we can all grow and change. And that matters in a world where politicians are often held up as either heroes or villains. Would you be willing to share any experiences from your involvement in the Nebraska policy process that may have defied your expectations, and I certainly can add some to the conversation as well.
Nancy Petitto: I’d appreciate that yes, and absolutely. You know, since I’ve been working on policy in Nebraska, I personally have really come to appreciate how accessible many of our elected officials are and how willing they have been to listen to their communities. And I know policy work takes time. It’s stressful, it definitely takes a lot of effort and engagement from all different people across the aisle, and so we really have to be able to engage our community members in the process, so our elected officials can hear how those issues we work on directly impact our communities and our cities and across the state. So for me personally, since I joined Civic Nebraska and started working on various policy issues, it’s been incredibly rewarding to hear from a community member who testified at the city council for the first time, or testified at the state Legislature for the first time and saw how their engagement and being a part of that process really did make a difference.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, because at the end of the day, creating policies that make it easier for someone to start a job or get a job license in Nebraska—they’re not Republican or Democrat. You know, we certainly don’t [always] agree with many of the senators that are sponsoring some of our current priorities. Senator Anna Wishart doesn’t always agree with us on everything, but she’s sponsoring our Regulatory Sandbox and she’s a registered Democrat. We’ve got Senator Clements that led the charge for our inheritance tax [cut] and he’s a registered Republican. These things at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat. They mean something to Nebraska, and we have to find a way to build that consensus on both sides of the aisle, would you agree?
Nancy Petitto: Absolutely, 100% a,nd there are plenty of bills that we’ve worked on at Civic Nebraska and have supported that, like you said, it’s not always senators that we traditionally would work with on voting rights or on housing policy, but we’ve been able to, you know, reach out to some of those different senators and find some of that agreement, and find some things that we can work on, because ultimately we do want those similar things for folks across the state.
Jim Vokal: Job licensing was a big area “The Platte” entered into a few years back, and it almost had a universal support among the 49 senators at the time, and creating an environment to make it easier for somebody to get a job license isn’t Republican or Democrat, it’s a just a common sense approach to making Nebraska a more welcoming community. And we have to find more common ground on issues across the spectrum, just like we did in job licensing, and certainly appreciate your perspective and engagement on the issue. Before we go I want to chat with you about a bill that our two organizations are both supporting it’s LB777 from Sen. Tom Brewer, who introduced it, and would create an online archive of Nebraska Legislature videos of hearings and floor debate, which don’t exist right now. Basically, so anyone could go online and see what’s happening in Lincoln, and I was thrilled to see the Civic Nebraska team support the bill alongside us. This is a status quo problem that we’ve had the technology to resolve for many years now, and it has taken quite a while to gain momentum. Why is now a good time to put the Unicameral’s videos online, Nancy, and what do you hope will happen if the bill passes?
Nancy Petitto: Yes, I love this question so much, we are so excited for this bill and really feel like there’s never been a more urgent time and need for transparency and accessibility in the lawmaking process. So, Sen. Brewer introducing this bill, honestly, we are so grateful for that, and an online archive and shareable video are good for everyone—teachers, journalists, and everyday Nebraskans that want to get more involved in the political process and see what’s happening at our State Capitol. And so, we have transcripts of everything right now, which is great, but if we are at all serious about wanting to engage more Nebraskans, especially younger Nebraskans in the political process, shareable video is really the bare minimum of what we can do, and so we hope that this bill passes and that more people can find a way to get engaged and involved with things that are happening at our state Legislature.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, engagement and transparency, that’s what it’s about. So we appreciate the partnership and testifying alongside us. OK, Nancy we’ll put the sign up information for The Unify Challenge online, but would you like to share once more how people can get involved?
Nancy Petitto: Absolutely, so everyone can go to UnifyNebraska.com to read more about the challenge. If you’re having any hesitations, we answer some questions there, and we have three dates that you can choose between to participate in the challenge. And we hope to have increased interest from so many folks across the aisle. We don’t want this to just be a one-sided conversation between, you know, two liberal folks, or two moderate folks, or two conservative folks, we really want to have that engagement from across the state. And so if you go to UnifyNebraska.com you can find everything there and sign up.
Jim Vokal: All right. Our guest has been Nancy Petitto of Civic Nebraska. Good luck to you and The Unify Challenge participants, and thanks for visiting today on Nebraskanomics.
Nancy Petitto: Thank you.