Sine Waves

Someone once told me, My life is like a Sine Wave – it just goes up and down, up and down.

This is, perhaps, a poetic overstating of fact, yet it artfully captures the cyclical nature of life. The summation of all our experience may not make a perfectly formed normal distribution, yet prevailing wisdom would indicate that, yes, some things are bad, but it’s okay because some things are better.

It all evens out in the end. Up and down, up and down.

You can take that concept a step further, imagining the amplitude of life. If life is a sine wave, how high are the peaks and how low are the valleys?

It’s speculated that mental illness is an inseparable companion from creative genius. To truly create objects of awe and wonder, you need to be broken and pained. To achieve greatness, you need to experience despair.

The greater your depths, the greater your heights.

This frenetic, passionate, existence is high-amplitude living.

If that sounds unappealing, consider its alternative:

At it’s most extreme, low-amplitude living would be static. Instead of varying up and down, the sine wave would be steady at zero. A flat line maintaining a calm, constant existence. Never elated. Never depressed. Just steady. A static white noise.

Both waves average to be the same over time, yet these existences are not the same. But who’s to say which existence is better? Would you prefer a tumultuous torment of change, or a static, steady, stream?

Extremes, of course, are so rarely ideal – most people don’t really want to be the tortured artist or the static, unassuming, soul. Presumably, the ideal is somewhere in between but what does this mid-amplitude living really look like?


A Glimmer of Hope in Pew’s Polarization Report

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on polarization in the US that has important insights for our field. The report is huge, but luckily, NCDD Board of Directors member John Backman created a wonderful overview of the report’s findings, with an eye toward what it means for our work. We highly encourage you to read John’s thoughts below and add your reflections on the Pew study in the comments section. 

How Far Apart Are We, Really? A Closer Look at Pew’s Polarization Report

by John Backman

The findings look dark, no doubt about it. Play with the numbers, though, and you can begin to see glimmers of hope—and opportunities for D&D practitioners.

The report from the Pew Research Center bears the ominous title “Political Polarization in the American Public,” and the first sentence in the web version is no better: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” The nationwide survey of 10,000 adults found that:

  • The two ends of the spectrum are growing. 21% of respondents now identify as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative”—double the percentage in 1994.
  • Overlap between parties is in steep decline. Twenty years ago, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat, and 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. Today those figures are 92% and 94%, respectively.
  • Hostility is more intense. The percentage of respondents with a highly negative view of the other side has more than doubled since 1994. Worse, most of these “high negatives” believe the opposing party’s policies to be “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
  • The silos are hardening. Half of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals value living in a place where most people share their views. Nearly one-third of consistent conservatives and one-quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if one of their family married into the other side.

In other words, the American public is moving in a direction diametrically opposed to the bridge-building instincts of most D&D practitioners. On the whole, it’s hard to be happy about the situation.

Until you dig deeper. Some of the under reported findings and unexpressed facts hold more hope for both our public square and our ability as practitioners to make a difference:

If 21% of Americans are now firmly ensconced in their worldviews, then 79% are not.

That leaves roughly 250 million people who, in theory, might be open to an exchange of views with others of different opinion. One key strategy for ensconcing dialogue in our public square, as I see it, is to build a critical mass of people who are (or become) oriented toward dialogue. It’s easier to find participants for that critical mass in a pool of 250 million than it would be if the middle were actually vanishing instead of declining.

The middle of the political spectrum is quiet. Dialogue and deliberation could change that.

The Pew report notes that the people at the ends of the spectrum have a disproportionate voice in the political process because they are more vocal. “Many of those in the center,” the authors write, “remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged.” Yet they don’t have to stay on the edges, and anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that D&D can draw them in. For how many people has a dialogue been their first experience with any sort of civic engagement? And how many of them have been delighted with the process?

Data to validate or refute these impressions would be helpful here, of course. But if the impressions are accurate, they point to the power of dialogue, not only to engage people in the civic/political arena, but to start them out with a civil, productive approach.

