discovering ambiguity

 Pahoua Hoffman, Citizens League executive director

Pahoua Hoffman, Citizens League executive director

“I remain hopeful because I have seen people come together who I thought would never come together. I’ve seen work happen that I thought would never be accomplished.”

This hope magnifies itself in much of the work Pahoua Hoffman does as the executive director of the Citizens League, a St. Paul-based nonpartisan group which works to engage citizens in the policymaking process.

The terminology of “policymaking” carries with it, for most of us, tones of dryness, technically unnavigable bureaucracy and far-removed rules.

But as Pahoua says, we all make policy every day. We set rules for ourselves, in our families, in our workplace, at home. We’re making decisions every day.

Her work is centered around making the idea of policy accessible.

One year after her birth in Laos during the Vietnam War, she came with her parents to America. She grew up learning English and became the translator for her parents. At 10 years old, she was translating mortgage documents and health records. The burden of this task was exaggerated by the fact that she knew none of her Ohioan peers had to do the same.

She was always careful to ensure that it was her parents that made the final decision. It wasn’t her job to make the decision for them. She was there to facilitate their understanding.

This principle guides the work she does every day. “The Citizens League is not in the business of changing people’s minds. We are in the business of educating people so they can make up their own mind. There’s something really freeing about that.”

It all comes back to activating a sense of agency in individuals. Change is made possible by hope. Without agency, there’s no hope. It’s the fuel for change.

Every project that the Citizens League works on starts with a “discovery phase.” A group of diverse individuals is assembled to explore and learn about the intricacies of an issue. They work to include people with a spectrum of knowledge from experts to citizens who know nothing about the issue. Having this spectrum encourages a beautiful process of learning together. It’s an exercise in suspending judgment and opinion.

Then the storytelling begins. It’s stories that bridge the big picture with the personal and provoke the impetus for change.

The work of the Citizens League is as much or more about the process as it is about arriving at a conclusion.

If people trust the process, even if the final decision is not what they wanted, they will… understand how we got there and be comfortable with the final outcome.
— P.H.

Ensuring that the process respects everybody’s perspective ensures that everyone gets heard. It’s not about winning the argument. It’s about finding the best solution.

Central to this work is being comfortable with ambiguity. All Citizens League projects begin without knowing how they’re going to end and the issues they tackle are big ones. Some current examples of projects are city transit, the St. Paul minimum wage, and planning for an expanding aging population.

Through studies, reports, civil dialogues, education and lobbying at the state capitol, the Citizens League works to advocate for better policymaking on behalf of the citizens. Furthermore, in adopting policy positions, they remain open to changing their viewpoints.

We are not an unmovable mass… You can’t say the same things louder. That’s not going to make anyone change their minds.
— P.H.

Upon the discovery of new or unrecognized information, their recommendations and stances may change. They maintain intellectual flexibility. In a climate where we often equate a change of mind with an abdication of principle and identity, this is a breath of fresh air.

Humility. Our world seems so frightened by it. It’s this fear that has us so divided. Instead of admitting our faults and our fallibility, we often double down, thus becoming more entrenched. We get stuck. We assume our opponents’ agency to be a threat to our own.

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The work of the Citizens League goes beyond highlighting the agency of each individual. It’s about creating a sense of ownership, a sense that we each have a responsibility and vested interest in bettering the world and environment in which we live.

It’s about the moments of coming together when collaboration seemed impossible.


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