Addressing the Problem of Separation through Dialogue

In these divided times, we wanted to share an encouraging piece that NCDD member organization Public Agenda recently posted on their blog. It summarizes insights gained from focus groups PA convened which demonstrated something our field knows – when people from different perspectives engage in dialogue, they realize they aren’t so different or separate after all. We encourage you to read PA’s piece below or find the original version here.


What Discussing Polarizing Topics Like Inequality Exposes

After a divisive election season we continue to see stark evidence of polarization and conflict in our society. But also – and this is less frequently reported on – we see a desire to bridge gaps and find common ground.

Polarization is about more than simply holding differing or even opposing views. These days, it is also about how people with a certain view are, by choice or circumstance, increasingly isolated from those who think differently. The interaction of diverse views is valuable, but the trend of increasing separation of and decreasing interaction between those who hold opposing views is troubling and potentially consequential. The less we interact with those who think differently, the more hardened our views tend to become, and the more apt we are to vilify one another and rely on stereotypes, which in turn further divide us.

Such political polarization is on the rise. While this is much more extreme among political leaders, there are also troubling signs that it is becoming more true among the public. According to a 2014 Pew survey of over 10,000 Americans, Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the past two decades. And, among those who hold “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” views, the majority of each group report that most of their close friends hold their same views.

However, it is important to not gloss over the rest of the story. According to the same study:

These sentiments are not shared by all – or even most – Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.

And while those with more “consistently held” ideological views are more likely than others to say it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views, still only 28% of Americans overall say this is important to them. Growing numbers of Americans also say racial diversity in the United States is important to them: in another Pew survey from this month, 64% of Americans said an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in the U.S. makes the country a better place to live, an increase from 56% who said so in August 2016.

When we convened groups of ideologically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse Americans in six large and small urban centers across the country to discuss the economy, inequality, and opportunity, people were clearly grateful for the exposure to different viewpoints and people.

Sitting in on each of these groups, I knew that the participants were a diverse yet accurate cross-section of their surrounding community. I knew there were Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; wealthy and unemployed people; and people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds sitting together at the table. Some of these differences were evident to our participants, others less so.

This meant that participants had many valuable moments of listening to, and learning from, people with very different backgrounds and experiences from their own. And it meant that when consensus emerged within the group, despite the diversity of views, it could be revelatory and important.

One example of learning from others’ experiences involved conversations about race and prejudice. In our Cincinnati group, there was an exchange about whether racial prejudice that limited people’s job prospects was more problematic than other forms of prejudice, such as gender or age discrimination. While there was no clear resolution to the discussion, white respondents were clearly deeply affected by the following story told by a black woman:

Female: My first name is [considered typically black], and I got out of my master’s program and I looked for a job for months, and months, and months…. I redid my résumé and instead of putting my full name, I just put my first initial, then my last name. Voilà.

Moderator: How do you feel about that?

Female: It’s sad. It’s sad. I personally named my daughter a white-sounding name so that in the future, when she gets old enough to get a job, she can get a job because her name sounds white.

Male: Wow.

Female: I considered that when I named her. It’s sad.

Cincinnati-area resident; in her 30s; black; upper-income; Democrat

In our follow-up interviews with respondents several days after the group, a number of people said this story stayed with them, including two white males. To me, it seemed that if they had not been brought together for this research focus group, they might not have ever had such exposure to an experience like the one this woman shared.

A good example of the importance of finding consensus also came from a participant in our Cincinnati group, who was surprised to find he had common ground with another participant who was different from him on numerous counts:

Now, you know, she’s a young African American female and I’m a more senior white male and she’s working and I’m retired, and we still came out thinking the same way. I think that’s kinda cool. That doesn’t mean her and I were right or wrong it just means we thought the same on that. I tend to be a conservative person and this made me think other ways, you know, whether I agreed or not but it made me come up with other ways to look at things. And I liked that.

Cincinnati-area resident; in his 70s; white; upper-income; Republican

Diversity of viewpoints and experience is not the problem we are faced with, but rather the separation we have between those who hold those different views and have had those different experiences, and the lack of ways to bring people of differing views together to gain perspective from one another. You can read more about these focus groups and the conversations between participants in the research report, The Fix We’re In.

You can find the original version of this Public Agenda blog piece at www.publicagenda.org/blogs/what-discussing-polarizing-topics-like-inequality-exposes.

