Participatory Budgeting Lessons Over Last 30 Years

Participatory Budgeting has been rapidly growing across the world for the last 30 years, in all levels of government, in organizations, and in schools. There was a report released by the Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network on the current state of PB and its future; and NCDD member org, the Participatory Budgeting Project, recorded a webinar with the report authors, Stephanie McNulty and Brian Wampler. You can listen to the webinar in the article below and find the original on PBP’s site here.


Lessons from 30 years of a global experiment in democracy

The Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network recently funded a major new report on the lessons learned from 30 years of participatory budgeting (PB). In July, we hosted a webinar about the state and future of PB with report authors Stephanie McNulty and Brian Wampler.

Check out the webinar recording, slides, and key takeaways below.

We asked Stephanie and Brian about what it meant to write this report in 2018, a time of great change for PB and for democracy.

Stephanie spoke to how PB has grown since beginning in Brazil in 1989: “It’s sort of exploding, and happening all over the world in places that are very different from Brazil… It’s taking place faster than we can document and analyze.”

Brian shared about experimentation in PB happening with a variety of focus areas and in new contexts. Part of the power of PB is in how adaptable it is. Many folks experiment with how to design PB to best serve their community. And so, PB looks different in the more than 7,000 localities it exists in around the world.

“PB is probably the most widespread public policy tool to undertake what we consider democratizing democracy.”- Stephanie McNulty

In 30 years, PB has created significant impacts. Doing PB and studying it need more investment to further impact democracy. We’re still learning about the ways that PB can transform individuals and communities.

Early research suggests PB strengthens the civic attitudes and practices of participants, elected officials, and civil servants. Beyond changes at the individual level, the report documents changes at the community level. Changes at the community level include greater accountability, stronger civil society, improved transparency, and better well-being.

But, in the end, good PB doesn’t just happen; it has to be built. It requires intentional effort to ensure that PB practice lives up to its promise. It can yield benefits for those who participate in the early stages, but it takes time for those to expand to broader areas. PB is growing faster as more people learn about it’s potential. We need further research to  learn from what advocates on the ground know about PB’s impact—as well as it’s areas for improvement. The future of PB will require effort and sustained resources to support new ways of placing power in the hands of the people.

The report documents key ways PB has transformed over 30 years.

  • Scale. PB started at the municipal level in Brazil, and now exists in every level of government, and even within government agencies. PB is now being done for schools, colleges, cities, districts, states, and nations—places where people are looking for deeper democracy.
  • Secret ballots to consensus-based processes. When we spoke about what was most surprising or unexpected while writing the report, Brian talked about the shift in how communities make decisions in PB often moving from secret ballots to consensus-based processes.
  • Technology. New technologies are used for recruitment, to provide information, and to offer oversight. We don’t fully understand the benefits and limitations of this particular transformation, and look forward to more research on this question.
  • Increased donor interest. More international donors are interested in promoting and supporting PB.
  • A shift away from pro-poor roots. PB in Brazil began as a project of the Workers Party to pursue social justice and give power to marginalized communities and the disenfranchised. This is a core reason why many look to PB to solve deeply entrenched problems of inequity in the democratic process. Unfortunately today, many PB processes around the world do not have an explicit social justice goals.

We’ve learned that focusing on social justice actually makes PB work better. PB processes that seek to include traditionally marginalized voices make it easier for everyone to participate in making better decisions.

To wrap up our webinar, Laura Bacon from Omidyar Network, David Sasaki from the Hewlett Foundation, and our Co-Executive Director at PBP, Josh Lerner shared takeaways for grantmakers.

They discussed what we need to make the transformative impacts of PB be bigger and more widespread.

  • Medium and long term investment is important for PB success. One off investments don’t create the impacts of PB and can lead to a decline in quality.
  • Government support is crucial. PB works best when it complements government—not opposes it.
  • Watch out for participation fatigue. If the conditions for successful PB are not fully in place, residents and advocacy organizations can grow weary of continued involvement.
  • Funders should focus PB grantmaking in areas that have conditions in place for it to be successful. They should look at political, economic, and social contexts before funding the process.

Want more updates on the state and future of PB? Sign up for PBP’s Newsletter

You can find the original version of this article on the Participatory Budgeting Project site at www.participatorybudgeting.org/lessons-from-30-years-of-pb/.

Listen to This Webinar on How to Hold a Ben Franklin Circle

Back in the day, Ben Franklin had established a mutual improvement club that he organized for over 40 years, in the spirit of dialogue and self improvement. It is in this vein, that the folks at the 92nd Street Y, created the Ben Franklin Circles (also an NCDD member org) to offer a framework to hold conversations on Franklin’s 13 virtues. NCDD partnered with BFC last year and we are thrilled to find this free webinar recently released that gives the basics on what a Circle entails. You can listen to the webinar below and find the original on BFC’s site here.


