Insights on Participatory Democracy via the Jefferson Center

NCDD member org, The Jefferson Center, recently shared their recap of the Innovations in Participatory Democracy conference that happened last month. In their reflections, they discuss the future opportunities for our democracy by better bringing together participatory principles and deliberative approaches. You can read the post below and find the original on Jefferson Center’s site here.


Making Participation More Deliberative, and Deliberation More Participatory

A few weeks ago, we attended the Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference, which we were excited to support as both participants and presenters, brought together community leaders, government officials and staff, practitioners, researchers, funders, youth leaders, and technologists to explore innovations in government participation.

We led a workshop on Citizens Juries, Assemblies, & Sortition, and participated in a panel on the similarities and differences across participatory budgeting, Citizen Juries, and citizen assemblies. While we were there, we saw democracy in action at Central High School, where students are part of a current Participatory Budgeting Project initiative.

At the conference, it was clear the opportunities for participatory democracy are expanding. Participatory democracy is made up of two key parts: participatory principles, which often invite the public to share their thoughts and opinions, and deliberative approaches, which typically convene a smaller group of individuals to learn about an issue and create plans for action or policy recommendations. While these two unique approaches are sometimes thought of as opposing forces, we saw how people around the world are using both to make democracy more impactful and inclusive. There’s no longer one clear set of principles for the “right” way to participate in democracy, and it’s incredible to be part of this movement.

We wanted to share a few exciting outlooks for democracy that we took away from the conference:

1. Collaboration with governments will grow and change

In the United States, Citizens Juries and mini-publics are typically run by nonprofits (like us!), rather than officially sponsored by the national government. This is changing as governments are exploring new ways to engage with their citizens. But, that doesn’t mean the only outcomes of deliberation and participation need to be policy changes: we’ve learned throughout our work that participatory democracy can be used successfully for long-term, community-wide impacts.

At the conference, we shared the example of our Rural Climate Dialogue program in Winona County, where residents created recommendations for their community to adapt to climate change and extreme weather. Since the dialogue, the City of Winona has adopted an energy plan with goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. They’ve also invested in community education initiatives on energy efficiency and water savings. Urging policy changes while supporting long-term behavior changes, like we’re doing in Winona County, will help governments, their partners, and citizens sustain the results of engagement efforts.

2. It’s time to focus on the opportunities to combine participatory and deliberative approaches

By merging both participatory principles and deliberative approaches, we can make democracy more accessible and impactful. You might be familiar with the thoughts of Micah Sifry, of Civic Hall, on these two distinct tactics: “Thick engagement doesn’t scale, and thin engagement doesn’t stick”. Deliberation (thick engagement) can be productive, but needs lots of time and resources. Participatory approaches (thin engagement), like asking for input on social media, may be easier and quicker, but require little ongoing involvement or further opportunities for deeper engagement, as Matt Leighninger of Public Agenda explores. But, there’s a solution, and we saw countless examples of this at the conference: we can invite people to submit ideas and proposals online for consideration by participants who are meeting in person. Conversely, we can build on the recommendations and ideas generated at deliberative events to form the base of digital participation efforts.

We’ve been testing out this combined approach in a few different projects. Through Your Vote Ohio and Informed Citizen Akron, we used deliberative events to ask citizens in Ohio what they needed from their local news organizations. Their input set the stage for Your Voice Ohio, a project that explores community engagement approaches to help newsrooms across the state listen and respond to their audiences. With the deliberation recommendations as a guiding force, we host open community events, invite people to share their stories online and through social media, and are rolling out Hearken as a platform where local residents can ask reporters questions about the addiction crisis. By combining these forces we’re making democracy more accessible to everyone.

3. The entry to engagement is different in every community

One of the incredible projects we heard about was the Participatory Budgeting Project’s work with the Phoenix Union High School District, where they invited student input to decide how to spend district-wide funds. This was the first school participatory budgeting process in the U.S. to focus on district-wide funds, which started with five public high schools and has expanded since. While this may seem like a small step, this has begun to shift the relationship between students and administrators.

Administrators are now considering how they can adapt these participatory practices to the everyday culture of these schools, like inviting students to share their thoughts on changes such as scheduling and course offerings. Because the initial opportunity to participate was simple and manageable for both the students and the administration, they’ve laid the foundation for future collaboration and growth. Plus, young people got to use real voting machines in the process, which was a great opportunity to experience how voting and live democracy actually work. We’re excited to see how this can expand to other schools and communities.

