Opportunity to Facilitate Ben Franklin Circles

We are excited to announce that NCDD is working with New York’s 92nd Street Y to support, The Ben Franklin Circles (BFC), a project in collaboration with Citizen University and the Hoover Institution. BFC – an NCDD member org, could use some facilitation support and that’s where NCDD comes in –  we have an exciting opportunity for you!

The Circles are inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s junto or “mutual improvement club,” – a sort of civic engagement support group the founding father started and ran for over 40 years.  In this 21st Century reboot, small groups of people get together once a month to reflect on big themes that Franklin identified as key to living a good life and creating a good society – topics like Industry/Work; Justice; Moderation; Thrift/Frugality and more.  There are 13 total.  Participants are encouraged to think about how these principles impact their own lives and how they shape our society, using the conversations as a way to create empathy and strengthen community bonds. Read more about the Circles in our Resource Center.

Here is the opportunity: 92Y has created a platform and toolkit and is offering limited stipends for facilitators to help lead these conversations in their communities. Circles meet once a month for 13 months for about 90 minutes each session. Meetings can be scheduled based on the facilitator’s schedule. 

This is a great opportunity for you to utilize this model, connect with groups in your community, and get paid for your time as well! NCDD would love to see a whole bunch of you get involved with Circles across the country. It’s another great way we can work to strengthen community connections and help people bridge divides, at this particularly divisive time in our nation. And many of you have the networks with interest in these kinds of conversations!

If you are interested in this opportunity and would like to connect with organizers to learn more, please fill out this quick form here and they will contact you to discuss this opportunity further! 

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

Transpartisan Review Issue #2 Now Available

I’m excited to announce the latest issue of a project produced by a handful of members and friends of NCDD – The Transpartisan Review #2. Originally introduced to the NCDD community last fall at our NCDD 2016 conferenceThe Transpartisan Review is a new digital journal dedicated to sharing thoughts and insights from the growing transpartisan community.

In our second issue, The Transpartisan Review takes an introspective look at the state of politics in the US and examines the potential transpartisan engagement has in finding solutions for this troubled time. Executive editors Lawrence Chickering and James Turner explore the effect the transpartisan impulse has on political engagement, taking a comprehensive look at the current political climate in the United States through the lens of their “Transpartisan Matrix”.

This issue of The Transpartisan Review also includes several articles on a variety of topics, including contributions from distinguished NCDD members Pete Peterson & Michael Briand (who also served as managing editor), and shares an account of a Living Room Conversation focused on transpartisan issues. Not only are they effective conversation starters, but these features represent the continuation of a dialogue the editors of the journal are encouraging with and between its readership.

You can read the entire issue online or download it for free at the journal’s website, www.transpartisanreview.com, and while you’re there, we invite you to read Chickering and Turner’s Transpartisan Notes, a series of short-form articles on current issues written with a transpartisan perspective.

You can look forward to more critical contributions to the work of bridging our nation’s divides in future issues of The Transpartisan Review and from this great team of NCDDers and transpartisan leaders in the coming months.

Recap from Frontiers of Democracy 2017

Outgoing NCDD Youth Engagement Coordinator Roshan Bliss attended this year’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University in the Boston area. The conference was held from June 22-24 and focused on the theme, Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Rising Authoritarianism.

Around 150 of D&D scholars, practitioners, and leaders participated in workshops, discussions, and plenaries focused on the question of what the rising leaders who appear opposed to democracy around the world means for the field of dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement, and most importantly, how we should respond. The full schedule for Frontiers 2017 is still available to check out here with detailed information on plenaries, speakers, and break out sessions.

NCDDers were prominently featured in the gathering’s schedule, including NCDD Board member Wendy Willis of Deliberative Democracy Consortium, who gave opening remarks on the effect of loneliness on civic life. Roshan presented a workshop on Saturday afternoon with several individuals, including Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project – a NCDD member org, on the promise and potential of seeing student governments as key venues in which to grow and spread deliberative democracy. Organizational NCDD member Ashley Trim of the Davenport Institute challenged our field to be more genuinely open to conservatives and you can read her poignant talk on Healthy Democracy’s site here. The gathering ended with a challenge from Dr. Archon Fung for our field to rethink the role of power in the work of dialogue & deliberative democracy and to deeply consider that we may not change much without engaging in real ways with efforts to build and wield it.

We wanted to lift up the post-conference reflection piece from Peter Levine, where he explores the direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy and the future of dialogue and deliberation work. He wrote:

“My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.”

For more information on the Frontiers conference, check out the info from Tisch below or on their website here. You can also look through the #demfront hashtag on twitter or this great Storify page that Joshua Miller created of the #demfront hashtag which you can see here.