Ben Franklin Circles 101

This webinar covers the basics of Ben Franklin Circles – great for anyone looking to start one or brush up on the who, what, when, where and why!

Listen to BFC 101 or read the highlights below. Questions? Email us at benfranklincircles@gmail.com.

What is a Ben Franklin Circle?

  • Small groups of people coming together to talk about how they can do good…in their lives, in their work, in their relationships and in the world.
  • Circles choose one of Franklin’s 13 civic virtues and discuss what that virtue means today.

Where did the idea come from?

  • From Franklin! Franklin wrote about his club for mutual improvement – his junto – in his autobiography.
  • The Ben Franklin Circles team at 92nd Street Y updated Franklin’s structure for the 21st Century and created all the tools for people to host their own Circles.

Who are in the Circles?

  • Circles are for anyone and everyone!
  • Find members by personally inviting 5-10 people, posting on social meeting, creating a MeetUp group…or be brave, and drop some invites in your neighbors’ mailboxes and invite them to get together for a conversation.

Where do people host?

  • Locations vary! Public libraries will often provide space. Some groups meet in peoples’ homes or in cafes or restaurants.
  • You’re looking for a casual space that’s not too loud so you can have intimate conversations.

How often do Circles meet?

  • Some meet monthly, some meet every week, some just meet once to try it out!

What’s next?

  • Check out our toolkit and/or join our Host Facebook Group
  • Set date, invite your members, set a location and you’re ready to go.
  • Let us know when you’ve started so we can add you to our map, social media, host resources list serve and more!

Takeaways

  • Circles are an opportunity to pause, reflect and connect with others around big ideas.
  • Members are encouraged to leave each Circle conversation with one actionable thing they can do for good.
  • Circles are very similar to a salon. The Circle model simply gives you an easy structure/topic to use for your conversations.
  • There’s no wrong way to do this!

You can find the original version of this article on the Ben Franklin Circles’ site at www.benfranklincircles.org/webinar/ben-franklin-circles-101.

Deliberation and How We Use it in Everyday Life

The National Issues Forums Institute – an NCDD member and NCDD2018 sponsor org, recently shared an update on the work that the Kettering Foundation has found on the nature of public deliberation. While process and design are important parts of engagement work, the reality is that deliberation happens every day, both inside of ourselves and in our casual interactions. Having a structure is immensely helpful in bringing our reactions and decisions into more concrete reality, and yet even outside of the more formal spaces of forums, we are still going through the experience of weighing our options and deciding on next action steps in our everyday life. You can read the article below and find the original version on the NIFI site here.


Deliberation Every Day – An Update on Kettering Foundation Research on Public Deliberation

Two of the most-often-used words in describing public decision-making are deliberation and forums. All forums aren’t deliberative and all deliberations aren’t carried out informally organized forums. However, in this instance, the subject is deliberative forums. These forums serve several purposes. One is to remind people of their own ability to deliberate and to show what distinguishes deliberation from other forms of speech. When people become aware of their innate power to deliberate, it is self-empowering. Another function of deliberative forums is to help move public thinking from first opinions to more shared and reflective judgments. And still another is not just to inspire more forums but to bring deliberation into all the places and occasions where people are talking about the decisions they have to make as citizens.

There are some common misunderstandings that stand in the way of deliberative forums doing what they need to do in order to make democracy work as it should. One is that it is a magical process or technique that will produce a stable and lasting democracy. But, as has been said, democracy is a journey, not a destination. Deliberation helps people keep moving in a positive direction. Democracy does not produce perfect governments (if there are such things), yet it does foster governments that are able to recover from their inevitable mistakes. Another misperception is that only the well-educated and economically well-off citizenry can deliberate. That just isn’t true. Still another error is thinking that public deliberation will only be significant if it gets “up to scale.” Deliberating is difficult sometimes but it is naturally occurring; there are elements of it in everyday speech.[1]In that sense, it is already up to scale. The difficulty is that it is often interrupted by partisan diatribes, blaming, wish-listing, and other common maladies of public talk. Recognizing what deliberation is like and what it can do are the antidotes.

The choices citizens make about what should be done to solve their problems or set policies need to be sound choices. That is the role of deliberation. Without deliberation, discussions easily degenerate into personal pleadings, sound bites, and partisan rancor. Peoples’ first opinions may be store-bought, prepackaged, and unreflective. Originally the word meant to weigh carefully, as was done on the ancient balancing scales used to determine the value of goods sold in the marketplace. Weighing means exercising good judgment, which has also been called moral reasoning. Moral reasoning or judgment is required when decisions have to be made about what is best for all or, in an ethical sense, what should bedone. There are no experts on such normative questions, and in a democracy there is no authority to give answers other than the people themselves.

