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Message from AmericaSpeaks on the 2-Year Anniversary of Listening to the City

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Director of AmericaSpeaks, sent a special message to the AmericaSpeaks network on July 20 – the two year anniversary of Listening to the City, the largest town meeting ever held. This edition of AmericaSpeaks Network News shares the stories, perspectives and impact of the facilitators who came from all across the country to help people deliberate about the redevelopment of the World Trade Center Site after the September 11th attacks. Click below to read this amazing message.

AmericaSpeaks Network News | No. 7 v. 3, July 20, 2004

Though AmericaSpeaks events are often large-scale, they cultivate an incredible depth of dialogue among individuals with the help of skilled facilitators. Your contributions, as a trained and experienced facilitator are essential in guiding participants’ deliberations throughout the course of the day. In order to balance the diversity of personalities, viewpoints, backgrounds, and opinions, it is important to have one neutral person encouraging everyone at the table to share his or her voice on the issue. It is this that allows us to be confident that all voices are heard in our large-scale meetings, and to know that the policy priorities that are set are for the good of all. We at AmericaSpeaks deeply appreciate all of the contributions of facilitators, and your efforts supporting the rich interactions among participants that are at the heart of deliberative democratic process.

Many who have facilitated table discussions at AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meetings have expressed how powerful the experience has been for them. I am thankful that so many of you both stay in contact, and continue to volunteer your talents to this work.

On this second anniversary of Listening to the City, the largest town meeting ever held, I am delighted to celebrate the generosity, talent, and commitment of our facilitators.

Warm regards,
Carolyn

LISTENING TO THE CITY: THE TWO-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

Thanks to all of the former facilitators who shared their stories for this piece, particularly the significant contributions from Ilona Birenbaum, Andrew Cohn, Mary Collins, Dana Dolsen, Ruth Dubinsky, Sheila Pidgeon Hill, Toni Johnson, Wendy Kuhn, Carol Lauder, James Scheier, Don Straus, and Erin Uritus.

On July 20, 2002, 4,500 people gathered at the Javits Center in New York to discuss the redevelopment of the World Trade Center Site, and to rebuild a sense of strength and unity as a people, following the single deadliest attack on American soil in the country’s history.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, thousands of Americans flooded blood donation centers seeking a way to assist in the tragedy, to show solidarity with their fallen fellow citizens. Nine months later professional facilitators from across the country traveled to New York City to help guide thousands of New Yorkers through the process of dialogue and sharing around their values, hopes, and needs for the rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers once stood.

That was Listening to the City. Now, two years later, we listen to them.

THE CALL GOES CROSS-COUNTRY

News of the call for table facilitators for the 5,000-person New York meeting trickled through professional facilitation networks such as International Association for Public Participation and the International Association of Facilitators, and well as more local professional connections. Uncompensated, facilitators from all 50 states and several foreign countries offered up their professional skills to take part in the event. One woman heard about the meeting from her mother, with whom she ultimately facilitated on the day of the event.

For most facilitators, the choice to volunteer their time and services—to come from Utah, California, Washington, DC, or Australia to take part in Listening to the City—was an easy decision. Some felt a personal connection to the people and city of New York; as Toni Johnson said, “Having lived in the New York area, and visited the World Trade Center many times in my life with my daughter, and then when I remarried…I took my new husband to the city. The World Trade Center was a special place that represented so many things to me.” More than anything, facilitators expressed their sincere desire to assist those affected by 9/11, to be a part of an effort “so profoundly important to our nation.”

“I would do it again in a New York Minute!”
– Wendy Kuhn, Raleigh, North Carolina

A UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION BY A UNIQUE GROUP

Along with their polished professional skills, personal experiences of loss and grief, understanding of how to cope with unexpected change, and openness to help were added dimensions that many facilitators offered to the event. Two facilitators spoke of the change in perspective that 9/11 brought for personal tragedies of losing 20+ year careers, and the deaths of loved ones. Says one, “With all of [my] loss, change, and renewal, I understood at a very deep level the impact of the events of 9/11 to those not only in the close proximity, but throughout the world.” “I realized that life would go on,” another added. “I would survive and possibly be better, but it took 9/11 for me to come to this realization.”

Confident in their ability to contribute dispute resolution skills, others held no expectations, but were grateful to have a venue through which to aid New Yorkers. Says Dana Dolsen, “As a professionally trained facilitator, I was hopeful that I could help people relate to one another in unity; help them see and realize their opportunity to be a part of something bigger…and contribute to the collaborative social-economic effort for Lower Manhattan and the greater NY-NJ area.”

