Act: Inspiration

Democracy Rising 19: Dialogue in Dixie

May 19, 2022

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. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

 Democracy Rising 19

 Dialogue in Dixie

The literal heart of Dixie (the U.S. Deep South) is the very last place one might expect to see a community rallying around the idea of acceptance and inclusivity—especially if the community is a small town in Alabama declaring itself a safe, nurturing, and inviting space for LGBTQ+ individuals. But in April 2018 that is exactly what happened when the Montevallo City Council adopted a non-discrimination ordinance protecting the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ population, becoming only the second city in the state to do so.

As the mayor of Montevallo, the only Alabama city with a public liberal arts university, I was not at all surprised that our loving, progressive community would adopt such an ordinance. What did come as a surprise was the complexity of the journey we would all make to secure this passing. While frustrating and painful at times, it led to the informal adoption of a dialogue and deliberation process that would unlock wide-ranging citizen engagement opportunities throughout the remainder of my term.

The ordinance venture began when I was invited to attend a meeting of the Montevallo Acceptance Project, a local advocacy group for our LGBTQ+ population. The agenda included the presentation of appropriate terminology to use when referring to LGBTQ+ individuals. I appreciated this, particularly from a special educator’s perspective, because our profession strongly promotes the use of People First language, fully acknowledging the power of words and labels.  After an hour or so,  I thanked the attendees for inviting me and asked the obvious question: “As the mayor of the city in which most of you reside, what can I do to support you?” It took only a few sidebar conversations for one of the attendees to talk with me about the significance of passing a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) in Montevallo. I asked why it was needed, assuming (falsely)  that Montevallo was already a welcoming community for our LGBTQ+ population. At this point, many in attendance recounted stories of rejection and perceived discrimination based on their status as LGBTQ+ people. I was both heartbroken and fiercely committed to putting the issue before our city council for consideration. Then I made my second very wrong assumption, adding it to the city council agenda in January 2017 because I absolutely knew in my heart that our progressive council would embrace the opportunity to demonstrate Montevallo’s inclusivity by passing such an ordinance.

Not so fast. What I expected to be a matter of routine turned out to be a 16-month slog through trials and tribulations. The first discussions regarding the possible content of a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) prompted many citizens, and a few council members, to question the rationale and anticipate potential legal actions. Groups of citizens began attending council meetings to take the allotted three minutes apiece to support or oppose the proposal. After several months of discussion, we landed on an ordinance that was deemed appropriate by all attorneys and key stakeholders to present at a full council meeting. It was at this point that the robust passions of the community either for or against an NDO were unleashed. Individuals who supported the ordinance stated their need for protection and assurance that this community truly embraced and supported them. Those opposed to the ordinance expressed fear that males would dress as females and hide in the restroom to violate young girls. Everyone who spoke expressed fears that came from an authentic place worthy of a response.

Fortuitously, during this time a team from our city was participating in a community politics learning exchange with the Kettering Foundation. We were invited as one of four communities across the county to identify a “wicked” problem in our community and establish deliberative convenings to explore possible solutions. We selected “education from cradle to career.” Despite being a college town, Montevallo’s K–12 educational system was not touted for its excellence, which tended to hold the city back from desired population growth. Through these meetings, 16 community members engaged in workshops to learn more about the deliberative process and its applicability in our community. Based on this newfound understanding several elected officials and community leaders proposed applying this process to the LGBTQ+ non-discrimination ordinance issue.

Two months after presenting the first version of the NDO to the council, the city invited 20 community members to participate in a “naming and framing” discussion to name the central issue of focus and discuss perceived benefits, drawbacks, and mechanisms of action. The guest list intentionally included an equal number of citizens who leaned in opposite directions as well as a limited number of council members (so as not to constitute a quorum). We engaged the David Mathews Center for Civic Life and a few university students to convene the meeting and take notes. There were hugs, tears, and words of both affirmation and anger throughout the meeting, but ultimately we were able to coalesce around the belief that protecting the civil rights of citizens was important, and that there were a number of different ways to provide this protection. From that discussion, we developed an issues guide to use in future public convenings. The issues guide presented three options for discussion: Establish laws that ensure fairness and justice; focus on citizen relationships, not new laws; and mobilize, organize, and educate.

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In preparation for the subsequent convening—a community forum—we invited facilitators from across the state to serve as neutral parties, secured university faculty members who specialized in this area, and engaged other university students to assist with taking notes. We were fully prepared for our typical attendance of approximately 60 or so. As the hour ticked closer to 6:00 p.m., over 130 people entered the building ready for some dialogue. We quickly realized that we were not quite as prepared as we thought. There were three rooms available for the meetings, with one or two facilitators in each room. They each patiently commenced with the agenda but were caught a bit off guard by the number of individuals and the intense emotions. One couple chastised a young lady for the way she was dressed. Other attendees cited biblical references asserting that homosexuality was a sin.