Key Lessons on Community-Police Relations from APV2017

Last week, NCDD member orgs the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute hosted the 2017 “A Public Voice” forum that convened D&D practitioners with congressionl staff to talk about how to improve community-police relations. For those of you who couldn’t tune in to the livestream of the event, we wanted to share this insightful write up of the event’s highlights from our friends at Everyday Democracy below. We encourage you to read their piece below or find the original here. And if you’d like to watch the whole 90-minute recording of APV 2017, you can find links to it here.


A Public Voice 2017: Safety & Justice

EvDem LogoHighly-publicized police shootings, especially of unarmed black boys and men, have highlighted a national crisis of public safety and justice. These devastations lead us to ask how we can reduce crime as well as police violence, and how we can balance security and liberty. The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) recently published a Safety & Justice guide and is moderating forums throughout the country to help people grapple with these issues and work towards solutions.

“A Public Voice,” the Kettering Foundation and NIFI’s “annual exploration of public thinking on key issues,” held on May 9 in Washington, D.C., provided the opportunity for Kettering to share with policymakers their insights from the 150 Safety & Justice forums held so far. Senior Associate Leslie King represented Everyday Democracy.

In his opening address, David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, declared “There is no one in this city, no matter how important they are, that can answer questions of judgement – we have to do that.” He characterized the event as part of the work to bridge divides between the people and the government of America.

At tabletop discussions, NIFI moderators, deliberative practitioners, Congressional staffers and federal officials discussed how people are thinking and talking about issues of safety and justice. Those watching the livestream of the event had the chance to listen in to one of those discussions. Read on for insights from the conversation.

A policing perspective

“We in policing have to demystify policing,” one participant remarked, and went on to describe a 70 year-old woman who only just learned about the concept of community policing after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Part of demystifying the profession, according to him, requires acknowledging when someone has done wrong – otherwise, he said, the public assumes what police are thinking.

Talking about Safety & Justice leads to conversations about, and capacity to address, other issues

Leslie King pointed out that in dialogues about community-police relations, participants invariably end up talking about related issues such as employment, housing, and education. Having dialogues and organizing around community-police relations, she added, ends up building community capacity to deal with other issues. Community members realize they have agency and that government officials can’t simply dictate solutions.

People want to address root causes

In an online Safety & Justice forum, a representative from Kettering shared that the most-agreed-upon point was the need to invest more in education in communities with high rates of crime. He saw this as evidence of people’s desire to address root causes of violence and crime.

Gail Kitch, who serves on the NIFI’s board, reported on common themes from the initial Safety & Justice forums. These included:

  • People feel we urgently need to increase understanding and mutual respect between police and people of color. Popular suggestions for achieving this included police making connections with youth, and police going through cultural and racial bias trainings.
  • Participants took responsibility for the issue. Many identified community building and improving relationships within the community as tools to reduce crime.
  • Many expressed the belief that it is unsustainable for police to deal with mental illness and drug-related issues.
  • People expressed a desire to address root problems such as unemployment, poverty, and inequality.

In closing, Mathews described Kettering’s work as “awakening the capacities of people to deliberate with one another.” He left participants and viewers with a challenge he called daunting, but not hopeless: “to build on what grows” – a quote he credited to J. Herman Blake. Every person has the capacity for good judgement, he said — the job of people in the deliberative field, then, must be to nurture that ability.

You can find the original version of this Everyday Democracy blog post at www.everyday-democracy.org/news/public-voice-2017-safety-justice.

Navigating a Polarized Landscape with Our Nonpartisan Credentials Intact

In the post-2016 election landscape where talk of “threats to democracy” abounds, many organizations focused on deliberative democracy and public engagement, including NCDD, have had to relearn not only how to balance participating in public conversation about issues that didn’t used to seem partisan before, but how to do so while maintaining our nonpartisan stances and not violating our organizational or personal values. It’s not easy, which is why we appreciated NCDD member org Healthy Democracy‘s recent piece that offers solid advice for how to evaluate and maintain our nonpartisan nature in this fraught new environment. We highly recommend you read their piece below or find the original here.


Nonpartisan Hygiene: 6 Tips to Stay Squeaky Clean

We find ourselves in a political moment where significant sectors of the country warn of existential threats to our democracy. This began before the 2016 election, but it has since reached a fever pitch. Signals such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s recent “downgrade” of the US from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” have added fuel to the fire. At Healthy Democracy, we do not take a position about whether these threats are real or not, though we spend a great deal of time trying to improve our democracy.

