Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – This reporter was skeptical, back in 2018, that Kevin Stitt was serious about pressing for meaningful limits on government. Gov. Stitt has done so in some areas, elevating private-sector models while seeking the public good. In other areas, he has capitulated to the forces seeking bigger government.
My good wife told me I was wrong to harbor doubts, but doubt is a habit of mine after four decades of thinking about, writing about, and acting in the arenas of public policy, social welfare, and tax-financed education.
In one crucial area, though, she was right and I was wrong.
Stitt and his wife Sarah used the governor’s prayer breakfast in February to launch BeANeighbor.org – not a new government program but a web portal to elevate the pursuit of excellence.
The goal of the platform, housed at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), is “to have a one-stop shop for Oklahomans to find help or to discover ways to give or volunteer,” according to DHS director Justin Brown. Most importantly, this new initiative will allow the State of Oklahoma “to better partner our caseworkers and resources with local programs to help deliver lasting change.”
Brown, who took the reins at DHS last summer, said he sees “firsthand every day the impact of communities stepping forward to support their neighbors.”
A trio of primary areas of focus highlight the effort, according to Stitt’s office. Those are aiding youths aging out of foster care, reducing high school dropout rates, and reducing recidivism.
At the Be A Neighbor website, some first-wave collaborators in the Stitt plan are quoted. Pam Ballard, CEO at the Community Service Council, says the new effort “sets the standard for government and community-based organizations uniting to make lives better for our state’s most marginalized populations.”
Karen Waddell, the president and CEO of the Lynn Institute, believes “this is an exciting venture that will help poise Oklahoma as a top 10 state.” Waddell is best known for chairing the collaborative she founded, “Count Me In 4 Kids,” which helps to connect providers and donors to help Oklahoma children.
In an interview with this writer, DHS director Brown expressed joy over the involvement (through March 6) of more than 200 organizations with BeANeighbor.org. “We are happy with the response,” he said. “I think it’s been successful and is already well-adopted. The exciting part is we’re engaging with the end-users of the product and learning its positive impact.”
Brown continued, “The Be A Neighbor initiative is creating two different types of relationships. It is a bridge between those in need and the providers in various groups who meet those needs—that is, the individuals and the neighbors ready to assist them. What the public doesn’t necessarily see is the ways in which the public-advocate community is interacting in some new ways with both of those sectors.”
He explained that government employees at the three launching agencies — DHS, Corrections, and Education — are working enthusiastically to support the relationships described. He also indicated that the number of agencies involved might expand as lessons from the liftoff are studied.
Asked why he left the private sector to enter state government, Brown explained he enjoyed his career working in senior housing with “a personal and professional passion” for serving those in assisted living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. He also developed a “passion for kids” through a variety of volunteer positions with groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the YMCA, advocates for youth with cystic fibrosis, the zoo, and other groups.
When the governor asked him to consider government, Brown considered the matter and soon said yes.
He said he was impressed with “how collaborative and careful the process” was for the Be A Neighbor initiative. A series of focus groups were held for clients and care-giving groups, as well as state employees. “It’s hard to express how well the agencies are working together in this process,” he said.
Asked about the genesis of the idea and its implementation in such a short period of time (he only entered state government last summer), Brown said the initiative “was the governor’s idea. We were just the engine. He noticed a need and charged us to meet the need. The effort went from concept to liftoff from last October to mid-February, with a roughly 13-week span of direct work on the idea.”
Tocquevillian Civil Society
There is something distinctly American about Stitt’s aspirations in at least this area.
In the remarkable Democracy in America, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville described American habits of collaboration, formation of associations, and voluntary activity in the achievement of worthy goals.
What he actually described as a result of his travels across the United States during one of the “Great Awakenings” of our past was the development of a democratic republic that eschewed ready resort to government action, a place where people saw problems and sought to correct them without the force of centralized authority.
Stitt supports wholesome cooperative efforts aiming to improve the lives of fellow citizens.
In this, he might find handy and sustaining the thoughts of Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Tocqueville also reflected, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations … In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”
And, it seems fitting that Stitt and his wife Sarah (engaged since day one in sincere efforts to improve services to those in need, particularly those in need of mental health services) kicked off this particular effort at a breakfast where prayers came from across the range of sincere petitioners for divine assistance.
A rationalist in some ways, Tocqueville nonetheless articulated what the thread formed through faith and action yields for those who seek to live free: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”
The governor’s refreshing Be A Neighbor initiative brings to mind the continued vibrancy of American optimism, catalogued so brilliantly in Tocqueville’s understanding of Americans’ restrained hope and rational optimism.
In this effort, Stitt has made a strong start. Should the ranks of collaborators increase and efforts be sustained, this could be his most long-lasting legacy.
NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor/publisher of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books, including “Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork,” and editor of seven books. A state-certified teacher with 10 teaching certifications, he has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.