Unpacking a Tough Issue

Posted: September 6, 2011

     Issues are a lot like presents: they come with a lot of fancy wrappings, but the ribbons and bows don’t always tell us what’s inside.  If you shake a present, you might get a hint at what’s inside – a rattle or a thunk might give you a clue – but it’s not till you open it that you know what you’ve got.

      The same goes for community issues.  They may be wrapped in a lot of rhetoric or sophisticated campaigns, but until you unwrap them, it’s hard to understand why you’re so ‘pro’ and I’m so ‘anti’.  The trick is to put the issue on the table and separate out fact, myth and values.  Here’s an example:

     "Using our tax dollars to support the community park only benefits a few fitness nuts, while our downtown businesses are struggling to stay open.  We should put more of our tax dollars into downtown programs."

What are the FACTS?
• Are tax dollars used to support the park? How?
• Are tax dollars used for downtown programs?  How?
• How many people use the park?
FACTS can be quantified using a standard that all sides agree on.

What are the MYTHS?
• Are downtown businesses struggling to stay open?
• Are people who use parks ‘fitness nuts’?
MYTHS are common knowledge: those things we know in our gut to be true – except they may not be.

What are the VALUES?
• Do parks only benefit those people who use them?  Can the same be said for downtown businesses?
• What is the best use of tax dollars?
VALUES are those beliefs we each hold individually about our world.  There is no right or wrong value – but  it’s hard for me to accept your values when they’re different from my own.

      So what’s the point of unpacking facts, myths and values?  If you can get all sides of a controversy to agree on the facts (and most reasonable people can) and to abandon any myths in their arguments, you’re left with differing values.  Once all involved can acknowledge the conflict in values, you may have room to explore solutions that address those conflicts.  You’ll also have the opportunity to find common ground.  In our example above, both park supporters and downtown enthusiasts  probably share a value of preserving or improving the quality of life for the community.  They may even have similar visions of what they’d like the community to be in the future, but different  approaches for getting there.

      Unpacking the issue doesn’t guarantee a solution, any more than unwrapping a present  means you’re going to like the gift.  But it is a good place to start.  And Penn State Extension’s Community and Economic Development team can help.  For more information on this topic, contact your local Extension Office or Judy Chambers, Penn State Extension Economic and Community Development Educator at

Contact Information

Judy Chambers
  • Educator, Economic and Community Development
Phone: 717-334-6271 x313