Nonpartisan “Positions”

As a nonpartisan organization, we cannot take a position that would turn off members of any political or demographic group. This is because we rely on our reputation as unbiased process experts when working with citizens from across the political spectrum. Additionally, we don’t take positions on issues that might come before a Citizens Initiative Review panel, including the proposals of our peers in the elections reform space.

In some ways, this makes it easy for us to choose the issues on which we take a public position (pretty much nothing), but when “threats to our democracy” come up, and considering our name is Healthy Democracy, what do we do? Do we retweet a statement praising a free press? Or is publicly expressing support for a free press now viewed as a partisan act?

We can make these decisions ad hoc, but we risk inconsistency, or worse: letting our personal perspectives and biases sway our decisions. We realized that Healthy Democracy needed to do some thinking. Some nonpartisan hygiene, if you will, to get our internal activities and the external communication of our work squarely in our nonpartisan ethos.

As a result of our analysis, we humbly share some “nonpartisan hygiene” tips that may come in handy to other organizations in this space, including bipartisan political organizations, nonpartisan think tanks, newsrooms, and professional organizations. Government scientists and policy thinkers may find this helpful, as well. This is written with nonpartisan nonprofits in mind, but please take from it anything that is helpful to your organization’s needs.

What we lose when we’re not scrupulously nonpartisan

There is an idea that floats around nonpartisan and social good organizations that we have “nonpartisan capital” that builds up when an organization is nonpartisan for a long time. The theory goes that we can spend this capital in little bits when it’s worth it, for example when a politician does something particularly egregious, or when a policy is implemented that violates our ethics. I speculate that this thinking is dangerous and flawed. Being nonpartisan is an all-or-nothing proposition when it comes to public perception. This is part of why nonpartisan spaces are precious and scarce.

Additionally, that perceived “nonpartisan capital” should not be mistaken for influence or power. Even if we accept the idea of nonpartisan capital, we cannot reliably mete it out, spending only enough to “make a difference” without trashing our reputation. In fact, we risk throwing away our most precious resource if we view it, incorrectly, as something can be given away in metered chunks.

6 Tips to Stay Squeaky Clean and Effective

1. Reassess your internal and external values. Most nonprofits have a set of values articulated in their strategic plan. These are typically things like transparency, service, and inclusion. Often, these are internal values about how the organization runs itself, or they are a mix of internal and external values. Take transparency, for instance. This is a laudable internal value, and many nonpartisan nonprofits list it among their core values. But if a politician or public figure does something that violates that value, should the organization publicly condemn it? Probably only if transparency is a core external value, such as the fictional nonpartisan group, Americans for Transparent Government.

Do the same exercise with service and inclusion and you can see how this can get tricky if you don’t have a clear sense of your organization’s internal versus external values. Spend some time clarifying internal and external values in a board meeting, retreat, staff meeting, or chat. If you are starting from scratch naming external values, start with your mission and think about what you need to do to keep credibility in your space. Your communications team should be well-apprised of these values, since they are on the front lines of selecting the media with which the organization affiliates and interacts.

2. Shore up your nonpartisan bonafides among your staff, board, and partners. The simplest way to get nonpartisan credibility is to have actual political diversity on your staff, even if you don’t publicly identify your political affiliations. Not only will this increase your organization’s credibility, it will make you better at your work.

If you have trouble attracting staff from one side of political spectrum, examine that! If you can’t easily hire to bring more political diversity onto your staff, consider affiliating with a thoughtful person who brings a different political orientation and is willing to consult now and again. If you have a question about whether a particular activity or position would be viewed as overtly partisan, get their take on it. This can reveal blind spots and save your bacon. And there is really no reason not to have a board that reflects political – and other – diversity.

3. Play out scenarios, both commonplace and extreme. In your retreat, staff meeting, or chat, start with your external values and play out some scenarios that would challenge them. Consider everything from the commonplace (“Should we retweet this?”) to the extreme (“What if we were asked to do our program on a policy that offends our values?”). In our version of this conversation, we asked ourselves whether we would agree to deliver a Citizens’ Initiative Review on a fictional ballot measure. The fictional measure would require members of a particular religious faith to register with the state government. This kind of policy deeply offends our personal values, and would be an “extreme” scenario.