The most distinctive characteristic of deliberation is giving a “fair trial” to unpopular views. That is difficult, which is why deliberation has been called “choice work.” Deliberation recognizes that our most challenging decisions aren’t between options that are good and those that are evil. Rather they are between options that are both good yet are in tension in given situations. For instance, doing something that will make us more secure may well restrict our freedom. In a democracy, there is no one authority everyone accepts who can tell us what is most valuable to us. We are the only ones who can do that. However, different people, being in different situations and having different experiences, will have different priorities. And these differences, which won’t go away, can only be harmonized or made less polarizing by the collective exercise of judgment. And that is the purpose of public deliberation.

Deliberation is intertwined with acting and isn’t a separate process; the experience of acting continually shapes the decision-making, just as the decision-making shapes the action.[2]It makes no sense to think of deliberation as separate from action. In fact, past actions or experiences, when filtered through the things people consider most valuable, often become the “facts” most relevant in making decisions. The public deliberation that Kettering has seen uses expert and professional knowledge but adds the information people create as they look at their experiences through the lenses of what they hold dear.

Although deliberation is difficult, it is a natural act. The human brain is wired for deliberation. And ancient languages around the world have a term for collective decision-making because it is essential to collective survival. The purpose of forums isn’t to introduce a new methodology, “deliberation,” but rather to make people more aware of a natural faculty. That recognition is empowering—self-empowering.

In daily conversations, people talk about the problems that concern them, what action should be taken to respond, and who is needed to act. Yet their casual conversations may not sound very deliberative. Deliberation isn’t something apart from ordinary speech but goes on in multiple layers of talk. At times people may just be complaining or posturing or looking for someone to blame. Carefully weighing alternatives may be interspersed with comments that don’t appear to have anything to do with deliberating. People may start conversations by telling a story about some troubling experience and then move on to explaining who they are in order to establish their identity. “Don’t think I am heartless when I say. . . .”

Everyday deliberation often begins to take shape over backyard fences, during coffee breaks, and at the grocery store. People start by talking to those they live and work with—sometimes including even those who aren’t of a like mind. (People who look alike don’t necessarily think alike.) And while people often take comfort in opinions they like, they may also be curious about contrary views, provided those views aren’t being advanced in an offensive manner. People certainly try to persuade one another as they hold on to cherished beliefs. Yet they may do more; they may begin to weigh the options they like best more carefully.

Although found in many neighborhood conversations, deliberation can’t always be heard because much of the careful weighing of options for action goes on inside people’s heads. Still, deliberation involves listening as much as it does speaking. By listening attentively, we can take in the experiences of others without necessarily agreeing with what they are advocating.

One of the main contributions of formally organized forums is to help people recognize ways they can move informal, top-of-the-head chatter in a deliberative direction. There, one may hear helpful questions like, “How does what we are seeing affect you personally or your family?” This gets at what people hold dear. Or a question like, “What else do people consider valuable?” broadens the focus beyond things purely individualistic. “Do you know of anybody else who is concerned but might have a different opinion?” expands the focus, as does the follow-up question, “Why do you think they care?” And asking, “If that is what bothers you, what would you do about it?” moves the conversation to options for action. That opens the door to a follow-up, “If we did what you propose but it had negative consequences for what you said you cared about, would you still favor your proposal?” This kind of question brings out tensions among all that people consider valuable. And it encourages careful weighing of options. Note that these deliberative-friendly questions are quite ordinary. There isn’t anything that they require before asking them.

The citizens’ briefing books that NIF uses follow the same basic line of conversation. They describe the things people consider valuable, present options for action that follow from these concerns, and then show the tensions or trade-offs that people have to work through in order to reach shared and reflective decisions about what they are or aren’t willing to do.

I should be clear that I am not suggesting that organized forums use these questions as a script for a moderator to follow. Nothing would be more likely to inhibit the exchange that must go on in order for people to deliberate with one another. These are just illustrations of what “working through” sounds like.

[1]See Jane Mansbridge, “Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System,” in Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, ed. Stephen Macedo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Her concept of a “system” helps locate deliberative forums in the larger context of political speech.
[2]Daniel Yankelovich, Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 95-96

You can find the original version of this post on the National Issues Forums Institute blog at www.nifi.org/en/deliberation-every-day-update-kettering-foundation-research-public-deliberation.

Updates from the Davenport Institute: Trainings & Certificate

For our NCDDers passionate about public engagement and local government, NCDD member – the Davenport Institute recently sent out their newsletter with opportunities to network and strengthen engagement skills. Read the post below for more information on their trainings, events, and the next professional certificate offering in Advanced Public Engagement for Local Government. To note, the first training is coming up tomorrow, August 9th, for federal agencies to learn more about local-level engagement. This announcement is from the Davenport Institute’s InCommon July newsletter and you can receive these updates by signing up here.


