Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. This post is the first of three that will discuss key pillars of deliberative democracy: inclusion, deliberation, and power. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
Deliberative Democracy: Inclusion
What if we cultivated local democracy the way the artist-chefs of the Slow Food movement create a luscious meal? Obviously, we would gather the widest variety of fresh local ingredients. We would seek to understand them so we could help their finest qualities shine through, incorporating the best of both traditional wisdom and new techniques. And taking care not to rush, we would assemble them so as to allow their unique flavors to marry over time, knowing that their synergy will create a richer result than simply the sum of their parts.
This was the inspiration my coauthor and I brought to our book Slow Democracy (reviewed on this site here and here) nearly a decade ago, and it’s a vision that continues to nourish my work today. I won’t pretend local democracy has gotten any easier. Public engagement is increasingly inflamed by misinformation, social media, and (to use author Amanda Ripley’s useful term) “conflict entrepreneurs.” In fact, the increasingly toxic polarization of recent years has meant that before many communities can even consider using deliberative democracy practices, remedial trust-building is needed. An inspiring number of new groups has emerged to take on this bridge-building.
Despite these new challenges, I stand by our premise that slow (deliberative) democracy—local decision-making that’s inclusive, deliberative, and empowered—is essential to a sustainable future. The “slow” in slow democracy doesn’t mean change needs to take longer; it’s simply an acknowledgement that high-quality decisions are worth the time. In fact, “slow” is often faster—because we can skip the pushback from polarized voters, and instead reap the rewards of information sharing and innovation.
Partisan animosity in the United States is rising, yet recent work by the nonprofit group Public Agenda indicates that broad agreement exists among Americans on many key issues—agreement across party, race, and other demographic measures. From raising the minimum wage, to infrastructure investment, to creating a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants, the majority of Americans are surprisingly united. As researchers have observed, the problem is not that we disagree but that partisan animosity “…is undermining the ability of Americans to recognize common interests, deal with our differences productively, build broad-based coalitions, and work together to bring about needed change.”
If we are to survive together, these arts of self-governance will be crucial. Many of us feel immobilized in the face of national polarization and global crises, but here’s where engaging with the “other” becomes a powerful, even radical act. Whether we are elected leaders or simply inspired neighbors, whether our efforts of inclusion are reciprocated or not, we can help, as deliberative scholars advise, “keep the conversation going.”
Democracy is a “we,” not a “they.” Especially at the local level, inclusion does not simply mean everyone is “represented,” it means offering authentic opportunities for people to be involved individually and personally. In this and the two following posts I’ll revisit slow democracy’s three elements of inclusion, deliberation, and power. Just as slow food embraces the uniqueness of local ingredients, there’s no single recipe for engagement that works everywhere, but we’ll explore practices you can consider when working toward sustainable local democracy.
Eleven Tips for Strengthening Inclusion
- Ask Yourself: Can My Efforts Benefit from Inclusion?
Whether we know it or not, we often target our communication to a specific audience. For instance, if I’m trying to create a new local park, it might seem obvious to generate help from my environmentalist allies. Thus, I might frame my park proposal around the value of parks in fighting pollution. To spice it up, I might even toss in some clip-art showing animals choking on smog and people hugging trees.
If I do so, in gaining support from one sector I may turn off or even generate opposition from another. I may increase polarization.
Polarization is enormously valuable for mobilizing action. A polarizing message can garner immediate, short-term involvement, and commitment to a single answer. Polarization and outrage go hand-in-hand.
But there are times when this divisiveness is not useful. Researchers have long understood that polarization is counterproductive when we are trying to assimilate new information. Ironically, in our passion to create action, our divisive message can reinforce inaction. Polarization is antithetical to long-term collaboration, especially if we’re trying to generate new answers together. Incorporating diverse perspectives informs, enriches and strengthens community efforts.
That’s why outreach for inclusion is different. Slow democracy is not about framing to win, but framing to help new solutions emerge. Slow democracy is not “ A versus B”; it’s “Let’s co-create C.”
