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Deliberative Dialogue to Expand Civic Engagement: What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?

Martha McCoy and Pat Scully of Everyday Democracy (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center) wrote this excellent article that distinguishes deliberation from dialogue and discusses the merits of ‘the marriage of deliberation and dialogue.’ Although the article focuses on the Study Circles process (now called dialogue-to-action), it is a great introduction to public engagement processes and their principles. This is a very readable 19-page article that we highly recommend you read. National Civic Review, vol. 91, no. 2, pp. 117-135 (2002).

Here is an excerpt from the article:

We bring ideas and insights from our work in communities to answer the question, “What kind of public talk is most likely to expand civic engagement and make it meaningful to all sorts of people?” This emerging field has a rich and growing set of perspectives and practices; unfortunately, we don’t have the space to catalogue and detail all the promising approaches and what they have taught us. But we can describe what we have been learning in communities where community-wide deliberation for action and change is being used as a process for widespread, meaningful civic engagement. In doing this we make a case for two powerful but unusual marriages that are frequently missing when public talk is used to strengthen civic engagement.

The first union is between two strains of public talk-dialogue and deliberation. The process of dialogue, as it is usually understood, can bring many benefits to civic life-an orientation toward constructive communication, the dispelling of stereotypes, honesty in relaying ideas, and the intention to listen to and understand the other.1 A related process, deliberation, brings a different benefit-the use of critical thinking and reasoned argument as a way for citizens to make decisions on public policy. We will describe what we have learned about how the combination of deliberation and dialogue can be used to create mutual understanding and connect personal with public concerns. People use this type of public conversation, what we term deliberative dialogue, to build relationships, solve public problems, and address policy issues.

The second critical marriage is between community organizing and deliberative dialogue. Frequently, those who use some form of public talk focus only on the characteristics of the talk itself. When they speak about effectiveness, they describe the quality of the dialogue or the deliberation “inside the circle.” While that is important, it isn’t enough. Whenever public talk is being used for civic engagement – that is, to involve people in addressing public problems – it is critical to create a wider context for the conversation. In addition to focusing on how people will be brought into the conversation, it is essential to address how the community context of the conversation will be structured so that the conversation can have an impact on public life. In this article we also describe what we have learned about the kind of community-wide organizing that makes deliberative dialogue effective for community building and public problem solving.

We hope that our description of this kind of public talk and its connection to community organizing will be useful not only to anyone using deliberation and dialogue for civic engagement but also to those using other kinds of civic engagement processes. Our goal is to make transparent our assumptions and working principles for effective civic engagement. By describing what we are learning, we hope to spark a larger and more comprehensive conversation among theorists and practitioners about the connection of deliberative dialogue to some of the key goals and questions of the civic movement.

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