“Listening to the City participation for me as a facilitator was a true gift. I wish to thank AmericaSpeaks, the LMDC, and the Port Authorities of NY/NJ, as well as the hundreds and thousands of people who helped make this democratic…process a reality – may there be a new way for our republic to reinvent itself through your efforts!”
– Dana Dolsen, Holladay, Utah

THE DAY ARRIVES

Universally, facilitators expressed their excitement the morning of Listening to the City, as well as some anxiety about living up to the challenge that lay before them. The sheer numbers of people gathered was a first shock to many, a shock which for many melted into amazement at the use of technology to synthesize the data from tables and immediately display responses and demographics. “The technology used to enter information from each table was very effective in giving the pulse of the room to all participants…As they listened to each other and how they were affected by 9/11 and they got the collective answers to the questions that were posted on the big screens and shared verbally they opened up to seeing things differently,” observed Carol Lauder.

“People loved having their voices heard so quickly and seeing feedback,” wrote Andrew Cohn. “I really think that the people at my table felt included in an important civic event, and privileged to give their feedback to specific plans and ideas.” “The emotional level was powerful,” said James Scheier. The meeting was not unmarred, however. Scheier also opined that the meeting “fell short in that the discussion on the five options was doomed from the start. With five choices there was no way any one could be selected…no one understood what the conceptual diagrams meant.”

Ultimately all of the originally proposed plans were rejected, and policy makers re-opened the search for architects with designs that could accommodate the input received at Listening to the City. As Wendy Kuhn exclaimed, “THEY CHANGED THEIR MINDS!”

At Listening to the City participants urged their leaders to think boldly, be imaginative and above all, to chart a course that honors the victims and the heroes of September 11 with dignity. They called on government officials and planning agencies to seek ways of rebuilding not just ‘ground zero,’ but also the neighborhoods around it…they stressed the need to make much-needed housing and transportation infrastructure improvements in Lower Manhattan and beyond. (Listening to the City Executive Summary, Mike Markowitz)

“It was wonderful…I cannot thank the people of NYC and Listening to the City [enough] for allowing me to be part of history. I will never forget it.”
– Mary Collins, Huntington Beach, California

AT THE TABLES

The 21st Century Town Meeting™ design calls for demographic diversity not just on the meta-level of an event, but at each table as well, to ensure rich discussions that weigh the opinions of different constituents with different backgrounds, needs, and perspectives. While many of the demographic goals relate to census statistics, some projects call for consideration of additional information. At Listening to the City it was essential to ensure appropriate representation of survivors and family members of victims. While this group represents a relatively small proportion of people in the New York City area, their presence was of the utmost importance in this particular context, and project organizers made sure that a survivor or family member of a victim was represented at each table.

At Carol Lauder’s table were siblings who had lost their sister due to 9/11. “[She] had been burned with jet fuel while waiting for a bus at Ground Zero. She lived 45 days before she died…There was [also] a gentleman who should have been in the South Tower, but didn’t make it to work on time.” “They were all very considerate and respectful to one another’s viewpoints,” observed Dana Dolsen. “Often they would empathize with each other and in general they were hopeful for a better future.” The event was not bereft of tumult, however. Lauder also had to manage a belligerent and threatening participant who was ultimately removed from the table. “She…made a scene and had greatly upset the brother and sister who lost their sibling. It wasn’t appropriate for her to be allowed to stay at the event.”

Despite the emotional tone of the event, people clearly discussed—and often disagreed—on the direction for rebuilding. Andrew Cohn’s table exemplifies this dichotomy of opinion: “There was a woman at my table who lived in Lower Manhattan and who was committed to low-income housing being built in the area. She also did not support the construction of huge commercial buildings in the area. She thought that building there would be an invitation to future terrorist attacks. At the same time there was a man at the table who came with his two young teenage children; he told me he wanted them to be part of this historic event. He believed that the new buildings should be monumental—very tall and very bold—as if in defiance of the terrorists…They cooperatively heard each other and actively participated…I believe that the diversity of their views benefited them both.”