Davenport Institute InCommon July Newsletter

Upcoming Training/Speaking
Local Training for Federal Agencies at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy
Interested in strengthening your cross-sector skills? Pepperdine School of Public Policy Board of Advisors member Kay Ko has invited Davenport Institute local government partners to join a Federal Executive Board training on “Building Effective Relations with Congressional Districts.” You are invited to join the conversation about how federal agencies are thinking about local-level engagement and explore opportunities for collaboration.

The event will be at Pepperdine’s Drescher Graduate Campus in Malibu on Thursday, August 9 from 9 am – 3 pm. Registration is free (lunch is not provided, but is available for purchase at the Pepperdine cafeteria). You can find out more and register here.

September 5-7 – At the IAP2 International Conference in Victoria, BC, Executive Director Ashley Trim and Kit Cole, principal at Kit Cole Consulting, will present on how an era of outrage presents particular challenges to public engagement, and how, at the same time, well-designed, deliberate public participation can help local governments navigate frought politcal waters. You can find out more and register here.

October 11-12 – Ashley will be chairing a panel on preparing leaders to put the “public” back into “public policy” at the NASPAA annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. NASPAA is the accrediting body for schools of public policy, public affairs and public administration. Panelists include Terry Amsler, Indiana University, Bloomington; Lindsey Lupo, Point Loma Nazarene University; Tina Nabatchi, Syracuse University; and Larry Rosenthal, University of California, Berkeley.

Interested in any of our trainings?
For more information on bringing a Davenport Institute Training to your community, email us.

Save the Date: Pepperdine School of Public Policy to Host Conference on Cross Sector Leadership
On policy issues ranging from economic development to disaster response, it is becoming increasingly obvious that sustainable solutions will only be found through creative engagement of the government, business, and non-profit sectors. The Pepperdine School of Public Policy will be hosing a fast-paced, multi-format educational event here at the Malibu campus exploring what cross sector leadership looks like in local, state, and federal contexts, as very complex challenges are being addressed by these collaborative processes. And as the home of the Davenport Institute, the School of Public Policy will also be exploring how collaborative processes should think about broader public engagement as well.

When: Monday, October 1, 2018
Where: Pepperdine University, Wilburn Auditorium, Malibu, CA 90263
For more information: email the SPP cross sector program.

Stay Posted: Next Professional Certificate Offering
We have already begun receiving requests regarding when our next Professional Certificate in Advanced Public Engagement for Local Government will be offered. Right now we are looking at dates in February 2019 and finalizing details with venue and trainers. We will be announcing dates within the next couple of weeks. This program will be a great way to jumpstart the last year of the second decade of the 21st century!

Stay posted! You can find out more here.

Past happenings
July 26 – Ashley served as a guest-lecturer at Cal Lutheran University’s MPA program, speaking to students about the importance of and best practices for public engagement.

July 12 & 19 – Ashley and a longtime friend of the Davenport Institute, facilitator Natoma Kier, facilitated two separate public conversations for the City of Palos Verdes Estates. If your city has a project or issue that could benefit from outside facilitation, or if you could use technical support with process design, please email the Davenport Institute.

Utilizing Dialogue to Navigate Agricultural Tensions

Modern agriculture has brought some incredible technological advances to the way that crops can be grown, the usage of which can bring some serious tensions within a community; and using dialogic processes can help navigate these tensions. In Conway County, Arkansas, the use of the herbicide, Dicamba, was causing intense and tragic conflict between neighbors; and NCDD sponsoring org, Essential Partners, shares how utilizing reflective structured dialogue created an opportunity for folks in the community to listen to each other and work toward addressing the conflicts. You can read the article below and find the original on EP’s site here.


Small Communities, Big Divisions: Fostering Dialogue in Rural Arkansas with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute

Late last summer, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (WRI) in Conway County, Arkansas, hired Essential Partners to offer two days of facilitation training to their program officers. The following week, the Arkansas Agriculture Secretary reached out to WRI to facilitate meetings of a task force on the use of the herbicide Dicamba.

Dicamba is one of the most effective herbicides for taming the spread of pigweed, an invasive plant threatening crops throughout the region.

Unfortunately, Dicamba also kills soybean crops whose seeds are not pre-treated for resistance to the herbicide. When Dicamba is used on one field, the herbicide can drift over neighboring fields and destroy another farmer’s crop.

Conflicts over herbicide drift have pitted neighbor against neighbor in a region where farmers are already struggling to survive. In October 2016, a dispute over Dicamba use resulted in the shooting death of a soybean farmer near the Missouri border.

The Arkansas Agriculture Secretary wanted an effective path through the heated, and now tragically violent debate.

With coaching from Essential Partners Senior Associate Bob Stains, and the skills they developed during their EP training, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute staff initiated a series of dialogues about the use of Dicamba. Farmers, seed dealers, product manufacturers, and crop consultants came together to share emotionally wrenching stories, building trust and understanding.

