Undivided Nation Bridging Divides One State at a Time

Have you been keeping up with the travels of NCDD member Undivided Nation? David and Erin Leaverton and their family are traveling to every state in the US in order to listen to peoples’ stories and bring folks together over dinner to dialogue with “the other”; all to explore the myriad of experiences in our country and to find our connection points despite differences. They have shared with us a powerful learning opportunity they experienced in their journey about the way divisions manifest in peoples’ lives and emphasized the need to address the oppressive realities that exist only for certain groups of people.

On their journey, they would like to develop a film, Know Thy Other, to share their experiences of this important work of listening and bridging divides  The film will document their travels and powerful conversations; in hopes of better understanding what divides us and address the bigotry that comes from not recognizing the humanity of “the other”. Help amplify the impact of their work by donating to the film’s Kickstarter! You can read the post below and we encourage you to donate to their tax-deductible Kickstarter here.


It’s Hard to Reconcile with Someone Who Has a Boot on Your Neck

By David Leaverton

The 2016 Presidential election was a turning point in my life. Before my eyes, I saw many of my fellow countrymen treat each other not as political opponents, but as mortal enemies. Fear and division had gripped this land and I couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer.

As a newcomer to the NCDD community, I had a desire to help bridge these divides and see our nation united, but I knew I first needed to gain a deeper understanding of the problem before I could offer up any real solutions to the discussion.

To find the answers we were looking for, my wife and I sold our house, quit our jobs and set out on a 50-state road trip with our three kids. As I write this, I am looking out from our RV over the spectacular Greenbrier River in West Virginia, state number 12 on our journey. To say we have been transformed by this experience so far would be an understatement.

As we enter each new state, we often go into a community knowing no one and cold calling or emailing leaders and organizations who represent different groups within in the community. I was recently on the phone with a leading African-American individual in Savannah, GA, sharing our journey and our mission for reconciliation and unity in America.

As I shared the purpose of our trip, which is often met with interest or curiosity, this gentleman sounded almost offended at my goal to seek reconciliation and common ground. While he was neither hateful nor rude, he still gave it to me straight when he said, “It’s hard to reconcile with someone who has a boot on your neck.”

That one line changed me.

One thing I have come to realize on our journey is that there are a number of Americans who wake up every day with a feeling of oppression in an America that I didn’t know existed. This was so disappointing to me as a proud patriot who believes in the America where all men are touted as being equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

Thinking of this situation in literal terms, it is woefully insensitive for me to walk up to the individual on the ground with the boot on their neck to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation without first addressing the boot, and doing everything in my power to remove it.

I was never able to meet with this gentleman, but what I gained through his refusal to meet with me was probably more valuable.

I learned some important lessons about reconciliation from this brief but poignant conversation.

When we hope for reconciliation between two parties, we must first address and try to eliminate the cause of oppression or pain being experienced either party before the discussion can get too far. No one knows the boot better than the one whose neck it is on and they must be part of the process of understanding the situation. We may not have the ability to quickly remove the boot, but we can begin by acknowledging and addressing the situation as best we can.

I began this journey focused on our political divisions, but haven’t been able to get away from the racial divisions in our nation as I’ve begun to explore it. Many of the people we have spoken with, and this is by no means a scientific representative sample of the country, have been impacted more by our racial divides than the infighting in Congress.

Our history of oppression of Americans with deeper pigmentation in this country is extensive. Our journey across the country so far has taught us that slavery in America didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil War. Oppression has continued under different names such as convict leasing, sharecropping, peonage, lynching, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, among others. Although the current situation in our nation regarding racial and ethnic disparities is extremely complex beyond skin pigmentation, learning these truths about our history has been vital in our quest for reconciliation and unity.

While I still have more questions than answers on the subject of division in our country, I do know that at the end of our year-long journey, I can’t go back to being a silent bystander.

David Leaverton and his wife, Erin, are the founders of Undivided Nation, an organization focused on serving as a catalyst for reconciliation and unity in America. They live with their three children on an RV somewhere in America. Follow their journey at http://undividednation.us.

The Kettering Foundation and China-US Relations (Connections 2016)

The six-page article, “The Kettering Foundation and China-US Relations” by Wang Jisi was published in Kettering Foundation‘s 2016 edition of their annual newsletter, Connections – Kettering’s Multinational Research. In the eight article of the newsletter, Jisi shares his experience with Kettering’s consistent engagement with China for over three decades, by bringing together people from both the US and China to learn from each other and maintain relations. Below is an excerpt from the article and Connections 2016 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

From the article…

Since 1986, the Kettering Foundation has maintained a close and fruitful relationship with China, especially with China’s scholarly community. As a participant in this relationship from the beginning, I am both humbled at Kettering’s brave and strenuous efforts to strengthen US-China ties and proud of being a small part of them.

