Tiny House
More About The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation • Join Now!
Community News

2nd DCN Topic: Racism in Our Nation

This was the second topic focused on by the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in dialogue and deliberation to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of collaborative media campaigns that raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see all the great articles that were written in association with this project. Also see the General Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles.

Articles, blog posts and op-eds on this topic:

Background, resources, and ideas for writing on this topic:

As our second topic, members of the Democracy Communications Network are writing about the rising interest in – and action on – racism in our nation. The ongoing coverage of and commentary on statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Barack Obama’s stirring “A More Perfect Union” speech; and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are all near the top of the news this week, and will likely remain major topics of conversation for some time to come.

Bringing this message home to your readers

Although many newspapers, blogs, and other media outlets have already written about Wright, Obama’s speech, and perhaps the April 4 MLK anniversary, what we hope to do with these essays is go deeper and show – from our long experience in the civic engagement field – how communities are dealing with racism in different ways than they did in the past, and how officials, citizens, and activists are coming to see that action on racial equity is tied to progress on a broad range of policy issues including education, economic development, the criminal justice system, housing, and many more.

A survey released March 27 by the Pew Research Centers found that “Barack Obama’s March 18th speech on race and politics is arguably the biggest political event of the campaign so far. Fully 85% of Americans say they heard at least a little about Obama’s speech, and most (54%) say they heard a lot about it.” (More here.)

You might use the Pew survey and/or the King anniversary as a news hook, then ask: What has been happening in your city, state, or region to help people not just talk about race, but take action against structural racism? If the answer is “not much,” perhaps you can point to examples of officials and citizens elsewhere who have already moved racism to the forefront of their public agenda. If you don’t have local examples, feel free to use any of the examples or talking points below. And if you have examples or talking points that you’d like to add to this list, please send them to Sandy Heierbacher at sandy[at]ncdd[dot]org and we’ll add them to this page. We’ll also post your writings there as well, if you send them to Sandy.

Examples and talking points

· In Memphis, Tennessee, a brand-new coalition has sprung up to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s death with a project called Common Ground which will, in the words of Memphis Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck, help local residents “work together to talk about race in Memphis, gain a better understanding of one another, and pledge to take on specific projects that can repair and restore race relations in this city.” (More from Peck’s column here.) With strong support from local businesses, faith communities, and the media, the first round of facilitated Common Ground circles will start meeting April 24, with an action forum planned for early June.

· Eleven years ago, board members of the Syracuse, New York, Community Wide Dialogue planned to spend a year talking about race and racism in their community. They soon realized, however, that one year of dialogue on such an important issue would not be nearly enough. In fact, they decided a decade wouldn’t do it, either. Last year, as the Community Wide Dialogue to End Racism (CWD) marked the end of its first decade, leaders reported that they were about halfway to the goal of having 10,000 people who have talked deeply about race and racism, and who have the skills to take action against the ways racism still hurts the community. CWD recently announced a new project aimed at cooling ethnic tensions on the city’s Near Northside, where many refugees from abroad are settling. (More here.)

· Syracuse, Memphis, and hundreds of other communities are addressing racism with the help of Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center), which has resources including its revised-in-2006 guide, Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation. In a forthcoming column for the spring 2008 issue of Everyday Democracy’s Focus newsletter, executive director Martha McCoy writes, “Lately, race has moved back to the front and center of our national discourse. All of us who pay attention to this issue know that this happens every decade or so. But there’s something different this time. The conversation is more about the impact of racism on our communities, our institutions, and our policies, and less about “can we all just get along.” It’s more about quality of life, and less about race as an inter-personal matter. … A new “racial literacy” is taking shape. We see it developing in small, medium and large communities, rural, urban, and suburban. It’s happening in those with very diverse populations, and those that are just starting to diversify. Communities are learning to frame and discuss questions of fairness, opportunity, and what it will take to close gaps in housing, education, public safety, and social services.”