There is still common ground to use as a starting point for dialogue, and much of it involves one of our most powerful motivators: the drive to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones.

According to the Pew report, even the most strident conservatives and liberals want to live near extended family, high-quality public schools, and opportunities to get outdoors. By and large, concern for those closest to us trumps political affiliation: for about three-quarters of respondents, a family member’s marrying across political divides doesn’t matter.

Yes, the trends are troubling. Yet there is more than enough “raw material” for D&D practitioners to advance the cause of dialogue and deliberation.

What do you see in the numbers? Please share your thoughts below in our comments section.

New Reports on Civic Dialogue & Business Leaders

Our friends at the Network for Business Sustainability recently released two reports that we think NCDD members should note. The reports focus on the potential for business leaders to be more involved in civic dialogues, and we encourage you to read more about them in the NBS statement below.

Businesses have traditionally played little role in civic dialogue, but their involvement can help advance issues. The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) has recently published two reports, written by Dr. Thomas Webler, that identify the potential for business involvement in civic dialogue.

The reports are aimed at a business audience, and can serve to introduce businesses to civic dialogue concepts. We hope that they will also be useful for anyone seeking to understand business perspectives or the value of engaging businesses in dialogues.

The reports are:

Both are freely available. We very much appreciate thoughts and feedback, and will evolve the reports accordingly. Comment on the report webpage or by sending a note to Maya Fischhoff at

About the reports and NBS

NBS is a non-profit based at Western University (Canada) which connects research and practice around sustainable business. Each year, NBS’s Leadership Council of leading Canadian businesses identifies priority issues. For 2013, they asked: How can businesses help citizens become informed, inspired and engaged in a national dialogue about sustainability?

This project represents an innovative collaboration between research and practice. Researcher Dr. Thomas Webler summarized the best academic and practical research available on civic engagement. A working session of leaders from the business, non-profit and academic communities provided extensive feedback, which Dr. Webler incorporated into the final documents.

May’s Tech Tuesday with Ethelo Decisions

Ethelo-logoOur May Tech Tuesday event featured Ethelo Decisions (now available to NCDD members in beta),  a decision making tool that provides deeper deliberation about values, constraints and trade-offs in an online setting.

Ethelo founder John Richardson (Power Point file) and NCDD sustaining member Kathryn Thomson (Power Point file) led a presentation about the tool, providing a case study about a condo dispute and showed how the Ethelo algorithm works. Participants then split into break out groups facilitated by members of the Ethelo team and discussed questions and ways they thought of applying the Ethelo decision tool in their work.

Ethelo’s leadership have been working for the past several years to create a software tool that they believe is a radical new way of understanding decision making.  Ethelo’s data processing algorithm is designed to promote group harmony by finding and ranking outcomes that optimize satisfaction and minimize the resistance due to unfairness and polarization. It can be used for corporate board decisions, large scale community stakeholder engagement and for any process where you have complex, contentious issues and need people’s input to provide a solid, inclusive way to move forward on the issue.

Ethelo has a growing demonstration library if you’d like to preview how it works. Here are some links to different examples:

  • The Condo Dispute—condo disputes can take up so much time and energy, even on minor issues.  Click here to see how one contentious issue was resolved using Ethelo.   This one will take about 5 minutes for you to work through.
  • Group Holiday Decision—this one is also fairly quick to work through.
  • Comfort Cove Community Center—this is a more complex decision so you’ll want to set aside about 15 minutes to work through this one.

NCDD Members: Ethelo is providing free access to the tool for members ( and has planned regular training webinars throughout the summer. Visit to register up for an Ethelo webinar.

Photosynthesis for Humans

“Unlike other essential vitamins, which must be obtained from food, vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin through a photosynthetic reaction triggered by exposure to UVB radiation,” states a report from the National Institute of Health.

The initial photosynthesis produces vitamin D3, which regulates “at least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body.” Further transformations occur, generating forms of vitamin D which regulate calcium absorption and promote bone health.