In 1986, when I was a junior lecturer in Peking University’s Department of International Politics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) cosponsored with the Kettering Foundation a group visit to the United States. The Chinese delegation was headed by Li Shenzhi, vice president of CASS, and consisted of several senior Chinese individuals and four “young observers,” including Yuan Ming of Peking University and myself. We toured Racine, Wisconsin, where we joined the US delegation headed by Kettering president David Mathews and attended a conference together, which covered world politics in general and China-US relations in particular. We were also entertained by local officials and celebrities in Racine. In fact, what impressed me most was not anything related to China-US relations, but a special session conducted by David Mathews, in which he vividly introduced Kettering’s political philosophy and approach to conducting its projects.

It was the first time I had ever heard a representative of an American NGO explain to us how it worked. During the Racine conference, we had interesting conversations with our US counterparts, some of whom had no China connection at all. Racine was a perfect location that allowed Chinese and American public citizens to get to know each other personally.

I confess, although I had spent 18 months at the University of California at Berkeley in 1984-1985 and toured other American cities and towns during that period, my personal contacts in the United States had been confined almost exclusively to Americans who were interested in China, East Asia, or international politics. It was Kettering that widened my horizon by bringing me to Racine and, later, to Dayton, Ohio, where its headquarters is located. This helped me become familiar with grassroots America. In this sense, Kettering opened a window for me—and presumably for many other Chinese colleagues who have participated in the Kettering programs—to observe and understand American society and domestic politics by way of knowing some “real” Americans who live in “typical” US cities like Dayton.

As one of the so-called “US watchers” in China, I used to make the analogy that the relationship between China and the United States is like a state-society relationship. In the China-US relationship, China acts as a state, a hierarchical structure of organizations like CASS and Peking University with individuals in them as a subordinating part, whereas America acts as a society, in which horizontal networks like the Kettering Foundation coexist with governmental organizations but are not subordinated to them. With my experience at Kettering, I have developed a strong belief that we will not be able to catch the essence of US foreign policy and US-China relations unless we understand how civil society functions in America. It will take more time for me, or other Chinese, to fully grasp the meaning of such concepts as “framing public deliberation.” Still, Kettering’s numerous programs have greatly benefited dozens of Chinese citizens and enriched our knowledge about the United States beyond government-to-government connections.

Indeed, it is my own observation that the greatest contribution Kettering has made to the ChinaUS relationship is to bring together social elites from the two societies, making friends between us, letting us know that we share the same purposes of life—happiness, love, family, harmony, and unity. To be sure, political and cultural differences, as well as geographical spans, divide the two peoples, but these differences are secondary if compared to our shared purposes of life as human beings.

This is just an excerpt, you can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2016 issue of Connections, edited by KF program officer and senior writer/editor Melinda Gilmore; KF senior associate Philip Stewart; and KF vice president, secretary, and general counsel Maxine Thomas, focuses on our year-long review of our multinational research.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Jisi-Connections-2016.pdf

Exploring How We Engage Values with Ben Franklin Circles

As we mentioned a couple of weeks back, we are going to be sharing stories from the Circles convened by NCDD member org, the Ben Franklin Circles. NCDD teamed up with BFC on this collaborative effort to bring alive the circle process our founding father, Ben Franklin, maintained for over 40 years. In the article, NCDD member Katherine Roxlo reflects on the Circle she convened in Scottsdale, Arizona with students from the Community College Initiative; and how the experience impacted the youth, as well as, affected how the values play out in her life. You can read the post below and find the original post on BFC’s site here.


Circle Spotlight: Katherine from Phoenix

Name: Katherine Roxlo
Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona (Circle is in nearby Scottsdale)
Sponsor Organization: Scottsdale Community College
Date Launched: August 30, 2017

What attracted you to Ben Franklin Circles?
I have always been interested in respectful conversations and community. The Ben Franklin Circles give me an opportunity to reflect on important values in a constructive fashion and to develop a special community in my life. Concentrating on one value at a time has allowed me to work the values into my life. I feel that morality, ethics and respectful conversations that incorporate the good of our local and national community are at a low point right now in the U.S. The Circles are one small step in the right direction for me. And small steps are GOOD!

How did you recruit members for your Circle? Any lessons learned?
I sent out proposals to conduct Ben Franklin Circles to a number of organizations, including youth groups, senior citizen groups, schools and churches. Scottsdale Community College took me up on it! It is a perfect way to incorporate ethics into a class and to give the students a time to reflect on what they are doing.

I love the question that Ben Franklin started his day with: “What good can I do today?” We start each meeting with a meditation, prayer or moment of silence. It allows us all to calm down from our busy schedules and get centered. During this opening moment, we always ask, “What good can I do today? What good can we do for our community?”

How has hosting a Ben Franklin Circle impacted you?
So many ways! My Circle is made up of Community College Initiative (CCI) students. These are foreign students on a nine-month scholarship program in the U.S. with the goals of learning, gaining experience through internships in a field of interest and contributing to the community through 100-plus hours of volunteer service.