Frontiers 2017 via Tisch

Thanks to everyone who joined us at an exciting, thought-provoking, and timely Frontiers of Democracy 2017. You can watch video of this year’s introduction, “short take” speakers, and one of our afternoon plenaries, below. (Click on each video’s description for timestamps that allow you to skip to a specific speaker’s presentation.)

Frontiers 2017 was focused on multiple frameworks for civic and democratic work developed respectively by Caesar McDowell of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and MIT, Archon Fung of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Tisch College’s Peter Levine. Our short take speakers included Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, the senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri; Wendy Willis of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the National Policy Consensus Center; and Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

In addition, the Journal of Public Deliberation, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and The Democracy Imperative held a pre-conference symposium on “Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Rising Authoritarianism.”

More about Frontiers of Democracy
Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. The event is organized in collaboration with several partners, which in 2017 included Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Now more than ever, the frontiers of democracy are threatened around the world. Leaders and movements that have popular support—yet are charged with being undemocratic, xenophobic, and illiberal—are influential or dominant in many countries. Meanwhile, many peoples continue to face deep and sustained repression. Social movements and networks are confronting this global turn to authoritarianism. This conference brings together scholars and practitioners from  do to defend and expand the frontiers of democracy.

Frontiers of Democracy immediately follows the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students.

NCDD Orgs Team up for Public Engagement Training

We wanted to let the NCDD network know about these training opportunities coming up with our friends at the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) and Public Agenda (PA). These two NCDD member orgs have teamed up to dive deep into public engagement skills at an in-person workshop in NYC, which also is part of PBP’s final module for their Summer Implementation Institute. Coming up this Weds July 26, is PBP’s final FREE webinar on breaking barriers for outreach during the Idea Collection phase – the third module in the Summer Implementation Institute. Next week, Public Agenda will doing a two-day workshop to strengthen public engagement strategy on July 31-August 1, with PBP presenting their session on the second day.

Coming up…

  • THIS Weds July 26: final FREE webinar with PBP, from 3pm – 5pm Eastern, 12pm – 3pm Pacific
  • July 31st: Public Agenda workshop in NYC
  • August 1st: Joint workshop with PBP and Public Agenda in NYC

To RSVP for the PBP webinar, click here. To register for the PA and/or PBP in-person NYC workshop[s], click here. For more on PBP’s Summer Implementation Institute, follow the hashtag #PBPInstitute on Twitter for more participant quotes, questions, and experiences! You can read the announcements from PBP and PA below or find the original on PA’s site here.


From the Participatory Budgeting Project

At the Participatory Budgeting Project, we’re wrapping up the first-ever PB Network Summer Implementation Institute with a final free webinar on Wednesday and an in-person session in NYC on August 1st.

On our final free webinar, we’re talking about outreach strategies used to generate ideas from non-English speakers, young people and court-involved people during Idea Collection!

Kenneth Tang from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and our West Coast Project Manager, Francesco Tena, will present on their local experience in two flagship PB processes: Oakland (the first process to do PB with federal funds in the U.S.) and Boston (the first youth PB process in the U.S.)

Join other PB-implementing staff and officials from across North America to:

  • Discuss record-breaking outreach strategies.
  • Dive into the challenges and benefits of using innovative outreach tactics in PB idea collection.
  • Collaboratively brainstorm ways to improve and expand outreach in communities where there are barriers to civic participation.
  • Receive tools and resources to use in your PB processes and in your work more broadly.

Likewise, if you’re interested in taking community leadership in government to the next level, join our in-person Steering Committees 101 workshop hosted in New York City next month, in partnership with Public Agenda. This session is focused on building and sustaining effective community leadership in democratic processes.

When: Tuesday August 1
Where: New York City
Cost: $200 REGULAR admission and $75 STUDENT admission. Or, check out the registration page for the full two-day workshop on public engagement with Public Agenda!
Register: Here

Hope to see you Wednesday and in August!

From Public Agenda

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 1.5 day workshop on how you can hone an effective engagement strategy along with a special session led by our friends at the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP).

On July 31, 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

On Aug 1, during Session 1, we’ll focus more squarely on options and next steps that participants can take in their communities. These sessions will help participants to:

  • 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.

During the afternoon session of August 1, PBP will present “Steering Committees 101: Centering community experience & expertise.”

This PBP session is part of PBP’s first-ever Summer Implementation Institute hosted by the North American Participatory Budgeting Network, consisting of 4 modules. The in-person session in New York City is preceded by three online webinars. Each module focuses on a particular phase of participatory budgeting (PB) starting with the PB vote and working backwards through proposal development, idea collection, and building a PB process with community leaders. Along with registering for this in-person session, you can RSVP for the three webinars from PBP here.