“In the work around Dicamba,” said WRI’s Chief Programs and Marketing Officer, Janet Harris, “the dialogue had to come first and inform the decision-making process, because even in this very small and homogeneous population, folks had become deeply divided. Those differences were born from very strongly held moral values and beliefs on both sides.”

Harris explained that reflective structured dialogue allowed the participants to hear the “why” behind the “what.”

“Most importantly,” she said, “even though they weren’t unanimous in their final recommendation, they could look across the table at someone who disagreed and still empathize with that person’s story.”

WRI helped the group arrive at a policy recommendation, which was adopted by the state agency. And despite significant legal challenges as well as dissenting views, the members of the WRI dialogue group remain firm in their recommendation almost a year later.

“What I think we did with Dicamba,” Harris noted, “was less about the regulation of an herbicide than it was about the preservation of human relationships. They understood and appreciated one another and rediscovered their common ground.”

Since then, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute has integrated reflective structured dialogue into many more projects.

“The learning we received from Essential Partners has helped us open up space for people to have difficult conversations in a different way. The more we do this, the more we realize that dialogue has to be a part of all our work.”

Most recently, WRI has employed EP’s dialogue techniques in a community development program, Uncommon Communities. They hope to encourage leaders in Arkansas’ rural communities to become catalysts for positive change and economic growth.

Even in small rural communities, Harris observed, there are rivalries and real differences of belief. And that’s where EP’s dialogue practices help.

“It’s not just a matter of civility,” she said. “It’s about our ability to foster mutual understanding across deep differences.”

You can find the original version of this article on Essential Partner’s site at www.whatisessential.org/blog/small-communities-big-divisions-fostering-dialogue-rural-arkansas-winthrop-rockefeller.

Local Civic Challenge #4: Telling Your Community’s Story

In the final installment of the Local Civic Challenge from by NCDD member, The Jefferson Center, they recommend folks get involved in telling the story of your local community. Last month, the Local Civic Challenge offered a mini-challenge every week to encourage folks to be more civically engaged in your community and local democratic efforts. This fourth edition advises to get to know your neighbors and listen to their stories, as well as, participate in your local newsgathering and share the story of your community. You can read the post below and find the original on the JC site here.


Local Civic Challenge #4: Telling the Story of Your Community

Supporting local storytelling strengthens our relationships and preserves the history of our communities. When we listen to the experiences of our neighbors, we can better understand one another, which makes it easier to work through projects and issues together.

Think about your role in your local news ecosystem–are you subscribed to the local paper? Do you know what the current headlines are? Can you identify a few stories that aren’t being covered, but should be? According to a 2015 Pew survey, Americans are great at sharing news, but we don’t often get involved in actual newsgathering ourselves.

For this week’s civic challenge, we’ve found a few ways you can start collecting stories and amplifying diverse voices in your neighborhood:

1. Meet with people

Find events like garage sales, movies in the park, and clothing swaps where you can sit (or stand) across from someone and get to know them. If these don’t exist already, create your own community gatherings! Share online, and post to community bulletin boards in places like the grocery store and community center.

2. Submit an op-ed or write a blog post

Take stock of the local papers and blogs in your community to see where you could submit a story. Here are a few tips on how to start writing for your community paper.

3. Use technology

Apps and social media pages that connect neighborhoods are becoming more common, such as:

Nextdoor is a “private social network” for your community. While some people use the app to report a break-in or a lost dog, you can also post about upcoming cookouts or garage sales.

Ioby helps kickstart community projects, through crowd-funding, social networks, volunteers, and advocacy. You can find out what projects are happening near you, and if it’s a cause you can get behind, help spread the word.

Patch is a customizable “hyperlocal” news feed with real-time alerts, local articles, and easy social sharing.

Neighborhood Facebook groups are another way to share photos, events, news, and concerns with people who live close to you.

Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat: by following the hashtag and location of your city on these apps, you can see what people are posting about locally.

4. Host a listening booth

Setting up a listening booth is easy: find a spot with some foot traffic, set up a table and two chairs, and make a sign that says “Let’s Chat!” Giving people your undivided attention, instead of focusing on when it’s your turn to talk, will likely open up an incredible conversation about their life experiences.

5. Launch a community history project

Using all the techniques above, you can record stories with tools like the StoryCorps app, which give people a chance to easily record meaningful conversations that are then archived at the Library of Congress. On their website, you’ll find guides to asking questions, resources you need to record, how to prepare for a storyteller interview, and more.

If you like taking photos, you could pair your story collecting with a photo series, like Humans of New York.

This marks the end of the Local Civic Challenge! Do you have other ideas that will help people get engaged with their communities? Let us know below.

You can find the original version of this article on The Jefferson Center site at www.jefferson-center.org/telling-story-your-community/.