What might this look like? When the creators of the bridge-building group Living Room Conversations first attempted to convene liberals and conservatives, organizer Joan Blades suggested focusing the discussion on climate change. Her conservative co-organizer warned her that this framing would be a non-starter with her conservative friends. Convening instead on the more broadly appealing theme “energy independence/climate change” created more diverse attendance. The resulting conversations revealed alignment around increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. And perhaps as importantly, participants discovered they liked each other, with the majority expressing interest in continuing with similar conversations. Still going strong after more than a decade, Living Room Conversations has created discussion guides on over 100 topics, offering skills and models for everyday folks to find connection across divides.
- Consider: Are You Ready for Inclusion?
Check in with yourself: Are you ready to invite people who may not share your values?
In their valuable Bridging Differences Playbook, UC Berkeley researchers note, “not everyone can or should be a Bridge Builder, or feel compelled to build bridges in every situation. … It’s ethically dubious—and, research suggests, often counterproductive—to ask people to bridge differences when they’re being discriminated against or otherwise denied social power.”
While the researchers outline skills for communication among people and groups, they correctly urge us to begin from within. Inclusion involves risks—risking conflict, risking rejection, and risking encountering ideas that might even change your views. Unlike pure advocacy, inclusion work will mean building our personal capacity to see past differences and listen mindfully, not to persuade but to understand.
Note: If you do move forward with inviting people with radically different views, you’ll need to set up clear ground rules, and possibly employ a trained facilitator to design a process to ensure constructive communication. We’ll address these points in a future post about deliberation.
- Examine Community History. In many circles the word “inclusion” is bundled with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work. DEI efforts aim to address historical inequalities and discrimination against marginalized communities like people of color, people with disabilities, or low-income people. In your community, whose voice is often missing in decision-making processes? In some places, historic biases center on race, class, or religion; in others, patterns may be as quirky and unique as family feuds or lingering neighborhood disputes. Everyone has blind spots, including (and maybe especially) long-time residents, which is why this next step is critical:
- Gather a Diverse Pre-Planning Team. Even before your first meeting, recruit community members from diverse backgrounds to help you plan for true inclusion.
You might begin one on one. Reach out to the head of a neighborhood group, a member of a church or mosque, or whatever populations you are hoping to engage—and sit down for coffee. Explain your project and inquire about whether you share common goals. Are there changes they would suggest? Request their reaction and, if they’re willing, their help.
Ask, from their perspective, how you can ensure everyone knows they’re welcome. What is the best way to frame your project? What publicity and event locations are most accessible and appealing? These diverse insights will be invaluable in creating inclusive communication and venues.
- Ask: Are We All Here? At your first, and every other gathering, look around the room and invite everyone to consider: Are we all here? Together, compile a list of the diverse participation you’re seeking. It’s likely to range from broad categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, and age, to considerations specific to your community, such as geography or political affiliations. How will you reach artists, local officials, farmers, immigrants and new residents, students, night-shift workers, homeless people, folks who don’t use the internet? Do you want to tap those who don’t live in your community but have a stake there, such as business owners/employees or seasonal residents? You may wish to use asset mapping to strengthen your analysis.
Imagine if your organizing committee represented the full diversity of your community. Who would be there? While avoiding symbolic tokenism and the pitfall of expecting one person to “represent” everyone who shares their background, ask the group to think broadly about participation. Ideally, anyone looking at your organizing committee will recognize key aspects of themselves among the members.
- Frame for Connection. Slow democracy focuses on action that’s local. Our communities of place are, quite literally, our commons. A town or neighborhood offers an invitation to set aside our competing identities and focus instead on the connection we share—our common place—for the common good. Here, democracy can be scaled to allow residents to see how one person can make a difference. Here too, neighborly interactions can counteract and belie the stereotypes we project on each other.
What might this look like? Decatur, Georgia is a city of 25,000 just outside of Atlanta. The city’s strategic plan prioritizes encouraging “racial, ethnic, economic, cultural, and other types of diversity,” but city leaders wanted this goal to be more than words on a page. The city launched an inclusive, deliberative process led by a “Better Together Leadership Circle.” This committee’s efforts featured an extensive survey followed by facilitated community conversations on the topics of diverse participation, racially just policing, and affordable housing. The community was invited to review the priorities and action steps identified through the survey and discussions. With some 800 residents investing over 1,300 hours, the resulting action plan was endorsed by the city commissioners in 2015, and featured dozens of specific steps that individuals, organizations, and local government could take to “encourage a diverse and engaged community.” An ongoing citizen advisory board guides the city in implementing the steps.