The in-person session in New York City is focused on building and sustaining effective community leadership in democratic processes. Here, leaders in community engagement will come together to share experiences, discuss pain points, and solve challenges. This session stems from an asset-based approach to community leadership within PB and beyond. Although focused on PB, this session is applicable to all public engagement practices centered in community experience and expertise.

You can find the original announcement on Public Agenda’s website at www.publicagenda.org/pages/workshop-public-engagement-strategy-in-new-york-city.

Everyday Democracy Announces New Local Anchor Partner

We are inspired to see long-standing dialogue efforts continue to grow and wanted to lift up this blog piece that NCDD member org, Everyday Democracy, shared recently announcing their new anchor partner with Community Partners. The local Florida organization has been using EvDem’s Dialogue-to-Change program for the last 16 years to address issues in Palm Beach County. Anchor partners work closely with EvDem to co-create and support efforts to build capacity for a Dialogue-to-Change program in their communities. To learn more about Evdem’s anchor program and how to become a partner, click here.

We encourage you to read more on EvDem’s blog below or find the original here.


One Community’s Journey From a Small Local Dialogue to Becoming a National Partner

EvDem LogoFor the last 16 years, residents in Palm Beach County, Fla., have been using Everyday Democracy’s Dialogue-to-Change process to work on issues of race, early childhood education, and building strong neighborhoods.

Not only have they done great work in West Palm Beach and surrounding communities— Housing Partnership, Inc (dba Community Partners) is now one of Everyday Democracy’s anchor partners. Anchor partners help Everyday Democracy carry out our work on a larger scale then we could alone, sharing a strong commitment to dialogue, engagement and racial equity, and committing to share knowledge and work together.

Community Partners first used Dialogue-to-Change to address an issue in their community in 2002. In Belle Glade, Fla., a young black man was found hanging from a tree. Residents were split along racial lines – white residents believed it was a suicide and black residents believed he was hanged. The court ultimately deemed it a suicide, but that didn’t resolve the tension in the community surrounding this tragic event.

In addition to becoming an anchor partner, Community Partners has since grown to more than 10 ongoing projects across the county. Everyday Democracy and Community Partners were among several presenters to train organizers from around the country in authentic community dialogue and engagement, and inform them about our anchor partner program, at NeighborWorks America’s Community Building and Engagement annual meeting in May.

Back in 2002, Barbara Cheives had already organized and trained facilitators for other dialogues in the area as the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Toward a More Perfect Union, and was called in to do some racial reconciliation work. She used our Dialogue-to-Change process to engage small groups in a structured dialogue process that let participants share stories and build trust.

She recalled one night after the dialogues seeing an older white gentleman from a sugar cane family and a black woman talking to each other long after the dialogues had ended. They were exploring each other’s point of views and what they saw in the streets of the towns they grew up in. That was just one of many bridges that were built from the dialogue-to-change program.

“I’ve seen real change, real discussion, and real action,” said Cheives.

Another participant in the race dialogues was a white male president of a national bank. After talking with other residents and seeing different perspectives, he noticed his own staff wasn’t very diverse. He immediately started taking action to hire candidates from many backgrounds, and that spread throughout the bank.

“The beauty of dialogue group is there’s no winning. It’s not a debate – we just have to listen to each other and come out with an action that works for the whole,” said Cheives.

In 2010, Palm Beach County residents joined across the county to discuss early childhood development, organized by a local organization called BRIDGES.

“We went into communities that have long been disenfranchised and they’re worried about food, safety, etc. – not necessarily getting their kids ready for kindergarten,” recalls Jaime-Lee Brown, Vice President of Community Services with Community Partners, one of the early organizers for the dialogues. “But everybody cares about their children. If we start with that conversation, then we can keep them engaged.”

Some of the actions that came out of that dialogue-to-change effort were kindergarten readiness toolkits and “kindergarten roundup” day where parents sat through a day of kindergarten so they could prepare their kids for the upcoming school year.

This led to dialogues and actions around building strong neighborhoods, which they are still working on today.

“What has really worked is to make sure that residents are gaining a voice, working toward a power balance, and engaging as a peer instead of speaking for the group,” says Brown.

Public engagement isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary part of making communities work for everyone.

Some challenges organizers often face when engaging community members include: burnout, people are too busy, follow-up, and no new people attend meetings or events.

So how do we truly engage a community in decision-making?

