Humphrey School alumnus Tane Danger (MPP ‘16) has made a name for himself in Minnesota through his quirky, civics-minded improvisational theater company, The Theater of Public Policy (T2P2), which he co-founded in 2011.
Combining conversations with public policy experts and improv interpretation of big issues such as foreign policy, voting rights, and prescription drug prices, Danger says the goal of T2P2 is to “get people excited about the hard-thinky stuff.”
Now, Danger is taking his unique approach to the Westminster Town Hall Forum, a well-known civic speaker series in Minnesota. Danger is the new director of the forum, which is based at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. He began his new duties on December 1.
Through The Theater of Public Policy, Danger has built a career bringing people together to grapple with big ideas, said forum officials. “Tane brings a unique combination of skill and experience to the Westminster Town Hall Forum,” said Tim Hart-Andersen, the forum’s moderator. “With his public policy background and skill in promoting and producing, he will broaden the reach of the program.”
Danger says his Humphrey School education is a big part of why he got the job. So we asked him to explain why. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your new position.
The Westminster Town Hall Forum has been around for 40 years and it's the largest and most distinguished speaker series in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. The forum typically brings six to eight speakers to Minneapolis each year to give a talk, to address issues of the day from an ethical perspective. That focus on ethics is one of the things I am most excited about.
As the director, I will be doing a little bit of everything: helping curate who the speakers will be, booking them, arranging their visits and so on. There’s also a large fundraising component to the job, since 85 percent of our funding comes from individual contributions. The director also must maintain and build relationships throughout the community to make sure that the service that we're offering is serving the needs and desires of the community.
What goals do you have for the forum series?
We need to make sure the forum is addressing things that matter to the larger community of Minneapolis, the state of Minnesota, and the entire country. The Theater of Public Policy actually has a lot of things in common with the forum. Both of them are spaces that are meant to lift up and broadcast ideas, to get people talking and thinking about them. I worry that we as a society are not doing this as robustly as we should.
Another goal is to make sure that we’re inviting people in a way that's accessible. I want to create something that people want to participate in and get excited about. The forum would admit that a lot of its speakers in the past have been older white men. I want community members to see themselves in the speakers that we have and the perspectives that are presented, and to be living that value—that we are a space that is reflective of the people and audience we're reaching in new ways.
For example, our first talk of 2021 will feature Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, whose work focuses on the intersection of climate change and race.
How did your experience at the Humphrey School prepare you for this role?
One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Humphrey School was to get a better understanding of how professionals think about public policy and how we communicate it to a broader audience— to learn how policy comes together and how it affects people's lives.
It's really important that students and policy makers work with the community to create policy and to communicate why it is what it is, how it's shaped, and so on. Sometimes we silo ourselves in the policy world, working in a windowless office to write up white papers and then put them out into the world. That's a flawed mechanism for doing policy work. It has to be created with the people … [so they] trust and believe in the policies we're putting together. A lot of my classes had that focus: how we’re communicating with and involving people in the process.
That really impacts the work that I'm doing now. It's extremely important that we're talking with people and listening to them about what they're worried about, hopeful for, and how that shapes public policy. I hope the forum is a space where we can have those conversations.
Another lesson I learned from the Humphrey School is that stuff is complicated. I have really developed a skepticism of anybody who has an easy answer to a societal problem; who says ‘If we just do this, we'll fix this problem overnight.’ The world is complicated. [In considering forum speakers] I'm interested in people who are willing to embrace the complexity of the wicked problems of the world.
How does your improv background relate to the Town Hall Forum?
I really believe it's important to tap the creative parts of our brain and our being in how we think about big problems and opportunities and issues. I hate when people try to silo the creative stuff. Our job as policy makers is to be creative. It's not a luxury, it's central to the work that we do. The arts are a manifestation of that and really important. So I resist the temptation to separate that. I want to build that out in the forum events we have. I want to bring more creativity—visual art, music, and so on—into the forum space, to weave it together with the big issue-oriented conversations that we have.
With T2P2, I wanted people to walk away from our shows with the understanding that there’s a lot to consider around these issues, and that people can disagree. That's the kind of thing that I want for the forum.
How important is it to encourage community dialogue?
I have long worried about our crumbling civic infrastructure. It’s trite to say we don’t talk to people outside our bubbles or with different points of view. But I have long wondered what happens if we only listen to people with whom we already agree? And what if we refuse to engage anyone with different ideas or perspectives with anything other than hostility?
I believe we saw the culmination of that when seditious rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. If we cannot consider, engage, and debate ideas, then I fear violence is inevitable.
The Humphrey School taught me to appreciate the consideration and debating of different ideas, while holding onto one’s own values and principles. When you hear points of view that are different or even diametrically opposed to your own, it can help you better understand where you are and why you believe what you do.
I like Minnesota because it has people who really care about making this place better and making it work as best as possible. I'm not blind to our many shortcomings. But I believe there is a large community here that wants this place to be better and fix what’s broken, in a way that simply isn’t true everywhere. I believe for us to keep growing and progressing as a community requires us to face up to hard truths and consider different points of view than our own.
I want the forum to be a place that spotlights those hard truths. I want it to be a space where diverse opinions are share and honestly considered. The forum is a really special thing that Minnesota has, and I hope that people in the area really appreciate and take pride in it. It’s part of what makes us a special place. There aren't many communities that have speaker series like this. I want people here and around the country to look at this forum and say, ‘Yes, that is a special thing Minnesota has.”