· Matt Leighninger, author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance – And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), says he has noticed that while race inevitably comes up in all sorts of civic conversations, people are starting to challenge assumptions about how we talk about it. For example, he says, “The participants in these local civic experiments question the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging.” He adds: “Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.” Race, he adds, may well be something we will be working on for decades to come, “the great American project” in shared governance.

· At its website, Public Agenda has a race issue guide that lays out research results and fact sheets on many policy implications of structural racism, along with discussion materials for citizens to grapple with solutions. “We’ve always been strong believers in the public’s ability to have real, meaningful dialogue on race or any other issue, given the right conditions. But there are certain things people need to get started. They need insight into the other guy’s point of view – and the public opinion research tells us that the perception gap between the races can be substantial. They need to know where things stand today, and to have a framework for discussion, some sense of clear alternatives for the road ahead. Finally they need a place in our public realm to have a conversation that encourages a real exchange of ideas rather than broadsides and bitter commentary,” said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda’s executive vice president and director of public issues analysis. “Public Agenda’s Issue Guide on Race provides some of the essential raw material for that conversation.”

· Julie Fanselow wrote a blog post at Daily Kos on March 26 that includes several other examples of communities addressing racism and attracted more than 60 comments ranging from whether dialogues – even action-oriented dialogues – about racism are simply a “feel-good” exercise to whether reparations are part of the discussion.

· In his March 20th blog post, Peter Levine compared CNN’s shallow, horse-race coverage of the Obama speech to more thoughtful reflection on the speech, including a New York Times article detailing how Obama’s speech provoked deep discussions among the staff members of a 12,000-member mostly white evangelical church in Florida. (The Times article has quotes from people across the country reacting to the Obama speech.)

· Rich Harwood wrote a blog post on March 25 making a case for why local – not national – conversations on racism are the way to go, and why conversation alone is not enough. “Deeper connections will emerge only by rubbing shoulders and finding solutions together to common challenges, demonstrating to ourselves and others that progress is possible,” he wrote.

Please be sure to offer links and/or attribution if you use any of these examples or talking points. And don’t forget to look over the tips for writing op-ed articles at http://ncdd.org/rc/item/4911.

Op-Ed by Harris Sokoloff for the Philadelphia Daily News

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Philly’s rules of engagement

Posted on Wed, Nov. 21, 2007 and currently available online at www.philly.com/philly/opinion/11681542.html.

By HARRIS J. SOKOLOFF

IT SEEMS THAT the presidential candidates – well, two, at least – have finally caught up with Philadelphia.

Presidential candidate John Edwards recently announced his “One Democracy” initiative to expand the role of ordinary citizens in politics. One part of that initiative, a proposal to hold a “Citizen Congress” that would bring together one million citizens in a network of local “town hall” meetings and online forums,is clearly ambitious. And Senator Barack Obama recently released a plan that calls for citizen engagement in the work of federal agencies. He would like to open the closed practices of government and enable genuine citizen participation and engagement in our democracy.

This sounds like something we’ve been doing in Philadelphia for more than a decade. Indeed, the last three mayoral elections in Philadelphia have been characterized by increasing engagement of citizens with candidates. Not only have there been more opportunities for citizens to hear candidates, but those occasions are increasingly diverse, interactive and issue-focused.

The primary and general election this year provided citizens with opportunities to talk with each other and then to continue those conversations with the candidates. This model is designed to increase civic engagement and reduce political alienation. It also has contributed to the rise of optimism in Philadelphia. It is, therefore, a model that has great potential to reduce alienation and increase engagement across the country.

Thus, Edwards and other candidates and leaders would do well to learn from the Philadelphia experience over the past decade. In my capacity as director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, I’ve learned lessons worth sharing:

* Citizens are busy, but are interested in ongoing opportunities for engagement. One-time events, whether one or two days, are, even if fun, likely to be unsatisfying for citizens. Citizens often leave forums still puzzling over ideas raised by others. They want to continue to work through ideas and differences and find ways to turn them from conversation to action.

* Citizens want opportunities to learn and opportunities to talk. Not all citizens come with the same foundation of information. And they don’t have access to the same data, information or knowledge. Thus, we’ve tried to provide participants with some common material – reading, video, audio – and an opportunity to discuss what it means to them.