Better Group Experience in Franklin Circles and Beyond

Since we established our partnership with NCDD member org, Ben Franklin Circles (BFC), we have been sharing stories from Circles that have been convening. This article from Victoria Fann, who hosts a circle in North Carolina, shared an article on A Better Group Experience, that shares some foundational tips to good group process that can be used for Ben Franklin Circles and beyond this process: the right setting, good guidelines, and gentle facilitation. You can read the post below and find the original post on BFC’s site here.


A Better Group Experience

As Ben Franklin discovered hundreds of years ago, something magical happens when a group of people get together to engage in meaningful conversation: that circle of individuals becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts. A powerful, dynamic energy emerges from the group collective and creates access to all the combined energy, tools, inspiration, the information, wisdom, insights and resources of that group of people.

In this context, people are able to share great levels of wisdom, become vulnerable with each other, establish a higher level of trust than they would in a social setting and have a deep level of intimacy with people they barely even know very quickly.

In addition, small groups that connect deeply often facilitate high levels of motivation, honesty, healing, growth, learning that can motivate people to think and behave in ways that they might not have considered before. When someone tells a story or models something new, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities, which ultimately, can foster hope and optimism.

Given what’s happening in our world today, with loneliness becoming an epidemic and suicide rates rising, this is extraordinary. And yet it’s something that isn’t done enough.

Yes, there are thousands of Meetup groups happening around the world based on common interests. But, unless there are certain conditions, those meetings will not yield the same transformative power as a small group having a deep discussion in a quiet environment.

So what are the conditions that open the doors to the extraordinary?

It’s fairly simple really. The right setting, a good set of guidelines and gentle facilitation.

Setting
Let’s talk about the setting first. I’ve run successful groups for close to thirty years, and the majority of those groups took place in my living room or the living room of a group member. Why? Because it’s one of the few places that combines privacy, comfort, quiet, natural lighting, a friendly host, non-public bathroom, occasional adorable pets, etc. If you want a group of people to relax, take off their masks, open up and share their stories, gather them in an environment that is familiar, that is associated with relaxation and ease and feels more like a gathering of friends than a business meeting. No other setting even comes close to this.

Our Ben Franklin Circle initially met in a local café, and while it was nice to be able to buy coffee and baked goods, it ended up being too noisy and not private enough. Plus, we were sitting around tables in wooden chairs with a table between us. Shifting to a living room setting in a member’s home sitting on comfortable chairs and couches, created a totally different experience that immediately allowed us to deepen the discussion. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief.

But setting alone isn’t enough. In fact, when you’re in a less formal setting, the tendency would be to fall back into casual, undirected discussion. This is why there is a strong need for guidelines.

Guidelines
Again, these are simple and not at all inhibiting. Instead, they create an even deeper level of trust and relaxation because the participants know that they will be heard and that conversation will stay on topic, and not degenerate into debates and philosophizing.

Here is the guideline that I created years ago for all the groups I’ve run and am currently using in our Circle:

  • Speak from the heart and from direct experience using “I” statements.
  • Speak without interruption or cross-talk.
  • Respect each other’s need for silence as well as each other’s need to speak and be heard.
  • Listen from the heart and serve as a compassionate witness for other people in the circle. To be an effective witness means paying attention to what’s being said without interpreting, judging, or trying to “fix” or rescue the person speaking.
  • Respect each other’s privacy and keep everything that’s shared confidential.

These guidelines are not new nor are they unique. However, they are incredibly effective creating a group experience that is deeply rewarding.

Gentle Facilitation
Finally, it is important to have someone that is able to lead the group with a gentle hand. Mostly, this person presents conversation-starting questions and quotes (or as I mentioned in a previous blog post allows them to be drawn from a hat), keeps the conversation on topic, makes sure everyone has had an equal opportunity to share and be heard and generally tunes into what is needed by the group. That sounds like it’s a lot, but it’s fairly simple. A good facilitator is one that fades into the background and appears to participate in the same way as other members. This establishes trust and removes any sense of hierarchy.

In my experience, setting, guidelines and gentle facilitation are what makes a good group experience, an extraordinary one.

I will leave you with a little food for thought from Ben Franklin:

“To expect people to be good, to be just, to be temperate, etc., without showing them how they should become so, seems like the ineffectual charity mentioned by the apostle, which consisted in saying to the hungry, the cold and the naked, be ye fed, be ye warmed, be ye clothed, without showing them how they should get food, fire or clothing.”

You can find the original version of this post on Ben Franklin Circles’ site at https://benfranklincircles.org/tips-advice/a-better-group-experience.

When NCDD Members Meet: Opening to Each Other’s Story

We love hearing about when our NCDD members make connections and meet up! Recently, Susan McCormack met up with David and Erin Leaverton of Undivided Nation at McCormack’s Vermont home to learn more about each other’s work; which Susan then shared the experience on her Creative Discourse blog. The Leavertons are spending the year traveling to every state in the US, to hear stories first-hand from folks and dig deeper into understanding the divisions in this country – learn more about their travels from our June Confab with them! You can read the post below and find the original post on McCormack’s blog here.