4. Success means equipping others

In democracy work, we often focus on “bringing projects to scale”. This is important, but we also don’t want to leave communities behind without equipping them with the tools they need for sustained success. For too long, the dominant theory of change for deliberative democracy looked something like this:

  1. Select a topic
  2. Host a Citizens Jury (or other deliberative event)
  3. Generate a report
  4. Hope someone reads it and utilizes the recommendations.

But, we can do so much more. We can combine thick and thin engagement techniques to give people the resources to continue projects after engagement organizations and professionals leave the community. At the Jefferson Center, we are implementing this approach with our dialogue-to-action model. First, we co-define: we build relationships with stakeholders and community members to gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. Next, we co-design: working with project partners, we develop and implement an engagement process to unleash creative ideas which also provides participants with the expertise, tools, and time they need to develop solutions. Finally, we co-create: our partners use the public input to advance local actions, reform practices and processes, and guide policy development and decision-making.

5. We can frame impact differently to support broader results

Deliberation and participation can be misunderstood as having one narrow goal: to influence a policy decision. But instead, we can evaluate the success of Citizen Juries, mini-publics, and other engagement efforts not just by their policy influence, but by the opportunities to impact individuals, communities, networks, organizations, and governments. Unless they are expressly commissioned by a government sponsor, the projects that go beyond one policy objective will likely have the most impact. By taking a more holistic approach to change, we can build sustainable partnerships between individuals, leaders, local institutions, the media, and others, who can carry on the important work in the community.

For instance, Participatory Budgeting Projects don’t just enable people to direct public money to community priorities. Throughout the process, community organizations and networks are strengthened, as groups work together to focus on their shared needs. After the discussion ends, these groups may form new organizations and partnerships and continue positive and constructive engagement. All of the PB award winners at the conference, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval (Phoenix Union High School District), Sonya Reynolds (Participatory Budgeting NYC), and Cecilia Salinas (Participatory Budgeting Chicago in the 49th Ward) represent this investment in long-term impact.

Looking forward

Participation and deliberation should not be positioned as opposing forces. Instead, it’s time to identify meaningful opportunities to make participatory practices more deliberative, and make deliberative processes more participatory. For those of us committed to democratic reform and innovation, combining these elements effectively, regardless of the issue, method, or context, will support our ambitions to create a stronger, more vibrant democracy for all of us.

You can find the original version of this post on Jefferson Center’s blog at www.jefferson-center.org/making-participation-more-deliberative-and-deliberation-more-participatory/.

Undivided Nation Bridging Divides One State at a Time

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

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


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

By David Leaverton

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

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

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

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

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

That one line changed me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring How We Engage Values with Ben Franklin Circles

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


Circle Spotlight: Katherine from Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity to Host a Jefferson Dinner!

We are excited to announce NCDD is working with NCDD member organization The Village Square to support dialogues across the country using the format of the Jefferson Dinner, which invites people with differences of opinion to discuss an important topic over dinner.  These dinners are compelling experiences that The Village Square wants you to experience firsthand, and so we are letting you all know about an exciting opportunity!

Because they are particularly interested in making this surprisingly powerful tool available to NCDD members, they are offering stipends to at least 15 moderators to organize and facilitate a Jefferson Dinner. And the best part is that you can pick the topic for your dinner from any current political or civic topic around which there is substantial disagreement in the public square.

Some history about this tradition: Jefferson hosted his dinners at a time when prospects weren’t good that our new republic would hold together. Early legislators were described as coming to work “in the spirit of avowed misunderstanding, without the smallest wish to agree.” Sound familiar? Jefferson hosted dinners that were profoundly humanizing for these angry opponents. One dinner – with guests Alexander Hamilton and James Madison – resulted in the Dinner Table Bargain of 1790, widely credited with saving the American experiment.

In the same way that Jefferson mastered the art of these dinners as a way to make things happen that mattered to him, The Village Square would like you to experience how you can do the same.  Your dinner is about what’s in your heart  – whether that’s starting a civic project, running for office, contemplating solutions to a problem that deeply concerns you or imagining the future. By intentionally gathering people with diverse opinions – something that doesn’t happen enough these days – you’re harnessing incredible power toward whatever matters to you.

All that’s really required: 8-12 diverse guests, 1 dinner table and a welcoming environment. Could be your home, a private room at a restaurant, or a picnic table at a park. If you’re feeling inspired, put a modern twist on it & make it a brunch. Live a little!

The Village Square also hosts group Jefferson Dinners (a number of conversations in the same room, as part of a public event) and is delighted to support you in offering this format as well.

Find the Village Square’s Jefferson Dinner project online: www.jeffersondinner.org.  Read a feature piece about a dinner here.

This is a great opportunity for members to use this model to connect people who normally wouldn’t share a meal together and experience its potential to form the basis of unique alliances. NCDD would love to see a whole bunch of our members get involved with Dinners 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.