It is an honor to work with these bright students. I see them struggling, but also improving their talents, every time we meet. Some are speaking out more and improving their English. Some are taking on leadership roles. Some are learning to use their time more constructively.

Working with the group gives me extreme hope for the future. They are all thoughtful and smart. At first, the group was a little quiet. But, at the last two meetings, we started letting different students run different parts of the meeting. One conducts the opening. One reviews the past value, one the new value. One student keeps us on schedule. One student runs the last part of the meeting, which we call sharing, listening, caring. I was very impressed with how easily they stepped up to the plate. Giving them the opportunity has been enlightening for me! Now I just sit back, take notes and ask some questions. Often, I am working on my own issues with the virtue.

It is interesting to see the differences in values that they have. Their perspectives have been very good for me. They do not have the food addictions and issues with weight that many Americans have. They place a higher value on personal downtime and family time than those of us in the U.S. They say that Americans must be told everything specifically and literally, that we do not take hints that are obvious in their culture. They are more receptive to unspoken communication. This has been really valuable to me. I see how I can apply these perceptions to my own life in order to be a better person.

Which virtue means the most to you personally and why?
I am not sure. With temperance, I focused on tempering my use of playing solitaire on my cell phone. I had to keep my cell phone in another room at night. What an addiction! It gave me more time to be productive. It also gave me compassion for those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. If I have this much trouble with playing solitaire, I can only imagine someone’s struggle with drugs. Part of the problem is that there truly is a short-term pleasure and positive body response from addictive material. But I know it is short lived and leads to ruin.

With silence, I worked on not giving too many constructive suggestions to my husband (and to never repeating a request). By being silent I learned that he was doing more than I thought and actually had some good ideas of his own.

With order, I made a list of things I wanted to get done. All my plans and order went out the window when my husband had a heart attack. I gladly spent three days in the hospital with him, and realized how flexible and subject to change our priorities can be. It is easy to reorganize when something that is truly important comes up.

With resolution, I successfully gave up chips. That must sound like something small, but it isn’t for me. For more than a year, I have been focused on improving my health and fitness. I am cutting out as much sugar, flour and processed food as I can. The open bag of chips that my husband leaves above the refrigerator have been a huge temptation. I was never able to kick the habit of grabbing that bag of chips when I got home and was tired. But we are reporting our progress on our resolution back to the group and I didn’t want to tell them I failed! I am happy to say I can report eating no chips for three weeks. It is easier to give them up completely. Having to be accountable to my Circle is a huge driver for success.

You can find the original version of this post on Ben Franklin Circle’s at https://benfranklincircles.org/circle-spotlight/circle-spotlight-katherine-from-phoenix-az.

A Comparative Study of Coastal Communities in Cuba and the United States (Connections 2016)

The nine-page article, “A Comparative Study of Coastal Communities in Cuba and the United States” by Paloma Dallas, Penny Dendy, Terry Jack, Esther Velis, Virginia York, was published in Kettering Foundation‘s 2016 edition of their annual newsletter, Connections – Kettering’s Multinational Research. In the seventh article of the newsletter, the authors talk about the collaboration between Kettering and the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, on how each organization worked with communities in the US and Cuba, respectively, on addressing important issues that impact both areas. Below is an excerpt from the article and Connections 2016 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

From the article…

This article tells the story of two organizations—one in Cuba and the other in the United States—and the community-based networks they collaborate with to learn how to make a difference on issues that affect both nations.

Nearly two decades ago, the Kettering Foundation began a series of ongoing exchanges with the Havana-based Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, a nongovernmental environmental organization founded by Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a renowned Cuban geographer, archeologist, and speleologist.

As part of these exchanges, the Núñez Foundation was interested in exploring ways citizens can play an active role in responding to the challenges their communities face. Kettering has long studied how people come together to make progress on difficult problems and do the work of creating resilient communities. Both foundations saw potential in comparing the experiences of communities facing related problems in different contexts.

An obvious opportunity for such an exchange seemed to be their shared geography: the Gulf of Mexico. Communities along the Gulf in both countries face some of the very same challenges, namely a vulnerability to hurricanes, as well as other human-made disasters. These dangers are not going away, so the challenge was, how could they respond? How might people living in those communities begin to work together to protect their communities and strengthen their capacity to bounce back from disasters?

Both foundations reached out to communities that they thought would be interested in taking up this challenge. Because the Kettering Foundation doesn’t work directly in communities, they contacted colleagues in Panama City, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama, who have long worked to encourage public deliberation on pressing issues. The Núñez Foundation initially identified the community of Cárdenas, also on the Gulf Coast, but since the foundation would be leading the work themselves, they decided to select a community in which they were already working. So, after further consideration, they chose Playa Larga in Ciénaga de Zapata, on Cuba’s southern Caribbean coast.

