Friday, April 2, 2004

Harmony via talk, starring The Dean



Maggie Downs

Jason Haap is unassuming in a Shakespeare shirt, sipping a beer in a dimly lit corner of O'Bryon's Irish Pub. The Kennedy Heights resident has a wife, an infant child, a solid career as a high school English teacher. He even makes his own soy milk.

But in the tradition of Clark Kent, Haap also has an alter ego. A Superman of sorts.

(Cue phone booth costume change.)

He's The Dean of Cincinnati.

(Bam! Pow! Thwack!)

The Dean, whom Haap always refers to in the third person, is everything Cincinnati needs right now. He's an advocate of activism, a soldier for social change, an ally of ideas. Most of all, he encourages dialog in a city where too many remain tight-lipped about important issues.

"It seems like in this city, there's debate, and then it's forgotten about," Haap says. "There's nothing beyond that. The Dean is trying to provide a forum to go beyond our usual boundaries."

Haap believes many of the city's problems stem from our inability to confront racial issues.

"As it stands, right now Cincinnati is separated by race, class and gender. We're not seeing the same things," he says. "If we talk, we'll be seeing the same things together."

Haap was spurred to action after the police custody death of Nathaniel Jones on Nov. 30, 2003. Shortly after, Haap created The Dean of Cinicnnati character, then established a Web site (www.deanofcincinnati.com) , which is part political satire, part call to action.

The satire is obvious. There are photo albums of the robe-clad Dean, meeting supporters at Findlay Market, spreading the word in Amish country, making copies of his manifesto. There's merchandise, like a Dean lunchbox, messenger bag, stainless steel travel mug.

And then there's the music. The original songs that span a variety of genres include "Dean Love," (alternative rock) "Do You Have A Dean?" (bluegrass) and "Down Low Dean," (hip-hop).

My favorite is the catchy "Luken Ignores the Dean."

"It's all meant to be a shameless spin on self-promoting politics," Haap said. "The idea was to make the character ridiculous and make the ideas real."

But mostly, Haap hopes to keep people talking about tough subjects through the Web site, which boasts of "promoting vigorous intellectual discussion."

Refreshingly, the user is king on this site. Comments on the articles are encouraged. The public can debate in the Freespeech Forums. Everyone can participate in the Dean's "wiki," an online collaborative document - anyone is welcome to make an anonymous contribution.

"It's representative of open-source government," Haap says. "All these area thinkers will be coming together to work toward a common end."

Haap also invited city leaders to participate in the forums, which was inspired by a challenge issued by Mayor Charlie Luken for Cincinnatians to embrace a new civility of dialog. So far, Haap has not received a response.

The Dean's Web site tracks each day Luken and Vice Mayor Alicia Reece have been "silent." (60 and 28, respectively.)

"Instead, (Luken) has contacted MTV's Real World, asking them to film their reality television show in the Queen City," Haap writes.

The Dean of Cincinnati has also taken his ideas public, like on WAIF-FM (88.3) radio.

"Some people ignore the message, some accept it, some question it, but many take the time to talk to me about it," he says.

"People seem to like the idea of just promoting talk."

It doesn't take X-ray Vision to see this idea has superpowers.

E-mail mdowns@enquirer.com




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