* Frame the issues in citizen, not expert, terms. Experts frame issues differently than normal citizens, often focusing on data and information, never making their underlying values explicit. But citizens always start with their values, with what’s important to them.

* Reach for “common ground for action,” not compromise or consensus. Compromise leads everyone to think they gave up more than they got. And consensus is incredibly difficult to reach on most of the issues important to us. “Common ground for action” focuses on reaching mutual understanding, often on underlying values. We’ve seen citizens in Philadelphia identify such common ground and then use it to explore areas where they might work together to make things better.

* Create feedback cycles. Few things are more alienating than spending hours or days of one’s time giving input and then having that input disappear into the political machine. Build feedback cycles into any activity that engages citizens, telling them what you did with what they told you. We learned this in 2003, when citizens involved in the Citizen Voices project wanted to monitor how elected officials responded to the issues they raised.

We know from experience that citizens can develop a clear sense of the directions they would like policy to take. Edwards’ proposal outlines a broad step in this direction, and we should encourage other candidates to create their own proposals to increase the quantity and quality of citizen engagement. They might learn from the Philadelphia experience and build on that.

Harris J. Sokoloff is faculty director, Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and executive director of the Center for School Study Councils at the Graduate School of Education.

Op-Ed by Tina Nabatchi in the Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Tina tells us that the placement her piece was amazing – full color, on the front page of the opinion section. It’s currently on the Post-Standard site at www.syracuse.com/poststandard/stories/index.ssf?/base/opinion-0/1195207500290140.xml&coll=1.

Reviving Democracy Edwards’ ‘Citizen Congress’ plan has the potential of reconnecting us to our government

Sunday, November 18, 2007
By Tina Nabatchi
Syracuse University

As another election day passes, America faces a critical challenge: how to rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions. We assert that ours is the best democracy, yet Americans feel increasingly disempowered by and disenfranchised from government. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, less than one-quarter of Americans think they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Similarly, a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust recently found that two-thirds of Americans do not believe that government cares “what people like me think.” It is not surprising, then, that America has the lowest voter turnout rate among industrialized democracies. Clearly, the institutions of American government are not adequately fulfilling our vision of democracy.

And how can they? Our usual methods of political participation put citizens on the sidelines. While casting a vote is a critical responsibility in a democracy, that single vote offers no real expression of opinion on a specific policy matter. Similarly, a campaign contribution can signal broad, general support, but does not allow the expression of individual preferences on particular issues (unless you are a well-funded special interest group).

Letters to government representatives are answered by staff assistants with boilerplate correspondence. And even when an elected official shows up to hold a “town hall meeting” with constituents, there is little room for direct participation; one must show up and wait, sometimes for hours, to get three minutes of microphone time.

Most of us have no formal way to participate in decision making about the issues of highest public concern Iraq, taxes, health care, jobs, global warming, the environment, education, Social Security; the list can go on and on. No wonder the CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 10 percent of Americans believe they have a say in what the government does a “good deal” of the time!

Finally, however, one of the presidential candidates is taking on this problem. Last month, John Edwards unveiled a government reform proposal that seeks to re-engage Americans with politics and government. His One Democracy initiative calls for the participation of ordinary Americans in politics through a Citizen Congress a program in which millions of Americans nationwide would participate in deliberations about critical policy issues, identify the challenges and trade- offs facing our country, and offer advisory opinions to leaders.

Edwards’ plan has the potential to strengthen our national democracy and reverse the trend of disengagement among American citizens by offering them a new voice. It could help the public identify common priorities (not the priorities of special interests and business), foster common ground and consensus, and develop solutions for the common good. In doing so, it could create a broad public constituency to stand behind and support our leaders’ political actions, however difficult they might be. Mobilizing and engaging citizens in this way could help build the political will we so desperately need to act on serious matters of public policy.

