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 second of a five-part sub-series augmenting the themes introduced in Democracy Rising 11. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

 Democracy Rising 13

 Getting Started with Dialogue and Deliberation, Part 2

Bloom where you are planted.[i]

As explained in Part 1, the deliberations of citizens are a kind of “ecological filter” that when applied at any level can improve our democracy. Simply beginning a discussion that moves beyond “likes” and sharing on social media, and beyond the venting and complaining that characterizes much of our political discussion, changes the way you interact with your environment and has the potential to positively change that environment as well so that more deliberative dialogue occurs.  That in turn helps heal relationships and allow for productive action.

The first step in deciding where and how to start with deliberative dialogue is to ask, what is your environment and how are you placed and rooted in it? You likely already have an intuitive sense of how you might answer these questions. But to help organize your thinking and share your thoughts with others, it might be helpful to review the following questions and make some notes.

First, who do you interact with?

  • Who are your family, friends, and professional colleagues?
  • What groups, organizations, or institutions do you belong to? This might include a Scout troop, a baby-sitting circle, a congregation, a neighborhood association, or a professional networking group.
  • How connected or involved are you with these?
  • What individuals or groups are you indirectly connected with? Each of the individuals and groups that you identify has their own relationships and networks.
  • And then, what are the key individuals and groups that are active in your community’s public discussions and decision making? How do those overlap with the individuals and groups you are connected to? What individuals and groups are disengaged? Why?

This set of questions helps you define your immediate sphere of influence and who might work with you, either now or in the future. As you think through the questions, take notes on what connections might help with recruitment and outreach now and down the road.

Second, what issues or ideas dominate your community’s discussions?

  • What topics draw most attention across your sphere of influence? How long does that attention last? Are people willing to dig into the facts and discuss over time, or does discussion generally flare around a current outrage and then move on?
  • What topics are avoided? Or occur only in certain circles while being ignored in others?
  • Are there issues that frequently come together in tension (example: economic development and equity)? If so, are the tensions and trade-offs clearly discussed and resolved when needed, or does one interest regularly trump the other as discussions draw to a close? Are certain topics simply ignored or avoided when introduced? Note that when similar issue conflicts occur over and over, that is a clue that the root causes of the conflict (whether differences in information, interests, or values) are not being adequately addressed. You might flag those issues or arguments that are currently “hot” and those that arise repeatedly. Then group these into broad areas like “development,” “safety and justice,” “resource allocation,” etc. If useful, you could then analyze what groups tend to be involved in each area.
  • Also consider whether the alliances or interactions between different groups shift depending on the issues, and if so how.

This set of questions helps you analyze what people are paying attention to and why. It gives you some sense of their interests and values, and also helps you think about inter-relationships between ideas and people, and what causes shifts.[ii]

Third, how is information shared within your sphere of influence and within the broader community?

  • Do people congregate and think together easily, or is information on various issues shared primarily through social media? Is there a mix?
  • Is there a local newspaper, radio station, or television station with an audience?
  • How robust are connections among civic leaders, whether through a Chamber of Commerce; civic groups like Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis; inter-faith associations; or other networks?[iii]
  • How, and how well, do government entities communicate with both civic leaders and with the public?
  • How accurate or trusted is the information shared through these different mediums in both your sphere of influence and in the broader community?

This third set of questions will help you think about how you might raise awareness of, or share information on, your concerns and how readily that information might be accepted. If you are focused on starting dialogues around a specific issue, the first three questions will help you identify potential participants and also help you think about how you might frame an invitation. All of the questions in this set will help inform you as to how hard you might need to work to start a dialogue. Stated another way, as you begin your work of change will you be planting in fertile soil or digging in hard rock? In this context, the “ground” you are working with is the degree of trust and cohesion within the community. And if your ground has been poisoned by misinformation or hyperpartisanship you will need to remediate that before you can begin to grow your dialogue.[iv]

There are a number of things you can do “in the wetlands” to remediate or improve a community’s resilience and ability to accommodate change.[v] For instance you can engage on social media and blogs in ways that help build critical thinking skills,[vi] plant the seeds of new ideas,[vii] establish new relationships, or begin to weave new threads of trust between networks.[viii] Or you might teach a community class that has the same goals,[ix] or invite some neighbors over for coffee and ask them about their concerns.[x]  Working through the questions above will help you decide where you can best start to make a difference within your sphere of influence and using your own unique talents and experiences.

As you think about where and how to start, apply the “80/20” rule, which has been validated across a wide range of fields: 20 percent of the effort yields 80 percent of the return. In the wetlands there are always multiple points of intervention, so you want to think about at which point your interests, skill sets, and connections will get you the highest rate of return. Also remember that all change is incremental, so you can start with very little and then build from there—as was illustrated in the Pritchard continuum example shared in the last post (one parent = a fruitcake; 50 parents = a powerful organization). You want to focus your starting efforts on where your return is likely to be higher, so as to avoid wasting energy and burn-out.