With Victorian social norms mandating the avoidance of exposed skin, “By the late 1800s, approximately 90% of all children living in industrialized Europe and North America had some manifestations” of rickets – skeletal deformity due to low bone health.

With already low sunlight levels in these Northern climates, the addition of clothing layers proved unconducive to one’s health.

High vitamin D levels have been found to reduce the risk of tuberculosis, and could be linked to lower levels of cancer – except, of course, skin cancer. Other studies tie low vitamin D levels to everything from multiple sclerosis to hypertension.

Sunlight also plays a key role in the body’s production of Serotonin – or, as my sister used to call it, “the happy drug.” Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been correlated with “higher levels of irritability, impulsivity, aggression, disordered eating, and sleeping problems.”

Too much sun exposure can be bad, of course, but photosynthesizing vitamin D seems to have a lot going for it.

But really what I’m trying to say is – man, isn’t it nice out?


Harwood on US Soccer’s Civic Lessons

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that the USA’s national soccer team has been advancing steadily in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Rich Harwood, director of NCDD organizational member The Harwood Institute, penned an article reflective piece this week (before the US played Germany yesterday) on the civic lessons we can take from the US team’s resolve early on in the Cup. You can read Rich’s article below or find the original here.

HarwoodLogoAs a huge soccer fan, I was ecstatic about the U.S. National Team’s 2-1 victory over Ghana Monday. As an American, I was struck even more by the words used by the players, commentators and others to describe the win: grittiness, grinding it out, gutsy, and resolve. Such words not only reflect the U.S. team’s play, but our national character. It is this very character that we must now tap into in order to make progress on our challenges at home.

The national team’s win is a perfect civic parable for our country at this time. Ghana beat the U.S. in the last two World Cups. In 2010, it was a heart-breaking overtime loss. This time, the U.S. came into the game as the clear underdog. But the team did not cower in the face of Ghana, nor did it sit back; it struck. A mere 34 seconds into the first half, forward Clint Dempsey scored to put the U.S. ahead.

Another 89+ minutes remained. And adversity came quickly to the U.S. team. Jose Altidore, the vaunted U.S. striker, went down with a strained hamstring. A young substitute named Aron Johannsson, with little experience at this level, took his place. At halftime, Matt Besler, a key defenseman, was pulled from the game with an injury. Again another young substitute, Anthony Brooks, came on to play. When members of the team fell down, other players stepped forward.

Even as the national team got back on its feet, the Ghanians turned up the heat. Their relentless attacks put the U.S. team back on their heels for much of the second half. But the U.S. team was undeterred and resilient, withstanding the onslaught even as they were outplayed.

But their luck finally broke. With just eight minutes remaining, the Ghanians scored to tie the game and firmly grabbed the momentum. It was as if throughout the U.S. one could hear a collective gulp: here comes a repeat of 2010.

Amid the heightened pressure, the U.S. team kept plugging away. They would bend but not break. With just minutes left, Graham Zusi, yet another substitute, took a corner kick and the 21-year-old Brooks headed the ball into the back of the net. A gutsy, stubborn and sometimes not-so-pretty team performance landed a U.S. victory.

Today, many Americans say the country is on the wrong path. They want to know how we can move forward together. The story of the U.S. team Monday night reminds us just what it takes to get on the right path: people coming together with a sense of common purpose and setting a common goal. When they fall down, they dust themselves off and find a way to keep moving forward. Then, when things go wrong, they recalibrate. And when certain individuals must step away, they pass the baton to others who are willing to step forward.

Throughout all this, people persevere. They realize they must be resilient – willing and able to bend, but not break. And when they achieve their near-term goal, other longer-term goals push them to keep moving ahead, together.

As Americans, we are builders. It’s part of our DNA, central to our character. The U.S. national team demonstrated the meaning of this last night. And it reflects back to us something we already know but sometimes forget or push aside: we must tap our collective character to move this nation forward. What I know from my long experience working in communities across the country is this: Americans want to be builders again.

You can find the original version of this piece at

The first rule of show business

My father always told me that the first rule of show business is to keep smiling.