I can hear the skeptics shouting now. But this idea can work and has. Edwards’ vision of the Citizen Congress is modeled on the AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting, which uses trained facilitators and various partici-

patory technologies to engage thousands of citizens in dialogue and decision-making about public policy issues. There are additional citizen engagement processes that also support Edwards’ proposal, including deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations, issues forums and participatory budgeting.

Research shows that these deliberative processes do work. In addition to informing government officials about the needs and preferences of citizens, such processes also educate citizens about policy issues and the trade- offs among various policy options. The result is improved citizens’ political knowledge, interest, and efficacy, and greater trust in government.

With his One Democracy initiative and Citizen Congress proposal, Edwards joins an emerging movement that seeks to enhance the democratic processes and institutions of America and give ordinary people a greater say in the critical decisions we face as a nation. Perhaps other presidential hopefuls will follow his cue and help lead the way toward realizing Abraham Lincoln’s long-ago articulated vision of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Tina Nabatchi is an assistant professor of public administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Op-Ed by Lisa Blomgren Bingham in the Indianapolis Star

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

This op-ed was published on October 26, 2007 in the Indianapolis Star.

My view: Lisa Blomgren Bingham

Give the masses more ways to enter political conversation

Two-thirds of Americans do not believe government cares “about what people like me think,” according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust Poll. But how would government know what people think? The usual ways are votes, campaign contributions and, on rare occasion, showing up and waiting in line for two hours to get three minutes of microphone time at the local planning and zoning board. Recent innovations are blogs for a vocal few (certainly easier to publish than letters to the editor) and a tsunami of e-mail that public officials find increasingly hard to manage and answer.

What if there was a better way? What if people from every part of the community could actually have a conversation and not simply passively listen to a disconnected series of three-minute speeches? What if people could do a better job at democracy?

Some leaders around the world believe we can. Great Britain’s Gordon Brown, leaders of the European Union, Denmark and Australia, and an increasing number of leaders in the U.S. are using new ways to give citizens a chance to talk with one another and with government officials about important choices and public decisions.

John Edwards recently proposed Citizen Congresses as part of his One Democracy Initiative (www.johnedwards.com/issues/govt-reform). He envisions 1 million Americans deliberating every year or two on critical policy issues. His proposal is influenced by the work of AmericaSpeaks and its 21st Century Town Meeting. Using hand-held digital voting devices, wireless computer networks and projection screens, as many as 5,000 people can share views with one another and with government officials. They engage in dialogue arranged around tables of eight to 10 using trained facilitators to help make sure all voices are heard.

Gordon Brown has proposed Citizen Juries. The Citizen Jury is a group of people who discuss information about important public decisions; they try to reach consensus. Citizen jurors bring the public’s values to policy choices on cutting-edge science such as stem-cell research, genetically modified crops and end-of-life health care. They do for legislators what trial juries do for courts, bringing citizen values to decision-making.

There are also deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations and many other models. (See the Web site of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, www. thataway.org.)

These models for participation in governance are not simply public hearings with new names. Researchers found that the opportunity to speak is an important factor in whether people feel that a decision is fair and legitimate. In the early years of our democracy, there were town meetings at which people could speak about policy choices. As the nation grew, it became harder to speak up in a way that could directly influence government.

Daniel Yankelovich, a prominent political pollster, found that while people might answer a question one way initially, their views were unstable and subject to change. Through dialogue with others, people came to a public judgment that was different from their initial response.

Of course, if you bring together people who already agree with one another and do not provide enough time for deliberation or access to other information, they will simply reinforce one another and become more entrenched.

And that is a fundamental problem. Increasingly, people are picking their information sources based on views they are already comfortable with. We no longer have consensus on a national source of information like Walter Cronkite.

It is no coincidence that our political discourse has become more adversarial and less civil. Unless we talk to each other, unless we discuss issues with people who see things differently, we will just get locked into our existing positions.

Can’t we do a better job at democracy than that? WWJS? What would Jefferson say?

Bingham is the Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington and an elected fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Op-Ed by NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher for the Patriot News

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

The following was published in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Patriot News on October 25, 2007.