We talked through the pitfalls: would our participation lend legitimacy to an unconscionable policy? Would we run the risk of becoming tainted by affiliating ourselves with the public conversation about the measure? We decided, somewhat to our surprise, that we would do it; we would deliver a citizen review of the measure. But only if we were sure it could be done in a fair and unbiased way, as with every measure we review. The legitimacy question is moot; the measure is already on the fictional ballot. Our participation would simply allow the voters of that state to shine a light on the measure, and that’s a good thing. You really have to believe in your programs in a case like this. Thankfully, we do.

4. Invite external evaluations of partisanship and effectiveness. Be transparent about the results, and make changes in response to critical feedback. Take advantage of university researchers who will fund themselves to research your work! Think of this like ripping off a band-aid. If you get spotless evaluations the first time, great, but you probably won’t. Be transparent about your efforts to improve non-partisanship and you’ll reap greater effectiveness and rewards.

We’re proud that every Citizens’ Initiative Review has been evaluated by independent university researchers, and we owe a great deal our credibility as a deliverer of fair and unbiased processes to those evaluation results. This is worth its weight in gold. If you can’t find a university researcher, at least partner occasionally with an external auditor of your programs to shore up your internal evaluation methods and get a reality check on how well you’re doing.

5. Be uncompromising in your affiliations. Hold partners to a high standard of nonpartisanship and rigor. If your work calls for you to affiliate with partisan groups, seek a balance. Don’t work with anyone who doesn’t evaluate their work, or who misrepresents themselves as nonpartisan when they’re not scrupulously so.

6. Hold the nonpartisan space. Nonpartisan spaces are scarce and valuable. There are many actors in the advocacy space. Let them do their jobs, and let us do ours.

You can find the original version of this Healthy Democracy blog piece at www.healthydemocracy.org/blog/nonpartisan.

Envisioning What We Can Do Together in NCDD

The NCDD network has been finding new ways to address the deep divisions in our world. Most recently, following the 2016 Presidential election, we’ve found our work to be more critical than ever. Our network has been thinking a lot about #BridgingOurDivides, and we think now is the time to get excited about what we can do together!

XS Purple NCDD logoThe Opportunities We See

Recently, NCDD has been working with the American Library Association on their newest project, Libraries Transforming Communities: Models for Change. This project brings training on numerous D&D methods to librarians eager to learn how they can apply them in their communities. And boy, are librarians eager! We’ve had at least 500 librarians participate in the project to date. This provides an exciting opportunity to introduce librarians to NCDD members, and NCDD’s hope is to expand this effort to include more direct connections between libraries and our members. These libraries will need some guidance and support as they get started with these community engagement efforts – and what better support system than NCDD members!

Our Confab Calls have been focused on new opportunities to connect and collaborate to bridge divides. Recent calls have featured Not In Our Town, which works with communities to address issues of hate and intolerance, and Journalism That Matters, bringing together journalists and public engagement practitioners to explore areas for collaboration. These are just the start of conversations about ways we can align our work to help our communities engage in dialogue on the issues important to them.

NCDD has also been talking with new folks and organizations about opportunities to connect to and tap into our membership. Information on new opportunities are coming soon from the 92nd Street Y’s Ben Franklin Circles, The Chisel, and others for our network to work with, connect to, and collaborate!

Finding new avenues for collaboration, whether with libraries, journalists, or other organizations and sectors is essential to expanding and sustaining the work of bringing people together across traditional lines to make decisions on the issues that affect them. We’re excited for what’s to come, new opportunities, and ways we can continue to help bridge the divides in our communities and nation.

Stay in the Loop!

Make sure you don’t miss out on these opportunities – be sure to join,  renew, or upgrade your membership in NCDD to stay in the loop! NCDD members hear about new events and work opportunities first and get access to special opportunities! Plus, being a member of NCDD gets you a seat at our table – our membership is at the heart of NCDD, and we consult and work with our membership to create programming, explore collaborations, and more!

If you’re currently a non-dues-paying member, the last day to upgrade your membership before the new changes to membership benefits take full effect is June 15th. Don’t keep waiting! We want you to continue to be a part of the future of NCDD and the dialogue & deliberation field, so join usrenew, or upgrade your membership today!

Tune into “A Public Voice” Safety & Justice Event Tomorrow!

