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The Compost of Disagreement: Creating Safe Spaces for Engagement and Action

The 6-page article, The Compost of Disagreement: Creating Safe Spaces for Engagement and Action (2014), by Michele Holt-Shannon and Bruce Mallory, was published in Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 10: Iss. 1. The authors describe the experience coordinating the New Hampshire Listens campaign to address the growing concern around aggressive and combative many public events were becoming from mid-1990s and on. Over years of experience, they found that the more diverse and varied the participants and experiences, the richer the conversation that would emerge. And in order to do so, it is vital to create spaces that are safe for all parties involved, in order for transformative dialogue to take place.

Find the PDF available for download from the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the article…

We understand that one of the most important contributions we can make to public life is to create safe spaces where diverse points of view can be expressed, deeply held differences can be explored, and the potential for discovering common ground amidst the cacophony can be nourished. The work runs counter to the natural tendency to want to “manage difference” or find “consensus” or help everyone to “just get along.” Paradoxically, we use the tools of deliberation to uncover those things that divide in order to find a shared path forward.

We could think about this uncovering and exploration as working the community compost. Taking the raw ingredients of values, beliefs, attitudes, cultural norms, local history, municipal policies and practices, traditional and social media, and the multifaceted personalities of local actors, we strive to create a space that allows for heat, conflict, and the transformation of old patterns and approaches to new kinds of rich, nuanced, adaptive solutions. Believing that knowledge and action are co-constructed in the milieu of community, it is logical that listening to and considering a range of perspectives can give rise to feasible, practical approaches.

In addition, we have witnessed explicit attempts to shut down deliberation and essentially block action by elected and appointed officials. Using audio and video recording devices in ways that are felt as intimidating or harassing, and occasionally displaying side-arms, these vocal few make it hard for others to feel that their views will be heard or respected. We are not suggesting this has become the norm, but the frequency has increased since we began this work. Our response has been to engage these voices as much as possible, both in focused conversations to hear directly their concerns and by welcoming them as participates in public deliberations. With some exceptions, we have found that the use of clear, agreed-upon ground rules; facilitators capable of fostering a respectful, honest, safe conversation; surfacing and recording the disagreements as well as common ground; and close scrutiny of participant evaluations regarding their experiences are all necessary for creating safe spaces for disagreements.

In the end, welcoming the most skeptical voices into the conversation is fundamental to the integrity of the process, creates a richer mix of perspectives and ideas, and helps us learn how to create conditions that maximize both safety and disagreement. The challenges described here have made us better. Balancing the sometimes competing constructs of safety and strong disagreement, we are able to be more transparent, we are clearer about digging into disagreements, and we are more skilled at setting boundaries that are legal and effective. Over many years, we have learned from those who have taken issue with the fundamental tenets of deliberative democracy, from the everyday citizens who want to make their communities better in some way, and from the various public and private stakeholders who are directly affected by engaged deliberations. The most important lesson, perhaps, has been that the richer the compost mix, the better the result. The complementary lesson is that strong disagreement requires a safe space if shared understanding and action are to be achieved.

Download the case study from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Journal of Public DeliberationSpearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol10/iss1/art22/

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