Town by town, city by city, democracy has quietly been growing stronger in America. Stronger because everyday people are coming together to tackle their communities’ most challenging problems. And I am excited to say that Washington is finally starting to wake up and take notice.

At a speech in Keene, New Hampshire on Saturday, John Edwards unveiled a proposal to “return Washington to regular people.” He would accomplish this, in part, by using large-scale methods for getting people talking, thinking, deciding and collaborating together. Methods that I and my organization’s 700 members have seen work at the community, state, and even the national level.

We all know that special interest groups have come to dominate national politics. By flooding the capital with paid lobbyists and flooding the airwaves with one-sided advertisements, special interest groups prevent our nation’s leaders from finding common ground and working in the public interest.

To remedy this, Edwards said that every other year he would ask one million citizens (it can be done!) to participate in Citizen Congresses – networked meetings across the country where regular Americans tackle national issues together, without the usual filters of interest groups and the media. At these meetings, Americans will discuss the challenges and trade-offs facing our country and offer advisory opinions to leaders.

Edwards recognizes that his “One Democracy Initiative” is part of an emerging movement to enable people to practice democracy beyond elections. Citizen-centered projects have given ordinary people a voice in designs for the World Trade Center memorial, the redevelopment of New Orleans, health care reform in California and myriad local issues in towns across the country.

Top-level politicians in countries like Canada, Australia and Denmark have supported this kind of public engagement in national issues for years now. Sadly, America is not leading the way in involving citizens in important policy discussions.

I congratulate John Edwards for understanding that democratic reform doesn’t just mean reforming our electoral system. It means utilizing today’s technology and know-how to find new ways to enable people’s voices to influence decision-making at the local and national levels.

The Harrisburg-based National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and its hundreds of members from across the country, encourage all presidential candidates – from the left, right and center – to go beyond rhetoric and propose their own concrete solutions for bringing the people back into politics. And we encourage you to demand the same from your favorite candidates!

Sandy Heierbacher
Director, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD)
sandy@thataway.org

Op-Ed by Mica Stark for Union Leader

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Published by the Manchester, New Hampshire on October 24, 2007. View the article at unionleader.com.

Americans yearn for a more collaborative democracy

By MICA STARK

Increasingly, Americans are retreating from politics and public life. Whether it is partisan gridlock, money and politics, the role of special interests, or lack of trust in our elected officials, Americans are not happy with the current state of our democracy.

In many ways, the New Hampshire primary represents a hopeful time for voters of all political stripes as we seek to find a candidate that will effectively change and address the problems our country is facing.

For good reason, the Iraq war is dominating the 2008 presidential primary debate. Health care, the environment and education are also receiving considerable attention by the Republican and Democratic candidates, and by voters.

However, this month Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards delivered one of the more important speeches of the cycle thus far on the health and state of our democracy. Speaking in Keene, Edwards called for the creation of a Citizen Congress that every two years will convene one million Americans in national discussions on issues of high public concern.

The Citizen Congress will offer our nation’s leaders advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and the trade-offs among different solutions. These convenings will combine local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions amongst the American people, unfiltered by interest groups.

While the merits of Edwards’ proposal need to be debated, the issue of how the public can be more involved in policymaking and governance should be front and center during the primary, and voters should be pressing all the candidates, on both sides, for their specific ideas in how they see citizens participating and partnering with the next administration in solving our collective problems.

Many of the presidential candidates have offered up good, substantive plans to expand opportunities for Americans to perform community service. While we need to continue to expand and encourage community service, we also need our leaders to tap the skills and experience of the citizenry to address our political challenges — to invite them to be part of the solution. After election day, most citizens are left on the sidelines as spectators with little opportunity to shape the decisions being made on their behalf.

Across the globe, public leaders have begun advocating new means of involving citizens in governance. Most notably, newly elected British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a new program to regularly convene the British people in deliberations on issues like health care, education and public safety. Here in New Hampshire, one can look at Portsmouth, where a group of citizens, organized under the name of Portsmouth Listens, has effectively partnered with local government leaders to bring more citizen voice into decision making. It is the way government now operates in Portsmouth.

