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Summary of NCDD survey on race dialogue — and next steps

Before the holidays, three was a flurry of dozens of messages on the NCDD Discussion list (our main listserv, with 1150 subscribers) on issues of race and racism within a period of a couple of days. Though our listserv can be a great place to discuss practice-related questions and share announcements, it is not a forum for online dialogue on issues like race, climate change, or health care (see the list description and ground rules here).

We can and often do discuss issues related to inclusion in the practice of dialogue and deliberation, but a couple of list subscribers were encouraging people exchange messages about “their own racism.” Our inboxes filled up with responses that ranged from philosophical arguments about the origins of racism, to the importance of discussing broader issues of inclusion and inequity, to pleas to take the discussion off the list (and many more types of responses). I don’t recall anyone responding with details about their own racism.

As list moderator, I decided to set up a short survey to ask subscribers, off the list, to share their thoughts on whether and how we should proceed with a dialogue on racism outside the listserv.

67 subscribers responded to the survey, and the responses are rich and fascinating. The survey results are publicly available here, but I took some time over the holidays to summarize the results and see what themes emerged. That summary is shared below.

People shared their opinion about what technology might best suit a discussion on race issues, what topics they would like to explore specifically and to what end, and whether they had yet experienced what they would consider to be an effective online dialogue on race issues (tellingly, only 1 person answered “yes” to this question!).

The NCDD listservs are just one of numerous tools available to the NCDD community. Of all the technologies we’ve experimented with (wikis, forums, blogs, facebook, etc.) to engage NCDD members, the listservs have been the most successful for our community. The NCDD Discussion list, in particular, has hosted many dozens of rich, valuable, and sometimes heated discussions (as well as many hundreds of informative and inspiring stand-alone posts). But the NCDD Discussion list is not a free-for-all and is moderated according to a set of ground rules created by list subscribers over the years to ensure the list remains a useful resource with a somewhat manageable flow.

Given the importance of issues of race and inclusion, and the sheer number of questions some NCDDers seem to want to explore related to these issues, I’ve decided to try something new with some of the other technology available to us. Every few weeks, I’ll be posting a new question (starting with some great ones from the survey!) in our Facebook group (where we have 2200 members), on the NCDD blog, and/or in the LinkedIn group. We can begin exploring some of these questions in those spaces, and I’ll announce the questions and where the discussion is taking place in the listserv. You are also welcome to start new discussions in either the Facebook group or the LinkedIn group yourself.

Discussions I start will pertain to issues specific to our field (i.e. “How can the D&D community become more inclusive” rather than “When did you first become aware of your own race?”). NCDD doesn’t host general dialogues on issues like racism, climate change, health care, etc. – that is what our members do. We support the work of our members as much as we can, though, and if you host an online dialogue you’d like to invite NCDD members into as participants, send me an announcement about it that I can share on the blog (or just send it to the listserv yourself).

I’d also be very interested in trying out our members’ platforms for online dialogue and deliberation. If you’d like to host a discussion among NCDD members on your platform, let’s talk about just what that would entail, and about what practice-related topics are aligned with NCDD’s current priorities. In the past, our most successful online discussions outside the listserv have been directly related to NCDD’s face-to-face events, so that is a factor to consider.

So, here is the summary of the survey results. Feel free to add a comment here to share your thoughts on the summary or on my text above.

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

Results of survey of NCDD Discussion list subscribers

One person’s comment reflected a number of comments people had emailed me directly:

Important issue. One that is core to my work. However, I prefer the list be used to briefly share news and resources. An event, new book or article, toolkit, job, etc. These threads have had me contemplating leaving the list. Again, not that the topic is not important – just that this does not seem to be the right venue.

1. I am interested in continuing the conversation about race…

Note: people could say yes, no or maybe to any of the following options for platforms (they weren’t limited to choosing one). Nothing stood out as being a definite favored option, but here are the results in order of popularity of yes’es.