If you are interested and would like to connect with organizers to learn more about how the dinner format can be used to achieve your goals, please fill out this quick form here and they will contact you directly!

For more information about The Village Square please visit https://tlh.villagesquare.us/. The Jefferson Dinner project is funded by a grant from the Bridge Alliance and in partnership with the 92Y’s Ben Franklin Circles project (all NCDD Members!).

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. ”  — Thomas Jefferson

The Critical Need for Collective Sensemaking

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


Navigating Change With Collective Sensemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Community Through Ben Franklin Circles

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


Why I Started a Benjamin Franklin Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working in Consensus Around Challenging Issues

As collective heartache and anxiety takes the nation in waves due to recent tragedies, dialogue offers a place where folks can come together in conversation to process and better understand one another on challenging issues like gun access. Written by NCDD member Larry Schooler, he shares the need to talk with each other from a place of consensus as opposed to compromise; and lifts up some of the core tenets of dialogue in a beautiful analogy of a dinner party, in which we come to the table open-minded and open-hearted. We encourage you to read the article below or find the original version posted here.


I’m a Broward County Schools parent. Time to talk.

Any parent would feel shaken by a shooting at a school anywhere in the world. But when it happens less than 30 miles from where you live, and your own child attends a school in the same district, it felt different to me.

It reminded me of both what I have, and have not, done to keep my own children safe, to talk to them about the issues around violence, guns, mental health, and the like. It also reminded me of what I could do to help.

I am a conflict resolution professional, but it does not take an expert to see we have conflict around gun ownership and usage that needs resolving. If you are looking for policy proposals on gun control, look elsewhere. But if you want to be part of the resolution to these conflicts, consider this: compromise may be less important than consensus.

What’s the difference? Think of the contexts in which we use the word “compromise.” “The mission was compromised and had to be abandoned.” “Her immune system was compromised making her more susceptible to infection.” Usage in these cases connotes weakness, defeat, vulnerability. In the context of resolving a conflict, some scholars argue compromise generally involves loss–the surrender of something important to one party in service of an agreement.

Would a passionate advocate for gun rights or gun control want to give in on any of their core values in the spirit of any agreement? Would a leader of the National Rifle Association or Everytown for Gun Safety want to “lose” on any aspect of their principles in pursuit of a deal? No one wants the perfect to be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes in public policymaking, but no one wants to feel as if he or she has to lose in order to get a win, either–or, as one dictionary puts it, engage in “the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.”

But consensus differs in key ways. It connects to the perhaps overused but highly significant concept of a “win-win” outcome. It holds out hope that with enough understanding of each other’s goals and viewpoints, an agreement can emerge that everyone can actively support. Debate does not yield consensus; dialogue and discussion do. We seem incredibly eager to debate–in government, online, and beyond–and far less eager, or even able, to discuss.

Imagine if you found someone whom you knew had a very different perspective on guns than you do. Maybe you’ve never owned or even fired a gun, and a good friend is a hunter. Maybe you’ve defended yourself or someone else using a gun, and a good friend or relative thinks you are endangering yourself or others by having one. Sit down with that person, as soon as possible.

Start by listening to understand, not to respond. Start by asking what makes the issue of guns important to the other person–why does it matter, what personal connections might there be. Start by considering what you can learn from the other person’s perspective that you did not know or had not fully considered before–why guns do more than just hurt, why gun ownership inspires fear rather than safety.

From that place of curiosity and interest, list the core values you each hold, without judgment; do it individually and then share. Maybe you both care about safety for all, the right to self-defense, the need for gun owners to receive training or licensure. Even if the lists of values stay separate, the act of acknowledging the importance of each other’s values matters. If you find common ground at this stage, so much the better; momentum emerges.

Now that you’ve set the table, you can begin adding the food for thought–ideas to carry out the values. When you go to a dinner party, you are unlikely to reject a dish as it comes out; so, too, should all ideas be welcomed, at this stage. So, if your counterpart says no one should own a gun before the age of 25, keep your concerns about that suggestion to yourself, for now.

When the food comes out–and, chances are, you and your counterpart will have prepared a feast of ideas, given the chance to do so without fear of immediate judgment–you evaluate those ideas based on what matters to each of you individually and both of you collectively. If you have agreed that safety for all matters, does the suggestion to restrict gun ownership based on age achieve that? If you have agreed that a person reserves the right to self-defense, does that suggestion help? Even at this stage, when you are determining what you can and cannot support, you search for what you can support, actively, in consensus, rather than what you must “give up” in compromise. If you feel determined to “defeat” a proposal, be prepared to offer an alternative. If age-based restrictions on gun ownership don’t work, what restrictions would? If the presence of an armed guard in a school doesn’t make sense to you, what protections would?