What follows draws from two essays authored by those who led the work: Esther Velis, director of international relations for the Núñez Foundation; Frances “Penny” Dendy, organizational consultant and community volunteer in Mobile, Alabama; Virginia York, retired professor, consultant, and community volunteer in Panama City, Florida; and Terry Jack, professor emeritus, Gulf Coast State College.

This is just an excerpt, you can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2016 issue of Connections, edited by KF program officer and senior writer/editor Melinda Gilmore; KF senior associate Philip Stewart; and KF vice president, secretary, and general counsel Maxine Thomas, focuses on our year-long review of our multinational research.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Dallas-Connections-2016.pdf

Co-Creating a Shared Future and Funding the Vision

Those in the NCDD network can attest that while there is a lot of enthusiasm and effort around engagement work; what many in our field continue to struggle with is having funding to do said work and operating in silos. That’s why we wanted to share this excellent article posted on the Bridge Alliance site from NCDD member, Debilyn Molineaux, that articulates this vital need for co-creating a shared future and getting this shared vision funded.

Like the article states and our community knows, it takes conversation in order to build a shared future, and there’s a longing for many in this country to be able to bridge divides and work better together. NCDD stemmed from this need to bridge the D&D field and we’ll continue to share the important work being done to engaged people – like the National Week of Conversation on April 20-28, a collaborative effort to build relationships and heal our divisions. You can read Debilyn’s post below and find the original version on BA’s site here.


We Need To Talk: It’s Time to Create and Fund Our Future

Collectively, there are thousands of organizations and funders already working to improve our country. So why does our country appear to be a mess?

The weakest part of our country is our willingness to live in a narrative/news stream that confirms our own bias and demonizes others. We could make our collective work exponentially more effective by fostering strong relationships among people of different viewpoints.

Our current frayed social fabric is the result of “winner take all” politics, party loyalty over patriotism and is exacerbated by attacks from foreign influencers who manipulate us through social media and propaganda. Only We the People can change our attitudes and behavior to stop it.

Foundations have spent or committed $4.1 billion since 2011 to strengthen our democratic republic. And yet, the results are not recognizable to the average American. What will it take to continue to progress the ideals of our country and the future we want to create in this environment of turmoil and chaos?

Some of the most well-known movements in the last decade have started in a seemingly spontaneous manner following years of build-up. Think of the Tea Party in 2009, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and #MeToo in 2017.

Collectively, the citizens and organizations that comprise our current post or cross-partisan movement are very energetic, and we are not yet coalesced. Largely because our biology is focused on what we DON’T want instead of what we DO want.

Creating and funding our shared future requires a shared vision of what we want — beyond avoiding the crisis of the current moment. It is our dreams, goals, and visions combined with a solid strategy and certain resources that will sustain us, long-term.

To determine this, we need to talk with each other to determine a vision for our shared future. We often hear people express how tired they are of talking — especially when they’ve been talking with friends and strangers for decades about what doesn’t work.

And that’s exactly the point —  focusing on problems is exhausting. Some among us are inclined to move straight to action — just fix it. But how will we know it’s “fixed” without checking in? This is why we need to engage in conversations, debates, and deliberation — it’s the fastest way forward to consciously create a shared vision.

We are constantly creating our future. I suggest we upgrade our visioning and planning to develop new social systems. As with anything new, extra communication is needed to establish systems, experiment with different approaches, and say what is working or not. Extra communication enables us to move forward, together.

Once new systems are in place, we can talk less and “just do it.” But when the systems are broken, unknown, ineffective or corrupt, then increasing our communication processes is an important FIRST ACTION.

So here is a prescription for creating and funding our future:

  1. Talk, debate and deliberate to create a future vision we WANT to share. (Maybe sign up for the National Week of ConversationApril 20-28, 2018).
  2. Talk, debate and deliberate the tactics needed to support the shared vision.
  3. Fund the leaders, programs and organizations who have the skills and capacities to turn deliberation into shared action.

“We deliberate not about ends,” said Aristotle, “but about the means to attain ends.”

In the end, it all starts with conversation.

You can find the original version of this post on the Bridge Alliance’s site at www.bridgealliance.us/we_need_to_talk_it_s_time_to_create_and_fund_our_future.

The Critical Need for Collective Sensemaking

We recently found this piece we’d like to share from NCDD member, Beth Tener of New Directions Collaborative, and how processes shift the way that change is navigated. She talks about how the essence of understanding and how the way we make sense of things, affects the change we can have.  You can read the article below or the original version of it on the New Directions Collaborative site here.


Navigating Change With Collective Sensemaking

In the news lately, I frequently hear commentators talking about how a particular event or action is unprecedented, such as three hurricanes so close together or the actions this Administration is taking to deregulate quickly. These times call for us to practice ‘collective sensemaking’ to more clearly see what is unfolding and avoid being caught in denial or wishful thinking. We may unconsciously use the same playbook that has worked before…when the game and territory have changed. This is time for key questions such as, What is changing? What is needed to respond now? What is now possible?