29% – on a new, smaller listserv focused on race (35% said no and 35% said maybe)

25% – on NCDD’s forum at ncdd.org/forum (29% said no, but nearly half said maybe)

21% – on the NCDD Discussion list (a little over half said no, 27% said maybe)

19% – in USARiseUp.com’s forums, which were mentioned on the list (33% said no, but nearly half said maybe, probably because they need more info about the platform)

Only 3 people suggested another platform, one not specifying the platform, one suggesting Bang the Table (an Australia-based consultancy that runs online forums), and Lucas Cioffi from OnlineTownhalls suggesting the following:

USARiseUp is using our software for one of their online dialogues at http://onlinetownhalls.com/map/451 and my team would fully support NCDD’s effort to discus race in depth. Perhaps this is an opportunity to try out several of NCDD members’ tools!

2. Would you be interested in moderating the discussion and taking responsibility for moving the conversation forward?

Although the vast majority said “no,” 6 people offered, which is great! I’ve followed up with a couple of them and will follow up with the others as soon as I can, to see what they suggest doing based on these results.

3. What specifically would you be interested in exploring? (I.e. your own racial views, racism in our field, inclusion in NCDD, etc.)

40 out of the 67 who responded to the survey answered this question.

11 people are interested in exploring issues related to race and inclusion in NCDD and in our field more generally. One person suggested a practical topic might be talking about how to increase diversity in the field. One suggested discussing racism at NCDD events.

9 people are interested in exploring their own racial views (two suggested beginning with intra-group dialogue and moving on to intergroup dialogue).

8 are interested in exploring race-related issues like “how racial issues have changed across generations” and “practical ways to help ease racism”, but didn’t indicate interest in exploring their own racial views.

Another 8 were interested in exploring race dialogue in our field (developments in the field, success stories about race dialogue, how we might improve our approaches to race, etc.).

6 were interested in exploring whether and how to have a conversation on race (“what would desired outcomes be?”, “The question of race is so broad. The question would have to be focused.”, “developing an online process for discussing issues about race and racism”, “creating a safe space for dialogues about inclusion”).

5 expressed interest in exploring how issues of race and inclusion affect our practice (“whether or not it is possible to train facilitators to be sufficiently sensitized to issues of diversity in interaction”, “how to better engage people of color in dialogue and deliberative processes”, “how issues of race/class/culture affect participation in D&D processes”, “barriers for people of color to dialogue as a process when presented/controlled by whites”).

A few people expressed interest in addressing related issues, including how property “was acquired, defended, exploited” and the impact of colonization.

4. For you, what would be the purpose of a discussion on this topic?

42 out of 67 people responded to this question.

18 people wrote about purposes related to personal learning and skill-building (“how to involve a broader array of people in D&D work, both as practitioners and participants”, “finding out good experiences and techniques for handling discussions about race”, “how to grow tolerance”, “learn what is it that allows hate and indifference to still exist generation after generation”, etc.).

11 people wrote about action-oriented outcomes, like “creating real change beyond dialogue,” decreasing separatism, creating “collaboratively-developed action steps for the field,” etc.

10 specifically mentioned building greater understanding on issues of race and racism, “of self and others,” “of where people stand on these issues,” and so on.

Several people expressed that the purpose should simply be to address this vital issue and keep it at the forefront of our work.

5. Have you experienced what you would consider an effective online dialogue on race issues?

Very tellingly, only 1 person answered “yes” to this question! 13 people (21%) chose “sort of” and 48 people (77%) said “no.” Of course, as one person noted “I don’t know how effective this can ever be in the sense that we can never walk away and say, ‘Oh, now things are solved/much better/much clearer.’”

Eight people shared information about the process and technology used in the online dialogues on race issues they considered to be effective, including:

  • forums are challenging, but listservs/email can be semi-productive and thought-provoking
  • you can learn a lot from email discussions if “people write short and to the point messages that are respectful and on-topic”
  • WACAN – online discussion forums – multiple topics, some live
  • a few people mentioned promising online dialogues that are just starting up (including using OnlineTownhalls on USARiseUp’s site to discuss “Race Relations in Your City”)

One person added this comment:

On line gets in the way of personal engagement, plus e-messaging is difficult to interpret as to the originator’s intent. It can be a great forum for encouraging others to look at issues of race, share resources, and alert each other to events and opportunities that may be available to them locally or with some travel. I look for leads and information about what others see as ‘best practices’ or approaches that yield positive results.