“The counselors who were available for the rest of us…were wonderful… It was so affirming to the participants to see what the room as a whole was experiencing. It was a tremendous experience that I’ll never forget.”
– Carol Lauder, Austin, Texas

A LASTING IMPACT

Like many Americans, facilitators at Listening to the City were touched by 9/11 in a way that made them want to act, and contribute their time and energy to efforts that they thought were making a difference. For many, that sense of a call to action has stayed with them in the intervening years.

Many contributors shared the sense of transformation that some facilitators noted among participants in Listening to the City. Wendy Kuhn noted an “internal feeling of faith in the process and a belief in my ability to participate successfully.” Lauder agreed, noting, “I brought home hope and renewed belief in sharing and listening…[Listening to the City] helped me believe in the process of sharing and listening to others.”

Says Ilona Birenbaum, “I am an organizational development consultant, and was fairly frustrated with all the work that I was doing within large corporations. When I went to New York City for Listening to the City, I was at a real cross roads in my career…I was not sure if I wanted to keep doing the work that I have always done. My experience in New York City really changed my perspective and gave me a new-found appreciation for the impact that organizational skills can have on a ‘greater good.’ I have since started my own consulting firm, The Wynhurst Group.”

“It had an overwhelming impact on my life. I want to do more to get involved helping,” says Mary Collins. Since Listening to the City, Dana Dolsen has sought “to play a role to bring people together on issues, to…deliberate, contemplate, and ponder the opportunities and actions that can be taken by each of us as a citizen of this country.” After the event, she says, “I brought with me…a pride in citizenship and a renewed commitment to world unity.” For Wendy Kuhn, she now has “a stronger belief in the power of people to change public policy.”

Sheila Pidgeon Hill spoke eloquently about the impact that Listening to the City had on her sense of civic responsibility. “Whenever I reflect on the privilege of facilitating at Listening to the City, I am struck by what a gift it was to me, both professionally and personally. The experience infused me with renewed civic energy, and a re-commitment to being a more responsible member of this democracy of ours, even in small ways.

“I live in the quintessential ‘small town in New England,’” she continued. “Democracy takes form via hand votes at annual town meetings, often accompanied by spirited debates from the floor. This past year, I had the opportunity to stand and speak my small truth in opposition to…an extravagant and environmentally disastrous school construction project. My brief statement seemed to make the room safe for others to voice responsible “No”s. [After this], momentum shifted, and we were able to defeat a $35 million override that would have bankrupted our small town. I was relieved to be able do such a very simple thing—an ‘in the present moment’ thing, a Listening to the City-thing—that was necessary to restore balanced citizen participation on the issue.”

“I remember walking back across the city in the drizzling rain from the Javits Center to Lexington Avenue thinking and feeling, ‘I’ve just contributed to something very powerful.’ I knew that an event like this required the time and energy of literally hundreds of volunteers and I was really happy to be one of them. And I felt (and still feel) most grateful to the leaders of this event for making it all happen. What I did was easy.” Andrew Cohn, Wynneword, Pennsylvania

BREAKING GROUND

Following the Listening to the City event, AmericaSpeaks worked with a team from the Civic Alliance to code data and produce a final report of the meeting. On behalf of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, AmericaSpeaks convened 6 public hearings on the six concept plans after the meeting for all 5 boroughs and one in the state of New Jersey.

As a direct result of the feedback received from citizens at Listening to the City and these public hearings, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation decided to initiate an international design competition, which received thousands of entries. Nine plans were selected in December 2002, and AmericaSpeaks was asked to do a large public hearing in January of 2003 for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, connecting the 5 boroughs using teleconferencing; we declined due to concerns about whether the LMDC’s intended approach would provide real opportunities for deliberation and citizen input. Daniel Libeskind ultimately won the design competition.

The planning process has proceeded along the track set in the wake of Listening to the City, and the cornerstone of the 1776-foot Freedom Tower was laid on July 4, 2004, in a ceremony attended by Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg, among others. When complete, the tower will be the world’s largest building.

The Freedom Tower is expected to reach completion in 2008, and will encompass 72 stories and contain 2.6 million square feet of office space, and feature a rooftop restaurant and observation deck. Steel latticework will comprise the remaining 1500 feet. The building will connect directly to the World Trade Center PATH Station and to New York City subway lines. It is estimated that construction on the entire site is will create an average of 8,000 full-time jobs each year until 2015.

The inscription on the corner stone reads, “To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001 and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom –July Fourth, 2004.”

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher is the Founding Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute, and also serves as a Research Deputy for the Kettering Foundation. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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