In spite of the conflicts we experienced in the discussions, follow-up survey results revealed that 96 percent of those in attendance agreed that all people, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, deserve to feel and be safe, supported, and affirmed. These results, in addition to the interactions at the forums, made it abundantly clear that there was much work to be done in Montevallo with respect to inclusivity.  As the top elected official, I felt that was what I signed up to do. After reviewing the results of the survey as well as the composition of the attendees, we realized that we had a vocal minority in attendance who were opposed to the ordinance. That minority clashed with the majority of attendees who supported it. We understood that we needed to more intentionally balance the invitees and clarify and administer concrete procedures and for future discussions. I started slow and easy, hosting two separate breakfasts with about eight guests each, to discuss community inclusivity as a whole and the specific issue of the LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination ordinance. Both meals were productive, engaging, and enlightening. During each breakfast, participants effectively communicated their feelings about the ordinance in the presence of those who shared their perspective as well as fears. This enabled me as a community leader to more clearly understand the basis of their support for or opposition to the proposed ordinance. Shortly thereafter, I invited three attendees from each breakfast, along with a council member, to join me at the university cafeteria. I set one basic ground rule: we were there simply to get to know each other, not to discuss the ordinance. When a person deviated in that direction, I quickly reeled them back.  We spent over an hour talking about our families, family structures, personal backgrounds, beliefs, and what was important to us about community. As the hour inched closer to my university class meeting time I attempted to bring the breakfast to a close and slip out. My departure announcement was pretty much ignored; the attendees just turned back to their neighbors and kept chatting. As I left the cafeteria I saw my Baptist friend talking with my transgender friend and my conservative Presbyterian pastor friend chatting with the chair of PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). To me, this was the most profound and pivotal moment in our journey toward equity through dialogue and deliberation and literally brought a tear to my eye.

The city later drafted a new ordinance reflective of the commentary and written feedback provided during city council meetings, convenings, and informal gatherings. The university hosted a panel discussion in December 2017 that, while not having a community engagement focus, did provide a platform to present differing sides of the topic. However, while very well-orchestrated, the panel did not result in any follow-up action.

In February 2018 the University of Montevallo and the City of Montevallo hosted a final community forum focused on LGBTQ+ rights in general but including opportunities to discuss the proposed ordinance. It was open to all and drew approximately 80 attendees. For this larger gathering we had a limited number of unpaid professional facilitators who were tasked with assigning and instructing additional citizen facilitators at each table to lead smaller conversations and ultimately report back to the larger group. We had a detailed facilitators guide, complete with ground rules for group discussion, that was reviewed with the facilitators in advance. We used the following questions to inform our dialogue:

  • Are there parts of the ordinance you like?
  • What changes would you suggest to make it better?
  • What are your “must haves” and “must not haves”?

The dialogue as a whole, intended to capture a representative sample of community input, flowed smoothly in most rooms. This time the audience was more balanced in their views, due to the use of an intentional invitation process. The meeting hosts reached out both to those who were opposed to the ordinance and had concerns about its possible impact on the safety of the community, and to supporters of an ordinance to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ population.

Upon completion of the multi-meeting convening process, the ordinance was revised in accordance with comments from the attendees. As an example, the ordinance originally indicated that a panel of citizens would receive complaints and investigate them. One concern was that this would pit citizen against citizen, so that protocol was altered to start with the city clerk, who would evaluate the basis of the claim and determine if it met the criteria to submit to the municipal court officer.

Importantly, 98 percent of those who completed the post-convening survey indicated that they would be willing to participate in forums on other issues being considered in the community. While the NDO issue was of utmost significance to those who participated in this process, the process itself was proven to be a solid mechanism to inform policy decisions.

April 23, 2018, marked a time in Montevallo’s history when we truly demonstrated our commitment to diversity and inclusivity. In a 4 to 2 vote, the Montevallo City Council approved the second non-discrimination ordinance to grace the state of Alabama.  Not everyone in attendance was happy with this outcome, but every citizen had an opportunity to have their voice heard—and to hear others. The opportunity for dialogue and deliberation opened the hearts and minds of citizens to new possibilities of communication and governance with the leadership.

Citizens and city leadership continued using this model to address other issues that the community deemed critical. Forums were hosted on our cradle-to-career focus as well as recycling, animal tethering, and even crime reduction. While Montevallo is by no means claiming to be a model community for civil discourse or dialogue and deliberation, at those times we did pride ourselves on demonstrating that people can come together to discuss some fairly wicked issues using exceedingly civil means.

Artwork credit: Andrew Cost


Teaser photo credit: Main Hall. B in Montevallo. By Jet Lowe – (cropped), Public Domain,

Hollie Cost

Hollie Cost, Ph.D., is the Assistant Vice President of University Outreach and Public Service at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. She was the mayor of the Montevallo, Alabama, from 2012 until 2020, beginning her civic service as a Montevallo city council member in 2004. Her current projects include remapping Alabama’s system of providing government identifications to individuals who are incarcerated and increasing healthcare access across rural Alabama. She is a graduate of Leadership Alabama XXVIII and serves on the boards of directors for the National Issues Forum Institute and the David Mathews Center for Civic Life.

Tags: building resilient societies, deliberative democracy, inclusivity