And I felt this particularly nuanced comment about online dialogue deserved to be excerpted in full:

I think we will improve our use of online and virtual dialogue tools when we design them will full knowledge of the nuances of what facilitators need to create, do, observe and sense in face-to-face work (then translate that) and this includes a sense of space, ways of seeing others in the room, ability to breathe and all those other things we ensure are present in our face-to-face work. Then with the extra addition of potential conflict and prickly issues, a good facilitator will design an event that is longer – so folks can tell their story, step up to and step back from, integrate what they’re hearing, think of it as they rest for a bit – again: all that face-to-face facilitators design for such environments of exploration and interchange.

Plus there is the whole issue of pre-work, which a good facilitator would do before an event – the nuances of invitation so each individual feels welcome, a clear reason for the meeting, documentation design based on participant culture and need and usefulness, and so on. I think we have a long way to go but I welcome more folks who have the skills to design on-line environments or tools to really learn all about face-to-face facilitation – and multiple modalities of absorbing and sharing information (such as not just text) – so the tools extend / enable what the humans do well in face-to-face complex and juicy dialogue.

6. Additional Comments

Additional comments ran the gamut, from people expressing appreciation for the role NCDD plays in the field, and in helping us identify and explore some of our most challenging issues, to people expressing surprise that I halted the discussion. A few people expressed gratitude for the conversation that had taken place, saying they appreciated the opportunity to explore race issues. A couple of people felt we should continue the conversation on the listserv whether people liked it or not because they felt disinterest in the topic was a sign that people actually need to talk about these issues. One person reflected that “the disparate comments on the list reflect the ubiquity of the problem and the discomfort it causes perhaps everyone.”

Some thanked us for exploring how this issue can best be served in venues other than the NCDD listserv, and expressed concern about people “co-opting” or “hijacking” conversations about other topics to pursue their own personal agenda, or about simply not having time to follow meandering discussions that produce a lot of emails. A couple of people commented that the list works best when announcements are shared, or when people discuss issues that are clearly practice-related. One person said “I was struck by how little inquiry occurred in the on-line discussion that occurred on race. For the most part people seemed to make assertions, and sometimes sweeping ones at that. As a new member to NCDD I appreciated the moderator’s intervention.”

One person expressed confusion about the purpose of the listserv thread (was it internal to NCDD? was it meant to be broader? — in which case there are other forums they can join). A few people wrote about issues of race and racism being just one aspect of “what divides us into ‘us and them’,” expressing the desire to take a broader view at inclusion issues.

One person suggested the right approach would be simply to allow participants to tell their story.

Several felt it was important to acknowledge that issues of inclusion are integral to pretty much every conversation about dialogue and deliberation, and that it might be more important to weave inclusion issues into other discussions than to create a separate space to discuss inclusion issues specifically. A couple of people suggested we should instead be digging into other issues (climate change, inequality, property) on the listserv.

I also kept track of people’s suggestions for listserv practice / ground rules

Keep posts short (one or two paragraphs generally); people do not have time to read tomes (several people said this). (Sandy’s response: I’ll add this as a suggestion to the list ground rules; I don’t see enforcing this or making this a hard-and-fast rule.)

Consistency in moderation (if discussion about non-work-related race issues is off-limits, other topics that aren’t related to D&D practice should be off-limits and strictly moderated too). (Sandy’s response: I do try to make sure all messages to the list explicitly address dialogue and deliberation. Moderating consistently is not always possible given that I have other things to do! Plus, strict moderation in accordance with the ground rules is more important when the list gets very busy, to protect people’s inboxes and prevent people from leaving the list. In the future, I’d like to have others serve the moderator role.)