And the University of New Hampshire’s Co-Operative Extension program has worked with some 70 towns on “community profiles” — deliberative events that bring citizens into discussion with local leaders around substantive, local issues such as planning, transportation and schools.

As chronicled in Matt Leighninger’s book “The Next Form of Democracy,” communities across the country are moving to a shared governance model. The result is greater citizen participation, better collaboration with leaders and sound political decision making. There is a quiet but growing civic renewal movement at the local level, and it is time that all the presidential candidates offer their ideas on ways that citizens can participate in governance.

The strongest argument in defense of the New Hampshire primary is that we take politics very seriously and we challenge the presidential candidates to explain their positions on a range of issues. New Hampshire voters ask tough questions and force the candidates to engage in retail politics. In short, citizens are at the center of the primary, and we play an important role in the overall nominating process of our Presidents.

It is in this spirit that New Hampshire voters need to press the candidates on their plans to create meaningful opportunities for citizens to work together to solve our collective problems. The next President cannot and will not solve our problems alone. The American people need to be tapped to work with government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector to accomplish this.

Mica Stark of New Boston is founding chairman of City Year New Hampshire’s board of directors.

Op-Ed by Kathryn Liss for Asheville (OR) Citizen Times

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

An idea is percolating up in America – the idea that citizens should have a greater role in making public policy. It’s been tried and tested boldly in communities across the country, locally with the Asheville – Buncombe VISION Dialogues. Now, a Presidential candidate has picked up the idea and has declared it’s time to move these ideas to the center of the American process of self-government. John Edwards has declared in Keene, NH on Oct 13 that he will, if elected, create Citizen Congresses based on the town hall concept every two years to tackle the toughest problems we face.

In a March 2007 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 34% of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.” I think in Asheville there are government bodies and individuals that care what people think. I think we need a process for allowing those thoughts to be heard, a way to find common ground and to build on that. One of the most interesting opportunities I had while working for The Mediation Center years ago was working with private and non-profit developers to figure out how to apportion money for affordable housing. City Council was happy to adopt the guidelines this group came up with. Too often we don’t take the time at the front end to share information among stakeholders and build a common understanding of the issues before making decisions.

Since returning to Asheville after a 5 year sojourn to Maryland I am pleased to see a new initiative, the Asheville HUB starting up to address our regional issues in a coordinated fashion. I am also distressed to read in the media how often people feel that those in Council are not reflecting the needs of the greater population, but rather the moneyed interests.

Five years ago when I left, Asheville was in the middle of a series of forums called VISION Dialogues. I know that there were changes made a result of those conversations, particularly around public transportation. This weekend I was at LEAF and saw the Black Mountain/Asheville bus service which did not exist before the Dialogue on transportation. I know that there were other innovations which happened as a result of those dialogues and there are probably more that have yet to be realized but which were initiated after hearing what the people had to say.

Often decisions can be acceptable to a larger number of people when we have the opportunity to understand each other’s point of view, find the common ground and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. I hope that Asheville will continue to use facilitated processes which invite all of its citizens to participate in making recommendations for how to move forward in a coordinated way meeting the needs of a greater number of people in the community and helping us to understand each other better.

Kathryn Liss

Tips for Writing Op-Eds on National Issues Forums

On October 15th, 2007 David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation) sent the following message to Directors and Alumni of the National Issues Forums Institute. NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher was serving on the NIFI Board of Directors, so she received this message.  We shared this message as part of the 2007-2009 Democracy Communications Network project, which encouraged leaders in public engagement to write op-eds and letters to the editor on a coordinated basis to increase our collective impact.
(more…)

Editorial Prepared for Adaptation by National Issues Forums Institute

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Response to Sen. Edwards’ speech this past Saturday endorsing a Citizen Congress
Monday, October 15 2007

This past Saturday in a campaign speech in Keene, New Hampshire, Sen. John Edwards unveiled his “One Democracy” initiative. Several elements of that speech deserve broad attention and not just from those who support Sen. Edwards’ candidacy. We should judge candidates by the same standards we use for physicians. From both, we expect first an accurate diagnosis of what’s wrong—particularly when the symptoms indicate a serious disease—and then a compelling and realistic prescription about what should be done. On both scores, Sen. Edwards deserves high marks, especially in his endorsement of a deliberative Citizen Congress as a means of inviting the public back into the policy process.