It would be easy to dismiss this process as far-fetched, unrealistic, for the moment when pigs fly. Frankly, it is hard to know whether we are capable of this kind of civil discourse–we rarely, if ever, have undertaken it, though participants from both sides of the abortion debate have triedwith some success. I can only state, with some empirical evidence, that our previous tactics have not worked. No matter how tragic or unthinkable prior incidents have been, efforts to defeat the other side have produced few results.

Dare we, as a nation, risk failure in order to achieve lasting success? Our past victories have seldom come out without that risk, and we undoubtedly risk greater bloodshed and broken hearts through a repetition of our past failures.

You can find the original version of Larry School’s article at www.linkedin.com/pulse/im-broward-county-schools-parent-time-talk-larry-schooler/.

Civility Lessons from Washington in Honor of President’s Day

In honor of President’s Day, we wanted to share this piece by Big Tent Nation on some lessons from George Washington that was posted on NCDD member org, the Bridge Alliance‘s website. This post lifts up some of the gems the first president wrote about on the power of dialogue and importance of civility especially within conversation. In addition to BTN and BA, there are several organizations in the NCDD network like the National Institute for Civil Discourse and The Village Square, have been working to improve civility just as G.W. advised. You can read the post below or find this version on the BA’s site here.


Lessons from George Washington: It’s Time We Listened!

We all want America to flourish and prosper, but disagreements on “how” keep tripping us up. How is much more than picking between policy prescriptions – at its core it involves how we treat each other, and particularly those we disagree with.

The person most essential to realizing America in the first place thought about this issue a lot. It’s time to revisit his legacy.

George Washington was incredibly wealthy, physically imposing and a war hero of epic proportions. He probably could have gotten away with being a total jerk and still been revered! The fact is, many Americans wanted to give him almost limitless power. Some even wanted to make him a king.

His response? To a degree unprecedented in history (with all due respect to Cincinnatus), he put nation ahead of personal power and glory.  Was it because he wasn’t ambitious? Was it because he never felt like knocking Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s heads together and telling them to just behave? Absolutely not. He had the same desires and frustrations we all struggle with.

In fact, Washington was a highly emotional person who worked incredibly hard to manage his impulses.

He started cultivating self-control and interpersonal wisdom at an early age.  At just 16, he created a book for himself now called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” In it he transcribed 110 guidelines for personal conduct, manners and social relations. Reading them now, I’m struck by how relevant they are to today’s political challenges – and the degree to which we’re systematically ignoring them.  Below are a few that would contribute enormously to authentic American greatness, if only we put them into practice:

At a profound level, Washington recognized that discipline and respect for others are essential to achieving greatness as a person or a nation.  We’ve strayed too far from these principles – and that represents an existential threat to our democracy.

Too many of us have allowed “our side” winning to triumph over the best interests of America as a whole.  The political dysfunction we suffer today has its roots in this toxic, zero sum mentality. Is there a way forward? The jury is out, but I can’t think of a better guide for all of us than the saying George Washington wrote down last:

You can find this version of the Big Tent Nation’s blog piece on the Bridge Alliance site at  www.bridgealliance.us/lessons_from_george_washington_it_s_time_we_listened.

NCDD Orgs Team up for Utah Civic Engagement Fellowship

For Utah folks in our network, there is an exciting endeavor underway that we wanted to share with you! Several NCDD member orgs – Essential Partners, Village Square, and Living Room Conversations – in partnership with Salt Lake Civil Network and Utah Humanities, have teamed for a year-long Civic Engagement Fellowship, with a focus on further building Utah as a hub for civil discourse. The fellowship will kick off with two-day training in dialogue facilitation by Essential Partners on March 2 & 3, then the following year will be dedicated to designing and implementing a civic engagement plan and facilitating civil dialogues. The deadline to apply is February 23rd, so make sure you apply ASAP! We encourage you to read the announcement below or find the original on EP’s site here.


Announcing the Utah Civic Engagement Fellowship

In partnership with Village SquareLiving Room ConversationsSalt Lake Civil Network, and Utah Humanities, we are building a statewide network in Utah for citizens seeking to become skilled leaders in designing and facilitating civil dialogues in their communities.

The year-long Civic Engagement Fellowship for Utah begins with a comprehensive two-day training in dialogue facilitation, provided by Essential Partners, from March 2-3 in Salt Lake City (venue TBD). Over the following year, Fellows will be connected to a larger collective impact initiative focused specifically on Utah as an ideal hub for shifting the culture of civic discourse. With support from skilled practitioners and a network of other trainees, Fellows will develop and implement community engagement plans centered on civil, connective dialogues.