Subject headers should more accurately reflect the main topic of the post. Unless a post is making an explicit connection with the original topic, the header should be renamed. This would serve to a) prevent topics from getting “hijacked”, while b) still allowing people to post on whatever subject they wanted to (relevant to D&D), as long as they are willing to take responsibility for creating an appropriate header. (Sandy’s response: This seems reasonable; I’ll add the subject header specificity to the ground rules.)

You MUST allow messages on this topic. (Sandy’s response: People can and often do talk about how issues of race and inclusion relate to the practice of dialogue & deliberation. This topic is integral to so many things in our field. But no, we don’t have to allow any messages on any topic to go through if they don’t explicitly relate to D&D practice – or if they cause an impossible-to-follow, meandering, inbox-stifling discussion that causes dozens of people to have to unsubscribe.)

The main NCDD Discussion list is not meant for on-going discussions that drill deeply into issues; after a period of time, “move them to another location that people opt into.” (Sandy’s response: we’ve tried this in the past with our forum and wiki, and we’ll try this with Facebook, LinkedIn and the blog now with hopefully more success since these platforms are much more popular/comfortable now.)

Sandy Heierbacher on FacebookSandy Heierbacher on LinkedinSandy Heierbacher on Twitter
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. Lucas Cioffi says:

    Watching the discussion unfold online a few weeks ago and reading this response has been educational. This is a terrific summary, and I've never seen anything like it from other online communities.

    Interesting questions raised by this experience:
    -How can we have quality dialogue about race as practitioners?
    -How can we have quality dialogue about race as Americans?
    -How can we have quality dialogue online?
    -What is a fair way to govern a discussion list of volunteer members with divergent interests and motivations?

  2. Thanks for sharing these survey results in such detail, Sandy!

    I just wanted to add that the NCDD listserv is one of the richest and most productive resources I follow. I’ve never found moderation to be an issue. In fact, I think it’s being moderated exceptionally well (and the fact that you did this survey proves that point perfectly). Yes, it can get quite busy at times but those spikes are usually temporary.

    I look forward to an updated and improved list of ground rules and hope that all of us will contribute to maintaining the good quality of this venue.

  3. One correction: Bang the Table are based in Australia.

  4. Sandy, thank you for a very useful summary. I concur with Tim, that the NCDD listserve is moderated exceptionally well! Thank you for all that you do…

  5. Rogier Gregoire says:

    Sandy,
    The summary and review of the NCDD activity on racism is extraordinary. Thank you for this herculean effort, simply and directly addressed and eloquently presented. I (we) are indebted to you for laying another useful foundation for the larger work.
    The value added to expanding our understanding of our world and ourselves in immeasurable.
    Rogier Gregoire

  6. Thank you so much for the kind words and positive feedback, Tim, Lucas, Rosa and Rogier! It means A LOT to me.

    Tim – I'll make that correction re: Bang the Table now.

    Lucas – these are great questions. All questions I'd very much like to explore. Are these the types of questions you had in mind for the OnlineTownHalls platform? Also, some of these questions might be perfect for the Civility Online event (online conference/webinar) Steven Clift is proposing here: http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/1117.

  7. Mino Akhtar says:

    I would submit that the new racism “Islamophobia” is an example of why this topic must be explored more and therefore I support this collective inquiry. In the USA we have a chance to create cutting edge situations where ancient tribalism is challenged, and therefore we as an incubator of what is possible and what is not, is worth documenting for the sake of human history.

  8. John Backman says:

    Great summary, Sandy. Thank you for taking the time to develop it and put it out there. I’m not sure to what extent you’re looking for expressions of interest in participating, but I am certainly interested.

  9. Lucas Cioffi says:

    I’m happy to report that this idea turned into an action item and the first iteration is complete. Other NCDD members are welcome to building on the work done and lessons learned here.

    Details: Approximately 25 NCDD members got together in small-group phone-based discussions over the month of July. The dialogues each lasted one hour and took place over three consecutive weeks. We maintained group integrity so that people could develop deeper relationships over the course of the three weeks.

    Here’s a summary of then notes from those discussions: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JTtPXAaCCIJnawcQqtGMZrSWH4vrGF3R5EJeZZ7KWjo/edit?hl=en_US

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