First, regarding Edwards’ assessment of the problem this nation faces: Reiterating the message that “The American people are sick and tired of business as usual,” Edwards’ speech underlined the severity of the problem. Recent polls provide a measure of public dissatisfaction. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a 33 percent approval rating for President Bush, a new low, and an even lower 29 percent approval rating for Congress. A July CBS News/NYT poll showed that only about 24 percent of the public is inclined to trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”—a sharp decline from 55% percent registered in 2001 soon after September 11.

There is also widespread concern about legislative gridlock regarding some of the nation’s pressing concerns—America’s role in Iraq and the Middle East generally, the future of the healthcare system, the federal debt, and other issues. At a time when many are convinced that the nation is moving in the wrong direction, the most revealing indicator of what’s wrong is that most Americans feel they’re shut out of the political process. A March 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that only 34 percent of Americans agree that “government cares about what people like me think.”

These are signs of a deep and pervasive problem. In Sen. Edwards’ words, most Americans are “sick and tired” of business as usual. We have no way to wrestle with issues of grave concern—jobs, taxes, healthcare, Iraq—and no way to express our considered views about them. Most elected officials show little indication that they’re willing to listen to the public after the elections are over. This is a broken model of politics. To fix it, we need fresh thinking and bold measures—above all, new ways of involving the public.

Turning to his prescription about what should be done, Sen. Edwards’ “One Democracy Initiative” is a proposal to “return Washington to regular people.” It involves a three-pronged approach, which would reduce the influence of lobbyists, among other measures. The most notable feature is Edwards’ proposal to take the public’s deliberative voice seriously by asking a million citizens to participate in biennial Citizen Congresses. As Edwards describes them, they would consist of “national town hall meetings where regular Americans tackle issues together.”

In his endorsement of deliberative forums, Sen. Edwards mentioned several projects that have given citizens a voice in community solutions, including deliberative forums in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He might also have mentioned what we have done here in [town name], in a series of forums—conducted as part of the nationwide National Issues Forums network—on topics that include [the public debt, other recent forum topics].

These deliberative forums, which have been a regular part of this community’s civic life over the past [how many] years, are hard work and they are not a cure-all. But they do make a difference and they’re different from most public conversations. These nonpartisan forums focus on issues and common concerns, not personalities or party differences. We don’t necessarily reach agreement about what should be done. But these forums do identify common concerns and common values—no small achievement at a time when legislatures are gridlocked, and few people in elective office are able to bridge partisan differences.

On some issues, these local deliberations have been eye opening and horizon expanding. On other issues, the forums help people to move beyond a narrow sense of self-interest to a more inclusive view of common interests and common goals. In doing so, they have created openings for broadly acceptable public solutions—common ground for public acting.

The National Issues Forums network as a whole, which has been in place for 27 years, has involved hundreds of thousands of people in communities across the country. It provides a rejoinder to those who dismiss public deliberation as impractical and unrealistic—something that most Americans seem to have neither the time nor the inclination to take seriously. If you want to understand the value of deliberative meetings, talk to the people who have taken part in our community forums. The NIF experience bears out the hope that something like the Citizen Congress that Sen. Edwards has endorsed is realistic and long overdue. It is about time national candidates recognize that public deliberation deserves a prominent place on any list of prescriptions about how to fix the political system.

In Sen. Edwards’ proposal, the Citizen Congress would link town hall meetings in various communities, creating a different kind of public conversation in which various proposals and policies would be discussed, along with their costs and consequences. As long as public officials pay serious attention to what comes out of these forums, that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s only a first step. If local forums don’t engage people in serious deliberation, it could amount to little more than a high-tech opinion poll.