We want to remind the NCDD network – especially those of you focused on community-police dialogue – to tune in live to the 2017 “A Public Voice” event tomorrow, May 9th from 1:30 -3pm Eastern via Facebook Live.

APV2017 Facebook Event

“A Public Voice” is the annual event that the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute – both NCDD member orgs – host every year to bring public input on policy straight to Washington DC. This year’s APV forum will be a working meeting with Congressional staff about the results of the numerous forums on safety and community-police relationships that NIFI, many NCDD members, and other D&D organizations hosted this year using NIFI’s Safety & Justice issue guide.

They will be streaming the live event tomorrow on Facebook Live, and we encourage our network to join the broadcast, not just to watch, but to send in your questions, comments, and other feedback that will be incorporated directly into the event!

Don’t miss this important discussion! You can sign up for a reminder and find the link to the live feed on May 9th in the APV 2017 Facebook event or learn more at www.apublicvoice.org.

NCDDer Gives TEDx Talk on #BridgingOurDivides

Did you know that NCDD member Mark Gerzon did his own TED Talk recently?

We were proud to see Mark – the Founder and President of NCDD member org, the Mediators Foundation – speak at TEDxVail this past January about the need for our country to deepen the work of #BridgingOurDivides between the partisan left and right blocs. In his talk, he challenges us to take inspiration from the integration of the left and right parts of our own physiology as we consider the importance of going beyond partisanship.

We think Mark’s selection for this prestigious opportunity speaks to the power of the sorts of ideas that drive the work of NCDD. We encourage you to join us in congratulating Mark on the accomplishment, and check out his 11 minute talk below.

NCDD Members Win Big in Bridge Alliance Grant Competition

In case you missed it, we wanted to highlight the fact the a total of nine different NCDD member organizations were awarded grants as part of first round of the Bridge Alliance‘s Collective Impact competition. We think having so many NCDD members win grants in a competition aimed at helping transpartisan groups “to better collaborate on ways to fix political processes on the local, state, and national levels” is a huge testament to the powerful work that our network does. We invite you to join us in congratulating Bring it to the TableDavenport Institute, Essential Partners, Healthy Democracy, Institute for Local GovernmentLiving Room Conversations, National Institute for Civil DiscoursePublic Agenda, Village Square, and all of the other winners!
You can learn more in the Bridge Alliance’s announcement below (we’ve marked the NCDD member orgs with an asterisk) or find the original here.


The Bridge Alliance Collective Impact $500,000 Grant First-Round Projects, March 2017

Recognizing that organizations cannot effectively bridge the broad political divide alone, the Bridge Alliance is awarding up to $1 million in Collective Impact grants in 2017 to enable our member organizations to better collaborate on ways to fix political processes on the local, state and national levels. We are pleased to announce today the awarding of more than $525,000 in inaugural grants, to be shared by two dozen Bridge Alliance member organizations.

These joint projects will help members implement and test innovative approaches in our Alliance’s three core areas: expanding civic engagement and participation; improving governance; and reforming campaign and election processes. The programs are designed to generate tools, ideas and best practices for all Bridge Alliance members to use and to multiply the impact of each group’s work.

Additional grants will be awarded later this year, financed in partnership with Invest American Fund and others.

GOVERNANCE 

  • Improve the workings of state legislatures nationwide bybringingtogether legislators from across the country to study how to talk with others with opposing views and how to reach policy decisions without or with minimum acrimony.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: National Institute for Civil Discourse*; State Legislative Leaders Foundation; National Foundation of Women Legislators.  Grant amount: $50,000 in two phases.

  • Make local government meetings and decision making more effective by distributing a toolkit to make public meetings more productive and guide how people inside and outside of local government perceive and communicate with each other.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Public Agenda*; Cities of Service; Institute of Local Government*. Grant amount: $45,000

CIVIC PARTICIPATION & ENGAGEMENT

  • Help people and groups find opposing forces who are willing to talk and stimulate dialogue between those of differing viewpoints by creating an online “matchmaking site” to help divergent Bridge Association members and others find each other for open conversations on difficult issues.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: AllSides, Living Room Conversations*, Digital Citizen. Grant amount: $65,000

  • Find out if voters can make better-informed decisions on initiatives and referenda, by expanding and testing new Citizen Initiative Review Panels’ voter information guides in a California demonstration project.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Public Agenda*, Davenport Institute*, Healthy Democracy*. Grant amount: $60,000