- Set Specific Inclusion Goals. Suppose your committee is planning their kick-off event to launch a new park project. Rather than simply hope folks show up, let’s get specific. How many people do you hope will attend? What percentage might be students, families, seniors? (Check the list you created under #5.) Set numerical goals and plan how you’ll meet them. Assign individuals from your planning committee to reach out personally to key populations. At your next meeting, check on progress.
- Consider Language and Images. Moral psychology research indicates that values that appeal to you may trigger aversion among others; for instance, experience has taught some liberal bridge-builders about key terms to avoid if they want to engage conservatives. Do a test-run with your inclusion team—do your words and images truly have general appeal?
In all outreach, be certain that the information you provide is reliable. Well framed, accurate information will be critical to the next step—deliberation—so it’s never too early to triple-check content.
- Remove Barriers to Participation. Not everyone learns the same way, so use a variety of types of outreach and gatherings. Aim for at least three different ways a resident might have engaged with your efforts. In-person and online engagement each has its merits and flaws, so use both. Weekday, weekend, and evening events will each attract their own audiences, so try for variety. Your efforts might range from written tools (newsletters, posters), to online/social media, to face-to-face (tabling at events, going door-to-door), to family-friendly field trips, to cartoons, and beyond.
Are your location and materials accessible to all? Consider needs for physical accessibility, adequate sound, and translation. Can you offer childcare, transportation to your event, or (for virtual events) help with online access? Might it be possible to offer stipends for participation? Your diverse planning team will help you prioritize.
- Have Fun! Take a tip from Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a Colorado-based “civic health club” working to prove that civic life “doesn’t have to be boring and hard.” Offering free cookies is just the beginning of their welcoming, creative ideas: “Civic Stitch & Bitch” offers moderated discussions on hot political topics, but with simultaneous craft-making to cut down on pontificating. “The Huddle” is a gathering to watch Thursday night football, but time-outs are used to discuss the social issues in professional sports. And how about their “How to Survive A Zombie Apocalypse” event (complete with costumes) to encourage emergency preparedness?
- Take Heart. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a big crowd at first. Surveys show that when people have heard about a local project and have felt invited, it helps them feel part of their community—even if they don’t participate. Just inviting people strengthens community.
Deliberative democracy can be an antidote to incivility, a key element of sustainability, and a way to be part of the solution. And it begins with inclusion.
 Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)
 Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021).
 See the Bridge Alliance: https://www.bridgealliance.us/.
 Public Agenda, America’s Hidden Common Ground on Renewing Democracy, July 19, 2021; https://www.publicagenda.org/reports/renewing-democracy/.
 Will Friedman and David Schleifer, “Hidden Common Ground: Why Americans Aren’t as Divided on Issues as We Appear To Be,” USAToday, April 27, 2021; https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/04/27/case-unity-americans-arent-divided-issues-appears-column/7190411002/.
 Scholar/practitioners Renee Heath and Jennifer L. Borda’s question “Will the conversation continue?” emphasizes the role of civility, not to quell divisions but to undergird constructive conflict. See their research at https://delibdemjournal.org/article/id/976/.
 Scott Shigeoka et al., Bridging Differences Playbook, University of California/Berkeley Greater Good Science Center (date unknown), p. 11; https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Bridging_Differences_Playbook-Final.pdf.
 For valuable insights on this topic see The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement published by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University (2016):
 For a history of this project, see https://www.everyday-democracy.org/stories/decatur-and-beyond-it-all-starts-conversation. The full Better Together Community Action Plan for Equity, Inclusion, and Engagement adopted by Decatur in December 2015 can be found at https://www.decaturga.com/sites/default/files/fileattachments/better_together_advisory_board/page/7224/better_together_community_action_plan_for_equity_inclusion_and_engagement.pdf.
Teaser photo credit: Wikimedia