At a time of legislative gridlock when the public feels little confidence in its leaders, and most people are convinced that they are shut out of the policy process, it’s high time for new initiatives that involve the public in many ways. The National Issues Forums network has been in business for more than a quarter century. This is no longer a start-up enterprise or a shaky experiment. It is a model that works, a means of engaging citizens in real discussions about serious public concerns. Let’s build on this success story to restore the public to its rightful place in public life. Sen. Edwards’ initiative is a step in the right direction. But it’s just one step toward recognizing what needs to be done if we are to give citizens an authentic voice in the debate about America’s future.

Op-Ed by Phil Neisser for the Watertown Daily Times (upstate NY)

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Developing Your Voice

For years politicians have been invoking the voice of the people. “I will listen,” they say. Unfortunately, what they often hear, if they really do listen, is “you seem right to me” or “you did a bad job; you’re out.” As a result, what gets said in political campaigns is often not connected to what happens in government. Policies mostly get made by well-organized, well-funded, elites (some aligned with one party, some with the other), and elections tend to function as little more than legitimacy-conferring, feel-good events.

Perhaps in response, last Saturday presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking in New Hampshire, pledged that he would, if elected, convene a “citizen congress” every two years. Meetings of this kind (also called citizen juries and citizen deliberative councils) are already in use in quite a few American cities and towns and also play a significant role in several European countries. The concept is simple, even if the work is hard: randomly selected citizens gather, deliberate over the course of several days on a pressing issue, and, at the end, issue an advisory opinion of some kind. Facilitators help run the meetings and experts provide testimony, but it’s the citizen “jurors” who run the show.

Such meetings were common in Rochester, N.Y., in the years leading up to World War I. Local public schools turned into “social centers” in the evenings. Hundreds of citizens gathered at each center. They decided what to talk about, invited relevant guests, heard them out, debated, and sent a statement of their position to the City Council.

More recently, in December of 1994, after fatal shootings at two Boston abortion clinics, local leaders asked three pro-life and three pro-choice activists if they would meet and talk to each other, in order to defuse tension. They reluctantly agreed, and, to their surprise, proceeded to meet regularly for almost seven years. None of them changed their minds about abortion, but they did develop a deep respect for each other, and they now describe the experience as life-changing.

This makes sense. “We the people” are, after all, many people, with different ideas, concerns, experiences, and types of knowledge. When we encounter each other, in real discussions, amazing things can and do happen. We develop new understandings across borders and find common ground. We discover profound areas of disagreement, but we get to know each other better. And we come to know more about the issues of the day. As a result, we speak with more authority to politicians. We make democracy more real.

Person to person dialogue about pressing issues also cultivates community and weakens violence, not because people agree, but because they come to recognize each other’s humanity. Such recognition is badly needed in this age of terror, where people (us included) often make other people into abstractions, or declare them evil through and through, as if they’re totally unlike us, as if they’re bad guys in a cartoon.

Unfortunately, cross-border conversations are rare. Instead we tend to talk with people we already agree with. We ask questions and let the leaders do the talking. Or we say our piece at a public hearing, write a letter, yell at somebody, and watch others yell. None of this is bad, but it’s not democratic conversation.

On the other hand, the voice of the people sometimes rises to the occasion. For this to become business as usual, we the people have to take voice lessons. We do not need to sing in harmony, but to make noise with each other and listen to each other. And not just with family, friends, neighbors, and like-minded Internet surfers.

Can Edwards really change anything? Not on his own. But it seems likely that he means business. He’s not the front-runner. He has nothing to gain from being careful. And he clearly has a populist bent. I suggest we take him at his word. I suggest we learn more about what he’s talking about, and we push him on this issue.

Whether or not Edwards is elected, citizen congresses are a good idea, as we need to find ways to communicate better across the various borders that divide us, be they those of philosophy, religion, party, interest, race, or what-have-you. We need, then, to push every candidate and our elected representatives to move us in that direction.

Phil Neisser, Professor of Politics at SUNY Potsdam, is Co-Editor of Tales of the State and author of a forthcoming book about disagreement in America.

-