More generally, this could be stated as stay in character, but keep smiling joyfully mocks the stereotypical stage mom who can be spotted yelling, “Sing out, Louise!” from the wings.

Keep smiling.

I like to think of this as a dramatic restating of the “the show must go on.” Because what does it really mean that the show must go on? It doesn’t just mean the show needs to start regardless of difficulty – it needs to continue regardless of difficulty.

The show must go on. Stay in character. Never break.

Keep smiling.

My father had stories of actors who improvised in iambic pentameter or who effortlessly recovered from defective – or fiendishly altered – props.

The pros don’t miss a beat.

The wonder of live theater is that you never know what’s going to happen. Every run is a little different. Every moment something could go wrong. And it’s pretty much a fact of theater that inevitably something will go wrong.

But it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, whatever unexpected thing comes your way, the show must go on. Never miss a beat. Never break character.

Just keep going and remember the first rule of show business: keep smiling.


From Spain’s 15-M Movement: The Charter for Democracy

Stacco Troncoso and his colleagues at Guerrilla Translation, in Madrid, have completed an English translation of an important statement from Spain, “The Charter for Democracy,” which should be of great interest to small-d democrats throughout the world. He explains that “the group behind the piece, “Movimiento por la Democracia” (Movement for Democracy) is undoubtedly one of the most important evolutions of Spain’s 15-M movement.  It clearly targets the political arena without desiring to become a political party itself. Their ‘Charter for Democracy’ is an inspiring, thorough text on what politics should be. It proposes a politics for the people: squarely grounded in environmental realities and social justice, based on the Commons, defended from corporate interests and neoliberal dictates.” 

The Movement for Democracy introduces itself this way:

"We emerged during the destruction of an economic and political model that, by its decadence, makes us poorer, excludes us, and exiles us from our own cities and towns...we are here to take democracy into our own hands, to defend against the constant threat of its systematic robbery...we are the Movement for Democracy and we came into being to say, “Yes we can!” a thousand times and more. And as we hold this to be true, that we actually can, we will challenge whoever tells us it’s impossible."

The Charter for Democracy is “a thoroughly detailed plan for the transformation of public policy and democratic representation, open for public challenge and participation,” said Troncoso, whose network of translators acted as “compilers and editors of a volunteer group-produced work” in making the English translation.  A hearty thanks to translators Jaron Rowan, Jaime Palomera, Lucía Lara, Lotta, Diego and Stacco Troncoso, with editing by Jane Loes Lipton. I love that the Charter is illustrated with some beautiful original illustrations by Clismón, one of which I include here.

Here are the opening paragraphs of this inspiring document:

This Charter was born of a deep malaise: lack of prospects, mass unemployment, cuts in social rights and benefits, evictions, political and financial corruption, dismantling of public services. It was drafted in reaction to the social majority’s growing lack of confidence in the promises of a political system devoid of legitimacy and the ability to listen.

The two-party system, widespread corruption, the financial dictatorship imposed by austerity policies and the destruction of public goods have dealt the final blow to a democracy long suffering from its own limits. These limits were already present in the 1978 Constitution. They can be summarized as a political framework that neither protects society from the concentration of power in the hands of the financial groups, nor from the consolidation of a non-representative political class. This political framework has established a system which is hardly open to citizen participation, and unable to construct a new system of collective rights for our protection and common development. This is evident in the fact that, despite some very significant public demonstrations, the demands of the vast majority of the population have repeatedly been ignored.

read more

The Village Square’s Creative Civic Conversations

We recently read a great piece in the Christian Science Monitor that featured one of NCDD’s organizational members, The Village Square, and we hope you’ll take a few moments to read it. Much like the Albany Roundtable that we just recently featured on the blog, The Village Square is creating a civic infrastructure that brings people together for regular conversations on local politics.

