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IJP2 Article Part 2: Consider how different framings affect different groups

Another clear theme in the Framing Challenge at the 2008 NCDD conference was the importance of understanding how different groups of people respond to the various ways public engagement is currently framed. In the online dialogue and at the conference itself, many pointed towards acquiring and cultivating greater sensitivity to the ways that distinct language ‘plays out’ for different groups. conversation_croppedblog

The concept of blind spots in our language – terms and phrases that dissuade or confuse without our realizing it – was discussed in the online dialogue. Susan Partnow, a leader in the Conversation Cafe movement, remarked that she had been surprised in the past when her efforts to be inclusive and welcoming fell short. She proposed a need to “assume you are making a lot more assumptions than you think you are.”

“Different language pushes different people’s buttons,” stated Avril Orloff, who led our 5-person Graphic Recording Team for the conference. While many cringe at “touchy feely” terms like heart-work, wholeness, and consciousness, “others [like me] sigh over bureaucratic-sounding language like multi-stakeholder engagement, whole systems change and the dread empowerment.” Kai Degner, Mayor of Harrisonburg, Virginia and founder of the OrangeBand Initiative, summed it up well when he said that people in the dialogue and deliberation community often talk about the work they do in ways that are “either too new-agey or too ivory tower.”

Many anecdotes were shared of instances when blind spots in language unintentionally dissuaded people from participating. Erin Kreeger related how some clients talk in terms of decision making but cannot relate to the term deliberation – “even though their processes are what many of us would call deliberation.” Another colleague of Kreeger’s “would never use the term democracy because it’s too loaded and manipulative when used in the contexts he works in.” Jim Driscoll, who co-led a workshop with several Iraq-era veterans on his program Vets4Vets, shared how a donor reconsidered a large gift “because the organization had used the word democracy in the proposal… he thought it must be a ‘feel good’ organization and he is a hard-nosed conservative.”

Irene Nasser related how even the concept of collaboration can turn people away from participating in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, since potential participants often see each other as the enemy and have no interest (yet) in working together. As Framing Challenge leader Jacob Hess wrote in his report on this challenge, the degree to which we can “surface ways in which different terms play out differently across different communities, we can move forward more deliberately to accomplish what we really want in drawing diverse communities together…. The aim is to be mindful about the language we use, being aware that different words that really resonate with us may need some explaining, translation or upgrading for another setting.”

Note from Sandy: This is my second blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community.  The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin:  The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?).

You can download the full article from the IJP2 site. Also, see NCOC’s 2008 Civic Health Index (p. 17-18) for a fascinating summary of people’s reactions to terms we often use to describe public engagement work: democracy, citizenship, civic engagement, service, social entrepreneurship and community organizing. 13% of survey respondents responded negatively to the word “democracy” when asked to share the first thing that came to mind. 20% cited some kind of right or duty, such as voting. 12% mentioned rules of decision-making, such as majority rule, and 9% cited the government. www.ncoc.net

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. John Backman says:

    I'm delighted to see the attention that the conference participants paid to this issue. As a word guy by trade, I don't think we can ever emphasize precision in language enough, or be too aware of its connotations for diverse groups.

    This calls to mind a multicultural marketing seminar I once attended. The speaker was discussing the use of "African-American," which she noted would be fine except that it can offend Caribbean-Americans of color, whose ancestry does not extend back to Africa. It was a distinction I had never even dreamed of before then.

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