Palm Beach County residents have put into practice the values Everyday Democracy looks for in anchor partners: commitment to relationships, incorporating an equity lens into the work, building local capacity for the community dialogue process, and creating sustainable change.

Everyday Democracy is looking for more local organizations interested in becoming anchor partners. Everyday Democracy helps to build the capacity of anchor partners to embed the work in their local communities and amplify the impact of our coaching and Dialogue-to-Change process, making sure everyone can have a voice and role in their community.

Learn more about Everyday Democracy’s anchor network, including how to become an anchor, or contact Valeriano Ramos at vramos[at]everyday-democracy[dot]org.

You can find the original version of this Everyday Democracy blog piece at www.everyday-democracy.org/news/one-community%E2%80%99s-journey-small-local-dialogue-becoming-national-partner.

Exploring Possibilities by Challenging Assumptions

We wanted to share this piece from NCDD member, Beth Tener, on the New Directions Collaborative blog about her recent experience at a workshop she ran on The Art of Strategic Questioning and the insights she took away about the power of framing questions. Tener notes how much more powerful questions can become when they are co-developed by a diverse group of people in order to test the assumptions on how a question is framed and consequently open up the creative possibilities. We encourage you to read Tener’s article below or find the original on the New Directions Collaborative blog here.


Questioning to Question Our Assumptions

Asking powerful questions can spark people’s intrinsic motivation to learn, contribute, and create positive change. They also allow organizations and networks to tap and synthesize the knowledge, experience, and perspectives of many people in a system, organization, or community. Today I taught a workshop called The Art of Strategic Questioning, with a group of about 30 people who do facilitation, sponsored by New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement initiative of the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH. We explored the art of framing questions that open up possibilities and help a group find its way to a joint vision and/or action steps.

Good questions are framed in a way that is truly open, meaning they don’t lead to a yes/no answer or contain or suggest a solution. Examples of open questions are, “what is an important conversation we are not having?” or “what gifts and assets can be better utilized and connected?” We practiced creating questions for one another’s current challenges and noticing what makes a question powerful. Here are some insights that emerged:

In the introductions, I asked people to share their name, organization, and a question they were sitting with. A wide range of interesting questions were shared and about halfway through, I asked people to notice how they felt hearing others’ questions. They said they were drawn in, curious, and wanted to talk further and hear more. Acknowledging our questions, what has us thinking, and where we are curious or don’t know naturally stirs human interest and puts us on a more equal footing.

A participant mentioned the need to be aware of her assumptions. This is hard to do on your own. The time spent talking and practicing questions revealed that the way to really see our own assumptions, beliefs, and blind spots is through the process of conversation. Being asked questions by people who have other perspectives sheds light on where our viewpoint or thinking is limited.

Through the course of the workshop, people noticed how their own assumptions affected how they framed the question. For example, we can frame a question as “will option A or B be a better way to go?” or we can open it up to ask “what course of action will help me achieve my intention; option A, B or some other option I can’t see yet?”

As a way to practice using good questions in meeting design, we practiced the 1-2-4-All exercise, a great alternative to traditional brainstorming. People answered this question:

What question could be most powerful for us to take into our communities at this time?

Participants wrote their ideas first and then shared in a pair. One of the participants wrote this question first:

What happens if the current versions of our social safety nets fail?

When he paired up to talk with another participant, the reaction he got was, “wow, that’s a downer of a question that would be hard to get people to engage with.” They both recognized that was true. His professional training as a software engineer had him trained to look for problems and what might fail. This is a valuable skill and way of thinking for some situations; however, in a context of engaging a group and community in a conversation, this question needed some work. Together, they came up with a reframed version:

What would our community look like if it didn’t matter if our safety nets failed?

A more powerful question, indeed. When the original pair joined another pair of people to talk, the other participants immediately began envisioning what that community would feel and look like. This is a sign of a good question – it unleashes a sense of potential and possibility, it draws us in, and sparks our intrinsic motivation to engage and contribute.

This story also illustrates how coming up with a powerful question is best done in conversation with a group. This allows us to can better see our own assumptions and get insights from various perspectives. This is why it is so valuable to have a design team work together well ahead of a meeting to “set the table” for a good meeting. The team can design the agenda and get clear on the appropriate questions and how to word them most powerfully. Diversity on a design team is key to discern the most appropriate question(s); diversity in a meeting or gathering is key to discern the best answers.”

When we ask questions we don’t know the answers to and trust the unknown and the wisdom of the group, new insights and possibilities can emerge. This quote from Ria Baeck and Helen Titchen Beeth sums this up beautifully:

“Emergence is the manifestation of the truly new that has never existed before, where new connections are made that create a new whole. It requires a degree of chaos, where the structuring comes not from manmade attempts at control, but from holding a strong energetic container for the necessary chaos, while staying with the guiding question and the intent that the emergence is invited to serve.”