An Encounter With Hope

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a complete stranger.  He was traveling all fifty states with his family. He was in Vermont and wanted to meet with me to hear the story of my life and my work.

I soon realized that if we were to meet, I was most interested in hearing his story.  Here is what I knew from our brief correspondence.  A successful political consultant for conservative Republicans, he realized that maybe he had done his job too well; that the politics of division may have helped win many elections but this approach also led to a corrosive sort of politics dominated by fear.  This dawning awareness, along with a courageous dose of self-reflection and prayer (he and his wife are devout Christians), led him and his wife to quit their jobs, sell their house, and leave their comfortable life in a small, white, middle class Texas town. They packed up an RV and set out on a yearlong journey with their three young children.  Undivided Nation was born.  David and Erin had a big goal.  They hoped to understand the political divide and figure out how to bring unity to the nation.  Their journey has taken an unexpected turn. More about that later.

So, would I talk to this guy?  Of course I would. First, though, I needed him to know something about me.  If I was going to invite this stranger into my home, I needed him to know that I have a wife, not a husband as he might expect.  I e-mailed the invitation and waited. I didn’t hear back right away. I wondered if maybe his brand of Christianity just couldn’t accommodate the reality of my life.  It was a painful waiting, a fear of being rejected before ever being seen and known.

The next day, though, the response came through, and David accepted my invitation to come to our home the next day.  I would make us lunch.

Over a two hour period and grilled cheese sandwiches we talked.  The words couldn’t come fast enough. Hearing the story of David’s transformation was beautiful.  He began Undivided Nation with the thought that he and Erin were going to listen carefully to stories of the political divide and figure out ways to mend it.  That’s not the story that has unfolded. Twenty-four states in, David and Erin have heard stories of a terrible divide; a divide that has had a profound impact on people’s experiences, their prospects for success, whether they and their children live or die.  This is not the political divide they expected to learn about, but the racial divide in our country. David’s exposure to these stories, stories he never heard in his white, middle class bubble in small town Texas, jeopardized his lifelong view that America is the land of opportunity; that anyone can succeed by the “bootstrap” method of hard work and determination.  Through careful and courageous listening, David and Erin are learning how the racist systems our country was founded on have created significant obstacles for many brown and black Americans.

Unlike David, my life circumstances exposed me to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences from a young age.  In fact, I have been a student of these systems for many years.  If you take the time to look, you can see the legacy of hundreds of years of laws, policies, practices, and attitudes that were foundational to our country’s beginnings, and have continued in various forms over the years to perpetuate the status quo.  The racial divide is harsh, profound, and in stark relief in our current national consciousness. It is laid bare by the country’s reaction to our first black president and the rhetoric and actions of what some refer to as our first “white” president.

If you love this country and believe in the promise of our founding documents, our present reality is almost unbearable to come to terms with, especially for white Americans like me and David.  If I am honest, I have to admit that at times I continue to cling to the mythology of America; to romanticize our progress despite ample evidence to the contrary. This is a dubious luxury that people of color don’t have.  The reality isn’t just around them, it is impacting people of color directly, daily. Even though it is tempting for white people to turn away from this reality, it seems as if an awakening is occurring among many white Americans.  We are helped along on this path by a plethora of insightful bookspodcasts, blogs, and videos.

Once we realize that the systems designed to disadvantage some of us, end up disadvantaging all of us, aren’t we compelled to take action to change the status quo? The next question becomes, what sort of action should we take?  So much needs to change. For David and Erin, Undivided Nation is their unique contribution.

Without David’s journey, I wonder if he would have accepted my invitation to meet me and see my ordinary life with my wife.  We are all so much more than the characteristics and systems that are used to divide us up. Until we sit down across from each other and share our stories though, how will we ever know?

You can read the original version of this article on McCormack’s Creative Discourse blog at www.creativediscourse.org/blog/2018/7/10/an-enounter-with-hope.

Local Civic Challenge #3: Getting Ready for Election Season

In the third part of the Local Civic Challenge from by NCDD member, The Jefferson Center, they encourage folks to get ready for election season and offer some great resources to prepare. In June, JC had a mini-challenge every week for folks to be more engaged with their local democracy. This round connected folks about registering to vote and volunteering for elections. You can read the post below and find the original on the JC site here.


Local Civic Challenge #3: Getting Ready for Election Season

Maintaining the integrity of our elections is vital to democracy, so this week we’re challenging you to get more involved with the process. Below, find out where you vote, how to register yourself and help others, volunteer at the polls, and more.