  • Enable open conversation between leaders and groups with diverging views, with a test project in Utah to train civil discourse facilitators who will lead and teach others how to find common ground for discussion.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Essential Partners*, Living Room Conversations*, Village Square*. Grant amount: $45,000

  • Improve government decision making and civic participation by better informing people of government procedures, successes and roadblocks, by creating, testing and distributing a new series of radio, TV and webcasts.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: AllSides, Living Room Conversations*, Bring it to the Table*, Coffee Party. Grant amount: $38,000

  • >Harness the power of social media to showcase positive acts of governing instead of just the negative, through research, tests and the participation of social media experts and companies

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Civil Politics, Living Room Conversations*, Village Square*. Grant amount: $25,000

  • Create a new model for Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs to come together in face-to-face conversations, with social media tools and guidelines to allow all Bridge Member groups, other organizations, and individuals to organize powerful “circles” and moderated dinners for cross-party dialogue and civil debate.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: 92Y, Village Square*. Grant amount: $90,000 in two phases

CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS

  • Educate voters where new election processes are in place or under consideration, such as open primaries and ranked choice voting.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Fair Vote, Open Primaries, Reconsider Media, Independent Voter Project. Grant amount: $35,000

  • Encourage and enable more people to run for public office, with social and other media outreach to potential candidates and the public at large, to foster a more representative, responsive, and functional government.

Collaborating Bridge Alliance members: Centrist Project, Independent Voting.org, Represent.Us. Grant amount: $60,000

You can find the original version of this Bridge Alliance announcement at http://www.bridgealliance.us/collective_impact1.

D&D Partnerships with Libraries Can Change Communities

As we hope you’ve heard, NCDD is partnering with the American Library Association to build the capacity of local library staff across the country to host and support dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement gatherings. We know these kinds of D&D-library collaborations can have huge impacts on issues facing any given community, and today we wanted to share a few great examples of what it can look like. NCDD member organization Common Knowledge published the piece below on three library-based dialogues they hosted, and we encourage you to read it below or find the original here.
Have you partnered with a local library? We’d love to hear how it went and what you learned – tell us about it in the comments section!


We Learned it at the Library

Common Knowledge was originally founded to put a more inclusive “public” in public participation. Over the years, we’ve grown to see it’s equally important to put more “unity” in community.

At Common Knowledge, we’ve designed hundreds of programs and trainings that bring people together to listen together and learn together. This cumulative experience leads us to one powerful conclusion: greater inclusion leads to greater innovation. And much of what we’ve learned has resulted from projects based in California public libraries. Libraries today are uniquely positioned to be the neutral “safe space” for inclusive community conversations that let people connect as humans and learn about what is possible when we listen and learn together.

Our cumulative experience leads us to one powerful conclusion: greater inclusion leads to greater innovation.

Here are three examples of library-based dialogues that sparked meaningful outcomes:

Engaging new voters

The “average” voter has higher education and higher income than the U.S. population as a whole. The Key to Community Project worked to close this education gap by inviting adult students to help design their own program for engaging with civic issues and voting. They started by inviting fellow students to help choose topics they were interested in and co-facilitated dialogues on topics such as jobs, criminal justice and education. These discussions led to significant shifts in perspectives, as one student told me: “My whole world opened up.” Thinking went from “it’s too overwhelming and I don’t have a say” to “hey, we could do something about this. At least I can start by voting.”

The discussions created increased demand for fun, hands-on voting workshops, also facilitated by the adult students. The Key to Community Project also led to the creation of the popular Easy Voter Guide, published for each statewide election in five languages, used over the years by 60 newspapers and thousands of organizations and libraries across the state. Ultimately, though, it was these real, personal and engaged dialogues on topics that the community identified that stimulated the most dramatic increases in voter engagement, including a doubling of turnout among audiences least likely to vote.

Bridging social divides

There’s been a lot of publicity and inflamed public commentary about the tech workforce displacing longer-term residents in the Bay Area. Two years ago, a focus group at the San Francisco Public Library invited tech workers and low-income residents to talk together about the challenges of living in San Francisco. Because the discussion was framed as a human-to-human conversation between equals rather than a polarized debate between “haves” and “have-nots,” participants empathized with each other and came to see that they were all struggling with some aspect of the changing city.