You can find the original version of this New Directions Collaborative blog article at www.ndcollaborative.com/question-assumptions/

NCDD Joins Coalition in Launching National Survey on the American Dream

In an era of political divide and confusion, we can learn a lot about what is happening if we slow down and ask people how their thoughts and feelings about the issues that seem to divide us most are changing.

That is why NCDD is proud to announce that we’ve joined a national, nonpartisan coalition that is launching the “What’s Your American Dream?” survey. This survey will ask people across the US to express their values and goals around the issues they see as most vital, and deliver the results to lawmakers. We think that an effort like this can help guide the nation’s leaders – as well as dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement practitioners –  to understand Americans’ goals for this time and then devise the tactics to achieve those goals.

The survey grew out of discussions with former members of Congress and everyday Americans, all frustrated with being out of touch with each other. The coalition rolling out the “What is Your American Dream?” survey – comprised of 25 universities, media outlets, organizations spanning the political spectrum, and spearheaded by the team at TheChisel – has the potential to reach 30 million Americans.

NCDD joined this growing coalition because we believe that the survey is a great tool to help D&D practitioners in our network gain clearer insights on what the people we’re engaging are really thinking and how they’re prioritizing for different issue areas, which will help our field do more impactful work that is responsive to the needs in our communities. That’s why we’re supporting the survey and encouraging our network to participate & share the survey to your own networks!

The seven-week survey is being hosted on TheChisel.com, a unique nonpartisan public discussion platform that encourages people across the US to step beyond political slogans and platforms to share what matters to them, their loved ones, and communities.

Their survey uses elements of public deliberation to help distill Americans’ shared dream in seven important areas: Economy; Social Justice; Liberty and Regulation; Health, Education, and Care; Services; Foreign Affairs; and Governance. One of these themes will be featured each of the seven weeks that the survey is open. Unlike traditional surveys, the American Dream survey allows participants to share their stories with fellow Americans, or even add issues important to them that they think should be part of the conversation. It also features whimsical graphics and game-like navigation, is easy to use and understand, and appeals to all ages – whether they are 18 or 99 year olds.

TheChisel and the coalition will share the survey’s findings with the media and hand-deliver the report to the President, Cabinet, Members of Congress, Supreme Court, and state governors once it’s completed.

The “What’s Your American Dream?” survey launched on May 16 and will be open to the public for free until July 4, 2017, so be sure to participate soon! You can find the survey at www.thechisel.com/americandream. We encourage NCDD members and our broader network to take the survey yourself, share it with your followers, or even consider signing on to the coalition, which already includes other NCDD member orgs!

More about the Coalition
University partners include University of Missouri School of Journalism, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, University of Mary Government and Political Philosophy Department, University of the Pacific Political Science Department.

Other partners include: ALL-IN Campus Democracy Challenge, AllSides, Associated Collegiate Press, Diplomat Books, Future 500, Heartfelt Leadership Institute, Hope Street Group, Independent Voter Network, Inyo County Clerk-Recorder, JGArchitects, Living Room Conversations, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, National Speech and Debate Association, ReConsider Media, The TAI Group, Take Back Our Republic, TheChisel, The Democracy Commitment, The Policy Circle, Wellville, and The Women’s Debate.

More about TheChisel
TheChisel is a nonpartisan website offering citizens a unique platform to engage in a dialogue with experts from both sides of the aisle. It enables citizen voices to be heard over the noise of special interest groups and media spin. On TheChisel’s proprietary discussion platform, every American can engage and help revise public policy proposals related to issues important to America’s future. These proposals are developed by nonpartisan organizations and bipartisan coalitions. With TheChisel’s help, Americans’ views will educate civic leaders and guide their policy-making.

Addressing the Problem of Separation through Dialogue

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


What Discussing Polarizing Topics Like Inequality Exposes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderator: How do you feel about that?

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

Male: Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Lessons on Community-Police Relations from APV2017

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


A Public Voice 2017: Safety & Justice

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

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

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

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

A policing perspective

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

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

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

People want to address root causes

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating a Polarized Landscape with Our Nonpartisan Credentials Intact

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


Nonpartisan Hygiene: 6 Tips to Stay Squeaky Clean

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

Nonpartisan “Positions”

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

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

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

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

What we lose when we’re not scrupulously nonpartisan

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

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

6 Tips to Stay Squeaky Clean and Effective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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