What if you are on your way to building that “powerful movement” and you want to move out of the wetlands and affect the “built environment” (defined here as the systems, procedures, and institutions that actually have the power to set policy and make decisions for your community)? That leads to another set of questions you might ask as you consider the interaction of the built environment and the broader community environment. Each community has a different mix of supporting and challenging factors that together create the overall environment for policy-making and public engagement. These factors include the people in the community, their past experiences and inter-relationships, their hopes and dreams, their culture, their degree of diversity (all of which are influenced by the wetlands’), existing structures for decision-making and information sharing, and available resources.[xi] So it’s useful to do a brief inventory of the factors that might help you move forward.

There are a number of factors that are assets when it comes to building deliberative dialogues across the community and working with others for positive change. These include high-quality, easily accessible, and generally accepted information sources, as well as the strong networks and positive relationships you might have identified in your earlier analysis.  Other assets to look for include:

  • Monetary and in-kind resources – These naturally affect what can be put toward a solution. If you can use a nonprofit or individual’s Zoom account, find free meeting space in a religious or government building, and find an on-line or physical space to store information, you can get going on a shoe-string.
  • Process skills – These include skills and experience in the areas of listening, articulation, and critical thinking as well as process planning. Deliberative dialogue is a learned skill that is often at odds with modern political culture, and it will help to have some people who are familiar with it or who have the temperament to naturally use and encourage it. I will discuss dialogue processes more in Part 3.
  • Vision – A shared vision for the future helps parties move forward. Its absence means you may need to take time to discuss hopes, fears, direction, and goals. If you don’t, differences in those areas will be indirectly contested as participants debate informational or interest-based issues, and that can lead to unnecessary conflict.
  • Sense of community- Shared interests and values, or a shared history or sense of place, can provide a starting point and compass for engaging.
  • Past experience – Parties that have had successful past experience solving problems together are more willing to try again.
  • Leadership – Consistent, persistent, collaborative, and accountable leaders are needed to help move through difficult issues, particularly when the issues are complex and inter-related.
  • Governance systems – When both the formal and informal systems for information exchange, budgeting, decision-making, implementation, and evaluation are well integrated, navigation is much smoother than when these systems have different inputs and frequent disconnects. I will discuss this further in Part 4.
  • Focus on a greater good – Parties who think systemically and are willing to work together to improve civic life or build a better system are an asset in any situation.

Negative factors relate to the frequency and intensity of conflicts in the community, and to an increasing inability to resolve issues that are identified. So look over your notes from the previous set of questions and think again about where conflict flares or is entrenched in your community’s environment.

As Susan Clark noted in Democracy Rising 6, many of our communities are missing the positive assets listed above, or are hobbled by the toxicity of hyper-partisanship:

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.”

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.

Note that in our communities, areas that are subject to tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, and other storm damage must also plan and build different types of housing than those that are not. The same applies to how you plan for dialogue. If the conflicts over issues in your communities are frequent and intense, or flare up unpredictably and in damaging ways, you will have to plan your approach more carefully. Reviewing your notes and discussing the questions above with others will help you identify any patterns of cause, frequency, and intensity of conflicts so you can plan for a resilient approach.[xii]

This may all sound daunting, but if you get started in a small way you will learn as you go along and build from there. Below are some examples, all drawn from real life, of ways in which an individual citizen stepped out into their environment, made connections, and built from that point to accomplish significant change.

Creating infrastructure: A school bond issue failed in one community after rapid growth brought many new people to town and the local paper, whose editor was promoting a newly opened private school, started running negative articles about the community’s public schools. A concerned parent, realizing that this was dividing the community, brought together other parents to talk about what was happening and their thoughts about the schools. As the parents talked, they shared the many good things they thought were happening in the schools and their dismay over the coverage. [xiii] As a result, they started a letter-writing and calling campaign to share the good news and rebut the reporting, which in fact led to a more even-handed approach. In turn this prompted more conversations among the parents and then to conversations with school officials and parent-teacher organizations who were reluctant to lobby in support of public education generally but were very encouraging of the idea that some group should do that. One parent suggested contacting the national Parents for Public Schools[xiv] organization about starting a local chapter, while another contacted a very well-connected civic leader and asked for help in inviting a range of groups and parents to an organizational meeting. A third parent volunteered to secure a church hall as a free meeting space.  Many diverse people from the community attended, and subsequently helped create the application for chapter status and agreed to volunteer in various ways, including serving on the board if chapter status were granted (which it was). The association with a national organization provided access to many resources and the credibility of a proven “brand.” Over the years this chapter helped inform the public on numerous bond issues and also to negotiate on such issues as curricula, attendance boundaries, and safety. The chapter’s strong relationships with parents, school officials, the parent-teacher associations, and other civic groups ensured that accurate information on these issues was disseminated throughout the community, and their “listening sessions” ensured that a wide range of voices was heard. This in turn led to the identification and implementation of pragmatic solutions when issues arose and strong support of the schools, shown by ongoing public approval of bond issues when needed.