This sensitivity to a changing world is a key skill for ensuring longevity and resilience. Arie de Geus, who worked on strategic planning at Shell, got curious and researched corporations with long life spans. To his surprise, he found companies in Japan and Sweden that had existed for 700 years. In these companies, he found common patterns, manifested in unique ways in their context. As he wrote in Harvard Business Review, “living companies have a personality that allows them to evolve harmoniously. They know who they are, understand how they fit into the world, value new ideas and new people, and husband their money in a way that allows them to govern their future.” The four common characteristics he saw across many long-lived companies were:

  • Sensitivity to the world around them
  • Conservatism in financing
  • Awareness of their identity
  • Tolerance of new ideas.

In these times of rapid change with complex dynamics to navigate, the need to stay sensitive and responsive to a changing world is critical. I recently co-taught on Applied Systems Leadership for Complex Problem-Solving in the MBA program at Marlboro College. As foundational context, we shared the concept of “collective sensemaking.” In an article entitled Sensemaking, by Debora Ancona, she writes that the term was created by Karl Weick, referring “to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is.”

To do sensemaking effectively, it is crucial to synthesize multiple perspectives to \discern what is changing and what is needed next. No one person has the full picture and we all have blind spots or limiting beliefs. Cross-pollinating the view points, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of many people helps us to develop a clearer understanding of what is changing and see a wider range of potential responses. Leadership today calls for being receptive with the capacity to listen, seek out multiple stories and perspectives, and together find the signal amidst the noise.

Some of the methods we use with groups for collective sensemaking include:

  • World Café – Small group conversations, sharing stories, finding patterns, cross-pollinating, listening for themes – all these aspects of World Café help a group hear many perspectives and connect and distill ideas across them.
  • 1-2-4-All – A similar exercise where people come up with ideas by themselves first, then share in conversation with a partner, then join a group of four.
  • Open Space – After some initial cross-pollinating conversations, it is helpful to invite participants to suggest topics or questions to delve into further. This allows space for the inquiry to follow what is emerging. People interested in topics can find each other and take the inquiry further.
  • Circle Process – With roots that stretch far back in human history and are kept alive in indigenous traditions, listening as each person speaks, sitting in a circle, offers a powerful way to listen for emerging insights and share learning with a group.

The outputs of sensemaking then need to translate into conversations about action in response to what is learned. This quote from Joseph Jaworski and Otto Scharmer speaks to the need for this sensemaking and adaptability, though I suggest taking it to the level of groups and communities as well:

“What distinguishes great leaders from average leaders is their ability to perceive the nature of the game and the rules by which it is played, as they are playing it.”

You can find the original version of this article on the New Directions Collaborative site at www.ndcollaborative.com/sensemaking/.

Creating Community Through Ben Franklin Circles

Back at the end of Summer, we announced NCDD had teamed with Ben Franklin Circles (BFC), an NCDD member org, and we have some exciting updates to share! BFC is a collaborative project with New York’s 92nd Street Y, Citizen University, and the Hoover Institution. We are starting to hear the stories from these Circles and we will continue to uplift them on the NCDD blog over the coming weeks. Learn more about the grassroots development of these self-improvement talking circles, inspired by one of our founding fathers, and the ways in which these experiences have helped to build relationships and community. We encourage you to read the post below or find the original on BFC’s site here.


Why I Started a Benjamin Franklin Circle

Even just a cursory look at headlines these days brings forth an environment of “us vs them” and foretells a path toward greater divisions.

While our society has had a history of deep divisions, this somehow seems different. What seems different is that the people who make this country work – the teachers, the social workers, the police, the tradesmen, the small business owners, the big business employees, are now pulled into a colossal, epic struggle among themselves. We are letting go of the final threads holding us together – the threads that remain after television first brought our attention indoors instead of out; after social media took us from face-to-face contact even with our closest friends and families; after the hectic life style took away our free time to build community. We are now building walls all over. You said this, so I reject you. You believe this, so I will un-friend you.

“Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving-kindness, human understanding, and peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the forms of domestic and civil violence.” – Susan Vreeland, Art, Peace, Compassion

But, I’m an optimistic at heart who believes that people, deep down, are good and want to bring joy to others in order to create happiness for themselves. And so, this brings us to a small but significant action you can take. Benjamin Franklin Circles is a model that revives a model of community gathering created by one of our founding fathers (And yes, our founding fathers were not perfect. Some had qualities that are incomprehensible or even reprehensible to us now, but play along with me here.) These circles aimed to gather people of diverse backgrounds for self-improvement and community benefit. Is this not what we need more of today?