The CSM article, titled “Civil Discourse That Doesn’t Taste Like Broccoli”, was penned by NCDD member Liz Joyner, who works for Village Square, and details the history and approach of this innovative organization. In it, Liz details how The Village Square has taken its inspiration from our nation’s early days of politics:

In the early 1800s, things weren’t looking particularly good for the American experiment in self-governance. Coming to Washington with differences of opinion natural to a vast new land, early legislators lived and ate in boarding houses that became entrenched voting blocs. Thomas Jefferson wrote that these men came to work “in a spirit of avowed misunderstanding, without the smallest wish to agree.”

Apparently neither human nature nor legislatures have changed much since.

Jefferson’s solution was to bring lawmakers to the White House in diverse groups for good dinner and conversation. Two hundred years later, The Village Square takes a page from his book when we invite politically diverse citizens to break bread at our “Dinner at the Square” series or “Take-out Tuesday” town meetings.

As Liz notes, the concept of a coming together in a village square is not in any way a new idea. Yet in a time when we have grown disconnected from our communities and polarized into echo chambers of like-minded people, creating a common space to come together with those we disagree with is increasingly a radical idea.

The Village Square project exists to help create and hold that space:

…The Village Square engages people socially around civic issues – bringing neighbors back in relationship with each other across ideological difference. People aren’t built to reexamine the basics of their positions unless they feel some sense of friendship and common purpose with those suggesting they do so.

But as Liz notes, getting folks from our polarized, siloed communities to sit down and talk is some times like pulling teeth. That is why Village Square takes a fun and playful approach to its serious civic work.

To address this challenge, our irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment. Each event is casual (the stage is set up to feel like the facilitator’s living room) and involves sharing food. As we begin, we give out two “civility bells,” ask that the audience avoid tribal “team clapping,” and share a quote to inspire our better angels. We welcome fluid audience participation and always try to laugh.

From here our formats vary widely – ranging from huge community dinners with a panel and social time, to 20 elected officials moving from table to table in “Speed Date your Local Leader,” to a barbecue competition between a Republican and Democratic commissioner.

It’s creative ideas for bringing people together that The Village Square is bringing to cities in Florida, California, and Missouri – and hopefully more. We encourage you to read Liz’s full article in the Christian Science Monitor, which you can find at, and learn more about The Village Square at

Local v. National

“Local” and “national” are generally considered to be vastly different scales which can also be differentiated from their intermediaries of “regional” and “state-level” – not to mention the overarching “international.”

But are these scales inherently different? Or is there something in the framing that can bring these views together?

Conventionally, one imagines the “local” activist entirely absorbed in the intrigue of a few square miles. Interacting with a relatively small network of individuals whom they are just as likely to encounter in the grocery store as at a community meeting. The local actor is king of a tiny hill.

The “national” activist, on the other hand, seeks the holy grail – broad policy solutions to complex, context-dependent problems. Interacting with others from across the country caught up in this impossible quest, the national activist tries desperately to knit a patchwork of local perspectives into a cohesive whole.

These are caricatures, to be sure.

Regardless of one’s local/national orientation, it’s generally agreed that both (or all) levels of effort are needed to bring about change. Yet even with this conscious respect, subtle hints and innuendo hint at secret disdain for divergent approaches.

Local activists think too small. National activists are out of touch.

I’ve enjoyed the pros and cons of working at national, regional, and local levels – though, for full disclosure, local is where the bulk of my experience lies.

And perhaps it’s this local orientation, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a different way to think about national work.

It doesn’t have to be a pyramid with local feeding up to regional, feeding up to national. Logistically, you’d probably need some such structure, but I imagine something much more dynamic and lateral.

What if people working locally in Somerville, MA connected with people working locally in Oakland, CA? What lessons could we learn from each other? What strategies could we share? What could we learn about the role of context – why what works in Oakland doesn’t necessarily work in Somerville?

And what if instead of crying, not in my back yard, we jointly found solutions – if we jointly explored cycles of gentrification and poverty.

I imagine a national network of local activists. Focused on the problems of their neighbors, but mindful of realities a thousand miles away. Activists who can track how a change in this community effects a change in that community. Who can think thoughtfully and collectively about how the complex pieces connect to a complex whole.

Somehow, when stated that way, local and national don’t seem so different any more.