Active outreach and inclusion: Following the 9/11 attacks and a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric, local clergy from various Christian denominations began inviting their Muslim and Jewish counterparts to visit and speak at their churches, and accepted return invitations. This led to a working group who reached out both to peace educators at a local college and another local group of attorney-mediators to discuss how to strengthen community bonds. This led to three years of well attended interfaith listening circles and other interfaith activities, including blood drives, a Habitat project, and the formation of a community children’s choir.[xv]  In later years when some politicians tried to use anti-Muslim appeals to gain partisan advantage, they were met with widespread condemnation and support for local families.

Using existing infrastructure in innovative ways:  Looking to broaden community discussions about rapid development beyond the carefully controlled sessions offered by the local city government, one citizen approached the local paper’s city editor about possibly covering some community-convened discussions on current issues. When those discussions proved fruitful and of interest to the reading public, the newspaper convened some panels of civic leaders to interact with the public at identified times through the “chat” software more often used by its sports reporters during games. This allowed more people to participate and brought new ideas and better understanding of public concerns—which in turn was reflected in the reporting on these issues.[xvi] Over time the paper developed a community discussion guide reflecting a range of views raised by citizens in the other forums.

Leveraging networks and laying a foundation for the future: A local architect spoke to everyone he could about environmental issues and the need to educate the next generation about them. Coincidentally a mobile schoolroom burned down at his grandson’s school and the school district did not have the funds to rebuild it. Sensing an opportunity, he offered to design an “eco-schoolhouse” that would replace the lost space and could also be used for environmental education. He reached out to his network of colleagues for in-kind donations of labor and materials. School advocates joined the project, and helped raise additional funds. When built, the eco-schoolhouse was the focus for additional conversations and progress toward environmental education.[xvii]

All of these efforts began with citizens looking around their environment, taking the opportunity to make a connection, and then building from there. You can do that too, where you are, and where you see a need to make a difference.

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Still wondering where or how you might start? Put questions or scenarios in the comments below and I will try to address them in later posts.

[i]Credited to Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva (b. 1567, d. 1622).

[ii] Stephen R. Carpenter and William A Brock,  “Adaptive Capacity and TrapsEcology and Society, vol. 13, issue 2 (2008).

[iii] S. Read and D. Overfelt, “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper,” originally published on the National Institute for Civic Discourse blog in 2013 (this blog seems to have disappeared, so link is to our blog).

[iv] See blog series “A Metaphor from the Midwest” on the Blog for Building Dialogue. For an additional view of how increasing partisanship poisons our democracy see ABA Res 108, which was passed by the American Bar Association in 2011.

[v] David Mathews, The Ecology of Democracy (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014). “Informal gatherings, ad hoc associations, and the seemingly innocuous banter that goes on when people mull over their everyday experiences appears inconsequential when compared to what happens in elections, legislative bodies, and courts.  Yet mulling over the day’s events at bus stops can be the wellspring of public decision making. Connections made in these informal gatherings can become the basis for civic networks, and the ad hoc associations formed there can morph into civic organizations.” (p. 26) “The political wetlands affect the way people habitually communicate with one another, which influences the nature of decision making. Who talks to whom about what is significant in politics? And the wetlands develop cultures that determine how well people learn from experiences and whether they change as their circumstances change.” (p. 27)

[vi] https://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/weeding-and-watching-part-1/ and https://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/weeding-and-watching-part-2/.

[vii] https://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/plant-the-seed-from-a-metaphor-a-midwest/.

[viii] https://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/trust-why-it-matters/; https://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/how-do-you-measure-trust/.

[ix] See samples of ripple mapping at https://ppe.cw.wsu.edu/ripple-effects-mapping/ and https://extension.umn.edu/community-development/ripple-effect-mapping/.

[x] See sample “neighbor to neighbor guide” here.

[xi] The civic health of a community is determined both by the level, intensity, and frequency of the conflicts that occur and the community’s “assets,” like shared vision, process skills, shared knowledge, and other factors that help it work through conflict. We created a formula and a workbook at The Communications Center, Inc. to allow you to “diagnose” and then track civic health over time. Analysis can help pinpoint where, when, and how to intervene. Sarah Read and Dave Overfelt, The Civic Health Diagnostic Workbook (AKA-Publishing, 2013). The list of assets in the paragraphs that follow is drawn from the Workbook.

[xii] There are some good tools on the Resilience.org website; click here to explore. Additional tools can be found in Sarah Read, Dealing with Disruptors (Facilitation Analytics, 2016).

[xiii] Identifying past steps to success, even if they are small ones, and celebrating with gratitude can be a powerful tactic to reorient a divisive, negative discussion in the community and create a narrative that unifies and leads to more positive action.

[xiv] https://parents4publicschools.org/.

[xv] https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/a-chorus-of-peace/article_23682a97-1499-53fa-8501-3c00ab82bfea.html/.

[xvi] https://1community1columbia.com/2016/08/15/host-a-dialogue/https://1community1columbia.com/2016/01/04/whats-happened-so-far/.

[xvii] https://pwarchitects.com/portfolio-items/the-eco-schoolhouse/https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/in-eco-schoolhouse-its-easy-learning-to-be-green/article_9fd26596-38f2-55ce-9423-a6f962afcfa1.html/.

 

Teaser photo credit: By Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg: Constitutional Conventionderivative work: Bluszczokrzew (talk) – Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11078481