I decided to start my own Benjamin Franklin Circle to build more community connections as a means to strengthen our society and build its resilience against the onslaught of divisive forces. In the best practice of starting with yourself and close to home, I decided to organize this Circle among my neighbors, of whom, after 8 years of living here, I knew very few. My personal objectives were two: to meet my neighbors, and create a stronger community spirit.

We have no community listserv. The last neighborhood directory was published in 2010. In short, we all live our lives inside our homes, smile at each other if we’re walking our pets, but we don’t ask a favor of them or even know their names, nevermind invite anyone over. In thinking about the Circles, my first fear was that if I invited neighbors, no one would come. While that slowed me down for a few days, I realized that there was no other way to reach my objective than to invite people I do not know. And what’s the worst that can happen? People I don’t know will think that my initiative was futile. And what’s the best that could happen? I meet new friends and feel more a part of a community. From that perspective, my decision was strengthened.

With no email addresses or phone numbers, I decided to create flyers and distribute them. I printed out 150 flyers and placed them on door knobs. In the process of walking around the community, I met many people for the first time. I learned stories of previous community networks that no longer exist. I was encouraged by everyone for the needed initiative. One neighbor walked with me and shared with me her knowledge of the community as she was one of the first residents. Without a single response to my invitation, the first objective was being accomplished!

The first responses came to me shortly after I returned from the distribution with the following messages:

“I just wanted to let you know that I would love to be a part of your Benjamin Franklin Circles! I think it’s great that you’re starting something like this; as we both know the world could use a coalition of thinkers for the better.”

“It was great to meet you today! I’ve read your flyer, and would love to participate in the circle.”

Within 10 days, the deadline I had communicated, I had 10 people on the roster. We held our first meeting in November.

So, if you are wondering what you can do or if you are wondering if small things can make a difference, I share with you one of my favorite quotes by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

More connection, not less, is what is needed to help all of us bring forth our better selves. If we all make an effort, make some new friends and strengthen the bonds with those around us, that can only bring more good to the world.

Nanette Alvey spent the majority of her career in West Africa, managing education, health and training programs. She was recently Director of Leadership and Organizational Development at EnCompass LLC in Maryland. She continues to consult with international development programs and she’s working to strengthen US non-profits addressing economic inequities and racism in the Washington DC area. She runs a Ben Franklin Circle in Gaithersburg, MD.

For more information, please visit: benfranklincircles.org. You can follow BFC on FacebookInstagram, and on Twitter at @BFCircles as well as the hashtag #BenFranklinCircles.

You can find the resource on Ben Franklin Circles’ site at www.benfranklincircles.org/ben-franklin-circle-hosts/why-i-started-a-benjamin-franklin-circle.

Podcast Round-up on Dialogue, Deliberation, & Democracy

As we finish up this last official week of winter and begin to welcome in the spring, we wanted to share some of the podcasts that have crossed our paths recently related to all things dialogue, deliberation, democracy, or public engagement. Whether to inspire, challenge, or purely for entertainment – these podcasts can help get us through the last bit of winter hibernation or energize us to get ready for any upcoming spring cleaning!

NCDD has put out a few podcast episodes that we encourage you to listen to:

  • Episode One featured NCDD Managing Director, Courtney Breese and our former Board Chair Barbara Simonetti, on a powerful metaphor she realized which compares the D&D field to a multi-purpose public utility – click here to listen!
  • Episode Two told the story of Conversation Café by stewards of the process, co-creator Susan Partnow, past steward Jacquelyn Pogue, and NCDD staffer Keiva Hummel – click here to listen!
  • Episode Three was on the opportunities for D&D in Congress with Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation and our own Courtney Breese – click here to listen!
  • Episode Four had  Journalism that Matters Executive Director Peggy Holman and Board President Michelle Ferrier discuss their thoughts about connecting journalists and public engagement practitioners – click here to listen!
  • Episode Five featured Julie Winokur of Bring it to the Table and their work on bridging political divides and healing partisanship – click here to listen!

We look forward to releasing more NCDD podcasts in the future – so stay tuned!

We’ve rounded up some other podcasts which you may find interesting, check them out below:

  • The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, an NCDD member org, just launched the first episode of their podcast, Democracy Works, with hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem on various democracy issues and interview people working in democracy. Listen to it here.
  • NCDD member organization, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, has several podcasts related to dialogue and NICD’s work, which you can listen to by clicking here.
  • Conversations that Matter featured Valerie Lemming of NCDD member org, the Kettering Foundation. Via CTM: “In Episode 1 of our 7-part series on Democracy and the Media, Stu sat down with Valerie Lemmie of the Kettering Foundation to explore the current state of citizen engagement, the role that it plays in protecting Democracy, and how it has come under fire as the bombastic politics of the United States bleed over into the political mindsets of other nations.” You can read the article here and listen to the podcast on iTunes.
  • These next two podcasts were shared with us via the EngagePhase Weekly newsletter:
    • “The latest episode of the No Jargon podcast features John Gastil, a professor at Penn State, in a discussion about citizen juries and some of the latest research into their inner workings and effectiveness”: Episode 117: The Citizen Expert
    • “A recent episode of the Reasons to Be Cheerful podcast featured guests James Fishkin (Stanford University) and Sarah Allan (Involve UK) in a discussion about various democracy innovations”: Episode 20. Rescuing Democracy: From Ancient Athens to Brexit
  • Real Democracy Now! is a podcast based out of Australia and has several seasons that you can listen to here:
  • Engaging Local Government Leaders has a podcast about local government called Gov Love, which you can find here, their goal “is to tell informative and unique stories about the work being done at the local level”.
  • Center for Civic Education has a podcast 60-Second Civics, which is a “daily podcast that provides a quick and convenient way for listeners to learn about our nation’s government, the Constitution, and our history”. Listen to it here.
  • The Aspen Institute has a podcast which you can listen to here, and is “working across the globe, bringing together people from different backgrounds, experiences, and points of view, to work together and find solutions to our world’s most complex challenges”.
  • The Civil Conversations Project (one of the favorites of NCDD staffer Keiva!) is hosted by Krista Tippett from On Being, and “is a conversation-based, virtues-based resource towards hospitable, trustworthy relationship with and across difference”. Listen to it here.

Let us know in the comments below what podcasts you’ve been listening to lately and share some of your longtime favorites!

Updates from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium

Did you see the recent updates from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium? Our board member, Wendy Willis is the Executive Director of the DDC and they recently sent out a fantastic update on some things going on in the D&D network on their radar – including several notable articles, a review of the new book How Democracies Die, the Knight Foundation/Gallup poll’s survey results, and some upcoming events in the field. We encourage you to read the February updates below or find the original version on the DDC’s site here.


DDC February Bulletin

American Democracy at Risk
There is this report detailing risks to American democracy. Though it takes a fairly partisan stance, it has pretty good (and persuasive) list of six markers of a democracy in decline. You can guess what they are–everything from intentionally undermining independent institutions to delegitimizing immigrants and religious minorities.

And this from Ezra Klein in Vox highlighting the new book from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies DieAs Klein puts it: “Of the book’s broad lessons, this is the one of most relevance to the United States in 2018: Democracies fend off challenges when participants value the preservation of the system — its norms and ideals and values — over short-term political gain.”

The Knight Foundation teamed up with Gallup on this report about why Americans’ trust in the media is at an all-time low. (Warning the animations are a little intense and potentially migraine-triggering).

Cake Mix, Economics, & Deliberation
Check out this fascinating critique of the use of focus groups and the “culture of consultation.” It’s a good one.

And there is this from the U.K., describing the Citizens’ Economic Council, a two-year program to engage citizens in deliberations on national economic policy.

Poets & Policy
Read this piece by Canada’s former Poet Laureate on “the constitutional assembly” he convened at University of British Columbia to propose amendments to the Constitution.

Better Late than Never
Somehow I missed David Weinberg’s response to Cass Sunstein’s recently updated book, #Republicin the Los Angeles Review of Books. The heart of Weinberg’s disagreement is here: “It may simply be time to give up on the Enlightenment ideal of discourse as the sole model and measure of human conversation.”  He also compellingly argues: “Most of all, we see a persistently noisy self-organizing and self-complicating mess that refuses to resolve, resulting in a web of inconsistent and simultaneous meanings. But this is not noise. It only sounds like noise outside of our own echo chambers.” The whole thing is worth a ready, though.  (Ditto Sunstein’s book!)

Upcoming
Our friends at George Mason University are hosting an event called Public Journalism & Deliberative Democracy: Exploring the Role of Narrative on March 5, 2018. Our very own Carolyn Lukensmeyer will offer the keynote. The event is all day and open to the public.

The peerless Frontiers of Democracy Conference will be held at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts on June 21-23, 2018. Head over to propose a session or reserve your spot!

You can find the original version of this bulletin on the DDC’s site at www.deliberative-democracy.net/2018/02/15/february-bulletin/.

Practicing Democracy from the Inside-out

Democracy is a living entity that requires diligent work both in our external world, as well as, in our inner selves. One of the ways to heal our democracy, NCDD member Mark Gerzon, president of the Mediator’s Foundation offered is, the need to focus on our inner work of engaging democracy with humility, the courage of curiosity, and a commitment to integrity. Many of us in the NCDD network have excellent processes and tools to facilitate good civic practices, and yet ultimately require this inner discipline. You can read the article below or find the original here.


Democracy is an inside job

If you take the medicine prescribed by your doctor and your condition only worsens, you know you need a new prescription — and perhaps a different doctor and diagnosis as well.