1. Get Registered

First off, make sure you’re registered to vote. A great place to start is vote.gov, where you can find out how to register online, or download a hard copy of the National Mail Voter Registration Form to send in. For information about registering in person, registering in other languages, registration deadlines, voter requirements, and more, check out this voting guide.

2. Find out where you vote

You can find your local election office here. This website will direct you to your state’s voting guide, where you should be able to see your polling place (including maps and directions), districts for your precinct, and candidates and questions that will be on the ballot at the next election. Your state may also have a primary election coming up soon, which determines the candidates that will be on the ballot in the general November election.

3. Know the issues and positions

What issues do you care about? Do you know where candidates stand? Here are a few resources that will help you match your views with your vote:

iCitizen or Vote411: provide voter guides by location

Project Vote Smart: helps you explore not only issues and stances, but voting records and campaign contributions

BallotReady: research every name and issue on the upcoming ballot

iSideWith: working backwards, this matches you with the “perfect” candidate based on your stances on issues

After you find your favorite candidates, see if they could use any help on the campaign trail. Joining a volunteer team is usually as simple as making a quick phone call or sending an email.

4. Help others

Help another person register to vote. Download and share voter outreach materials like these online and at your office, college, or neighborhood centers, and see if your community has a local get-out-the-vote campaign. For teachers, programs like Your Vote Matters can help students learn more about the voting process.

5. Work at the polls

Election judges are temporary, paid employees of local election offices who handle all the aspects of voting day! Your duties would include setting up the polling place, ensuring elections are fair, impartial, and secure, and tabulating the votes for the precinct. Contact your local election office to find out the requirements, like if you have to be a registered voter in that state, of a certain age, or officially affiliated with a political party.

How are you preparing for the upcoming elections? Was it difficult to find information about voting in your community?

Next week, we’ll take a look at the power of supporting local journalism and community storytelling.

You can find the original version of this article on The Jefferson Center site at www.jefferson-center.org/getting-ready-for-election-season/.

Public Agenda Exploring Engagement Webinar on July 26th

Looking to strengthen your engagement skills and learn more tools for doing this work? Then we encourage you to check out the upcoming opportunities with NCDD member org, Public Agenda! This week on Thursday, July 26th, they will be offering a free webinar on Exploring Engagement: Cutting-Edge Topics, Trends, and Tools from 3:30 – 4:30pm Eastern, 12:30 – 1:30 Pacific. Later in the fall, PA will host an in-person workshop on October 23rd in Silver Spring, MD, where Matt Leighninger and Nicole Cabral will conduct an all-day training for leaders looking to strengthen their engagement strategies. You can learn about both in the post below and find the original information on PA’s site – here for this week’s webinar and here for the fall workshop.


WEBINAR – Exploring Engagement: Cutting-Edge Topics, Trends, and Tools

Topic: Exploring Engagement: Cutting-edge topics, trends, and tools

Description: What exactly is engagement and why does it matter? How do you make the case that your organization or community should be engaging more? Why are residents expecting (or demanding) different opportunities to engage? What are “thick” and “thin” forms of engagement? How can engagement affect political and social inequities? What are the cutting-edge trends and tools, and the latest success stories? What are the mistakes to avoid?

Join us for a one-hour webinar on Thursday, July 26, where Public Agenda’s engagement team will present some answers to these questions, take questions and suggestions, and introduce resources for further exploration.

Time: July 26, 2018 3:30 p.m.– 4:30 p.m. in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

REGISTER HEREwww.publicagenda.org/pages/webinar-exploring-engagement-cutting-edge-topics-trend-and-tools

WORKSHOP – Public Engagement Strategy in Silver Spring

Who: Leaders looking to revamp or strengthen their engagement strategy
Date: Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Time: 9:00 a.m.– 4:30 p.m. EST
Location: Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Agenda: October 23, 9:00 a.m.– 4:30 p.m. EST — Public Agenda workshop

Looking for assistance with organizing and sustaining productive public engagement? Struggling to decide how to use online engagement tools? Frustrated with the standard “2 minutes at the microphone” public meeting? Need expert advice on bringing together a diverse critical mass of people?

Our Public Engagement team is leading a workshop on how you can hone an effective engagement strategy.

On October 23, Public Agenda’s Matt Leighninger and Nicole Cabral will:

  • Provide an overview of the strengths and limitations of public engagement today;
  • Help you assess the strengths and weaknesses of public engagement in your community;
  • Explore potential benefits of more sustained forms of participation;
  • Demonstrate a mix of small group and large group discussions, interactive exercises, case studies and practical application exercises;
  • Develop skills for planning stronger engagement systems;
  • List existing community assets that can be instrumental for sustained engagement;
  • Anticipate common challenges to planning for stronger systems;
  • Develop an initial set of next steps to pursue.

Learn more about pricing information and how to register in the link below.

REGISTER HEREwww.publicagenda.org/pages/silver-spring-strat-lab-october-23