Based in the SoHo section of Manhattan and funded, in part, by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Talking Transition (TT) was a two-week project launched in early November 2013 to “help shape the transition” to City Hall for the newly elected Democratic mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. In an effort to “transform what is usually an insular, closed-door process between Election Day and Inauguration into an opportunity for broad public engagement,” TT hosted a series of live events where “thousands of New Yorkers” could “participate in public conversations about policy issues, ideas, and questions that affect their communities.” These events featured discussion panels bearing such titles as “The Community Organization in Communities of Color,” “Labor Standing up for Labor,” and “Education for a 21st Century Economy.”
Most of TT’s events were held in a 15,000-square-foot temporary structure, dubbed a “think tent,” whose transparent covering was meant to symbolize an open process of governance. The proceedings therein were broadcast to neighborhoods in all five of New York City’s boroughs via a mobile, interactive digital engagement in the streets and online. In addition to its large conference space, the tent was equipped with dozens of tablet computers to compile survey results, a video booth wherein citizens could record messages to the new mayor, and an abundance of suggestion stickers that people were invited to post throughout the lobby. Talking Transition teams also took to the streets, asking New Yorkers to answer survey questions about what issues were most important to them.
Eight days later, TT hosted an event where a group of some 50 ex-convicts, drug addicts, and chronic vagrants gathered to have “an open conversation about the future of New York City” and to offer de Blasio their suggestions on “policing, corrections, parole policies and more.”
According to a New York Post report, this TT forum “outlined a clear ‘get-soft-on-crime’ vision” featuring former felons and prisoners condemning the police practice of “stop and frisk” and demanding sensitivity to the needs of ex-prisoners. Others at the forum stressed the need to help illegal immigrants find work in New York City. And still others called for Mayor de Blasio to take money from the wealthy and give it to those who needed it more. “A lot of money is spent on the prison system,” said one speaker. “It should be used to cultivate prisoners’ lives. The money should be redistributed to help those who want to change while they are incarcerated.”
While not directly involved in any of TT’s events, Mayor-elect de Blasio fully embraced the project’s goals. “I think a lot of times the best solutions are grass roots solutions,” he said during a visit to the “think tent.” “Some of the power of Talking Transition is that it opens the gates of city government, lets everyone come in with their ideas, their insights. And yeah, it will be a lot of data, but I think we’re going to find some very powerful ideas in it.”
In addition to George Soros, other funders of TT included the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the New York City Community Trust, the New York Foundation, the New York City Women’s Foundation, the North Star Fund, the Open Society Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
In addition, TT received strong support from New York’s union bureaucracy. George Gresham, president of SEIU Local 1199 (the city’s largest union), played a prominent role on de Blasio’s transition team. SEIU Local 32BJ, meanwhile, co-hosted a number of TT events. And bureaucrats from the New York City Central Labor Council and the Communication Workers of America took part in various panel discussions.