The opportunity to trade stories is powerful. Some of the low-income participants were surprised to discover that the young tech employees were having difficulty affording rent too. One tech worker shared that he camps out at least three nights a month so he can rent his apartment on Airbnb to make extra income. That was his solution to making ends meet. One of the participants who lives in a single room occupancy hotel responded: “Geez, at least I know where I’m going to sleep every night.”

The point of the focus group was not to reach a conclusion or solution about the city’s changing demographics. In the spirit of non-partisan community connections, the session led to a later partnership with library literacy students helping local leaders working in the field of civic tech. Together they tested a “co-discovery” process that puts direct contact with city residents at the heart of civic tech development projects.

Making it safe to talk about housing

Outside of the formal policy-making process, the Novato Public Library provided a “safe” space for community members to come together, share their experiences with housing issues, and learn about the current state of housing and transportation in their county. The attendees included a mix of ages and professions: a nurse, teacher, insurance broker, dog walker, health manager, administrative assistant and others. Their commonality is that they were not organized advocates who already had a strong point of view.

When they were invited to help pilot the “What’s Next Marin?” dialogue, a few expressed concerns based on past dialogues they had attended. “Will I need to wear a flak jacket?” one asked. By the end of the evening, however, the group confirmed that it was “informative” and “gave them hope.” They had a better understanding of how everyone was experiencing current conditions and identified some areas of common ground. They discovered more options for things they themselves could do to help the situation along with ways to get involved in the policy process. They thanked the facilitators for making this “a different kind of meeting.” That pilot launched additional forums at other branches, including a recent session specifically for young adults 21–29.

This fall Common Knowledge is pleased to be piloting Libraries Lead the Way, a comprehensive project-based Community Engagement and Facilitation Skills Training program, with public libraries across Northern California. We will keep you posted about the great examples of local leadership and what else we are learning at the library. And we invite you to support public libraries’ efforts to create and sustain community connections.

You can find the original version of this Common Knowledge blog post at www.ckgroup.org/we-learned-it-at-the-library.

Deepening D&D’s Impact by Connecting Politicians to Theorists through Practitioners

We recently came across an article that frames a key issue in our field so well that we had to share it. The piece is by Lucy Parry, a researcher with NCDD member org Participedia, and Wendy Russell of the Canberra Center for Deliberative Democracy, both of whom are contributors for The Policy Space blog. In it, they describe the gaps and similarities between D&D theorists and practitioners, and the power of their synergy. They propose that in order for our field to influence policy outcomes and ultimately help our democratic systems become more deliberative, we have to connect politicians and elected officials meaningfully to our field’s theoretical grounding, and that D&D practitioners might be the right bridge for that connection.
What do you think? How should D&D theorists and practitioners work together? How should they not? We encourage you to read the excerpt below from the Lucy’s great piece and read the full version here.


Bridging the Gap: why deliberative democracy needs theorists and practitioners to work together

…[O]ne of the obstacles for successful use of deliberative approaches is the challenge of bringing the normative ideals of deliberative democratic theory – what it should look like and what functions it should serve – to the reality of political decision-making contexts. This raises a potential ‘gap’ between deliberative academics and practitioners, given the constraints of translating normative theory into workable political reality….

In general, practitioners work at the coalface, adapting to political constraints and timeframes, and doing what works in these contexts. Researchers tend to stand back, describe how best practice should look, and critique attempts to achieve it. In bringing a critical eye they play an important function, but collaboration between theory and practice is clearly important…

In some ways, practitioners of deliberative democracy are uniquely placed at the interface between theory and policy worlds and can act as mediators between the two. On the one hand, they work within the constraints of policymaking, familiar with the day-to-day rigmarole. On the other, they have the most experience of real-life deliberative democracy: they see it, they do it. Practitioners know what deliberative processes can achieve, in empowering citizens and improving the quality and legitimacy of political decisions. They also know how deliberative approaches can fail.

It is arguably the case that despite the different work that theorists and practitioners do, they park their cars in the same garage; sharing a commitment to enhancing inclusiveness and public reasoning in political decision-making. What’s more, practitioners are uniquely placed to bridge a much wider gulf: between theorists and policymakers….

We encourage you to read the full original version by Lucy Parry and Wendy Russell of The Policy Space at www.thepolicyspace.com.au/2016/17/125-bridging-the-gap-why-deliberative-democracy-needs-theorists-and-practitioners-to-work-together.