The same is true when democracy gets sick. I should know: my colleagues and I are part of a field called by different names including “civic discourse,” “citizen engagement” and “public dialogue.” We are some of the “doctors” who have prescribed cures that have not healed what ails America.

Ever since I co-designed and facilitated the Bipartisan Congressional Retreats in the late 1990s, intended to improved civility and collaboration across the aisle, I have been part of a community of practitioners who advocated a variety of communication techniques and public participation strategies designed to lift the level of public discourse in America. You don’t need a medical degree to know that our medicine hasn’t worked. The disease of incivility and dysfunction is worse now than when we started.

Like a lot of doctors whose treatments fail, we like to point fingers and say it’s not our fault. In our defense, it is true there are many other factors at work. We can blame gerrymandered congressional districts, increasingly toxic social media and talk radio, hyper-partisan primaries or a host of other structural problems that need to be fixed.

But even though there are challenges on the outside, I have come to the conclusion that there are equally serious challenges on the inside — within ourselves. Polishing our communication style or trying out some cutting-edge facilitation strategies simply do not go deep enough. Ultimately, healing our precious democracy is not just about institutions and legislation. It’s also an inside job.

The first shift we all need to make is no secret to the ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams who intimately know the spiritual challenges facing most of their followers. Every faith cautions against the same sin: pride; and every faith preaches the same virtue: humility. In fact, from my perspective, developing a spirit of humility is the first step towards recovering our civic health.

Humility means that no one owns the whole truth; each of us has a piece of it. So bringing our left hand and right hand together, as we do in prayer, is ultimately the attitude we need.

We can’t depend primarily on our elected officials for this quality. Arrogance is almost always part of their personalities. Running for office these days seems to require having a very high opinion of oneself, often bordering on narcissism. Indeed, some highly respected psychiatrists now argue that the problem has become so serious today that they are publicly questioning the mental health of prominent politicians at the national level. So if the spirit of humility is to emerge at all, it must be grounded in the grassroots. We must recognize we are the fertilizer on which the harvest of democracy depends.

The inner job of democracy also requires a second quality that depends on the first: the courage of curiosity. Almost every issue we face today— nuclear threats from North Korea, health care reform, immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East, cybersecurity threats from Russia, climate change controversies — requires innovative solutions that transcend “Left” or “Right.” Most of these did not even exist when the Founding Fathers wrote our Constitution. We must be lifelong learners who have the courage to be curious — even if it means discovering we are in some ways misinformed, misguided, and sometimes simply mistaken.

I call it the courage of curiosity because those who are frozen in either fear or rigidity cannot be truly inquisitive. We are not truly free when we hide behind the barricades of their cast-iron certainties. We are not learners if we only dare to discover information that reinforces our positions. We are not citizens of a democracy if we are trapped in the prisons of our pre-fabricated ideologies. To be truly curious depends on having the guts to talk — and to listen! — to neighbors who oppose our cause, to read writers who disagree with our position, and listen closely to politicians who make us mad. It takes the courage to put our own perspective on the line and learn something that may inspire us to change.

Both of these inner shifts — from arrogance to humility, and from certainty to curiosity — make possible the third aspect of our inner work: a commitment to integrity. By this, I mean something far more than just being honest. Although telling the truth is in itself is of tremendous value, “integrity” here means an inner awareness that makes us seek to understand the whole picture. A major part of disagreement on controversial public issues stems from a failure to look systematically at a problem.

Pointing to an undocumented Mexican in California who commits murder, or to another [undocumented person] in Indiana who creates a thriving business and is a pillar of his community, makes for a moving vignette. But neither provides the grounds for a comprehensive, viable immigration policy. Whatever the hot-button issue be — gun rights, Planned Parenthood, the opioid epidemic, NAFTA —partial views and simplistic anecdotes lead inevitably to partisan dead-ends.

Just as curiosity requires courage, integrity requires commitment. Understanding any of these issues systemically is hard work. But no one, certainly not our Founding Fathers, ever told us that democracy would be easy. A descent into dictatorship, or kneejerk two-party polarization, demands much less from the public than genuine public education, deliberation, and decision-making. Unless we foster in ourselves and in our communities a serious commitment to this kind of integrity, we will continue to behave like the proverbial dog chasing his tail. The left hand will attack the right hand, or vice versa. Nothing will get done. Democracy will flounder. The political arms race will accelerate. And the American dream will slowly but surely die.

So by all means let’s do the outside work. We need to focus on the structural fixes that democracy requires, and also develop communication and civic engagement strategies that are participatory and innovative. But let’s not forget our inner lives and our own personal responsibility. Democracy won’t grow unless we do. That means recognizing that just criticizing the President or our other elected representatives misses the point.

When it comes to this inside job, each of us is commander-in-chief.

You can read the original version of this article on the Mediator’s Foundation site at www.mediatorsfoundation.org/2017/11/14/democracy-is-an-inside-job/.