To apply, please complete and submit the form at this link by no later than February 23, 2018.

About the 2-day Fellowship Training:

The Fellowship builds on a foundational two-day comprehensive training, Facilitating Dialogue Across Divides, provided by Essential Partners.

Are you witnessing an increase in divisiveness in your community? Do you see the need for us to talk across our divides? Do you want to be able to help your community have the difficult conversations it needs to have to move forward together? Facilitating Dialogue Across Divides is designed to help you build skills to facilitate tough conversations, whether in your daily life or in formal dialogues. This workshop is intended to be an introductory workshop for those new to facilitation, or to Essential Partners’ model.

Community is an act of courage. We believe that behind every belief is a person with a story. 27 years ago, Essential Partners created a unique approach to dialogue that promotes connection and curiosity between those who see one another as enemies. Our approach, Reflective Structure Dialogue (RSD), has transformed conflicts across the country and the world, and is widely applicable to the vital conversations that communities need to have to do the work they need to do. An intentional communication process can help individuals, groups, and communities rebuild trust, enhance resilience, address challenging issues, and have constructive conversations with people from different perspectives or those they otherwise would avoid or fight with.

Beginning with this training, Fellows will embark on a rigorous program to cultivate facilitation skills through practice and direct engagement of their communities in Utah.

Benefits of Fellowship:

  • Two-day training in facilitating civic dialogues
  • Monthly webinars and support gatherings
  • Updates about opportunities to facilitate
  • One-on-one coaching for community projects
  • Training for facilitating Village Square forums and smaller Living Room Conversations

Fellowship requirements:

We encourage candidates to come with a connection to a community, institution, or group in which they could use these skills. Because this work involves collaboration, we strongly encourage candidates to apply with partners, working together to help facilitate conversations. We can help pair people who do not have partners. Teams may be as large as 4. Call with questions.

This Fellowship requires:

  • Training completion and monthly webinars
  • Design/execution of a plan for using this work in each team’s home community or group
  • Facilitating at least one civic dialogue
  • Participating in a Village Square event
  • Hosting a Living Room Conversation
  • Supporting other Fellows in their work
  • A refundable $100/person deposit

Skills taught in the training:

  • Designing & structuring conversations for civic engagement: focusing on curiosity, community, and connection across difference
  • Achieving clarity of purpose & expectations
  • Utilizing agreements, structures, preparation, and inquiry
  • Practicing competence and confidence in facilitating through challenging moments

As a result of training, Fellows will be able to:

  • Create a context for people to communicate with self-confidence about difficult or divisive topics
  • Break destructive communication habits (e.g., avoidance, silence, or reactive responses, enabling people to feel heard
  • Design conversations, dialogues, or meetings with clear purpose, full participation, and a structure for moving forward together
  • Introduce a dialogue circle
  • Intervene to support a group through rough spots

Who might be a Fellow?

  • Community or nonprofit leaders, clergy
  • Gov’t officials seeking to drive collaboration
  • School administrators, professors, teachers
  • Directors of community engagement, diversity, and inclusion

To learn more about the Fellowship (application, requirements, program elements and expectations), please download the program description here.

You can find the original announcement on Essential Partner’s site at www.whatisessential.org/utah

NCL Hosts 109th Nat’l Conference on Local Governance

The National Civic League, an NCDD member organization is hosting the 109th National Conference on Local Governance on June 22nd in Denver, which will precede the 2018 All-America City awards. This conference will be a great opportunity to hear about exciting civic engagement projects being done in cities across the country that are working to promote equity. You can register for the conference by clicking here and take note that early bird registration is available until March 28. Learn more in the announcement below or find the original on NCL’s site here.


109th National Conference on Local Governance: Building Community, Achieving Equity

The National Civic League is hosting the 109th National Conference on Local Governance in Denver on June 22, 2018. This one-day conference will highlight successful projects and initiatives around the country, with speakers from cities that are implementing creative strategies for civic engagement that promote equity. The conference will promote expansive civic engagement, innovation and collaboration as the best strategies for cities to make progress on complex issues like health, education, and relations between community and police.

The conference will precede the 2018 All-America City awards event, which will focus this year on Promoting Equity Through Inclusive Civic Engagement. The theme of both the conference and All-America City awards will be connected to the 50th anniversary of several events that took place in 1968, including the release of a report from President Johnson’s Kerner Commission, which warned of a worsening racial divide and proposed actions at the local and national levels to improve relations with people of color and reduce disparities.

The National Conference on Local Governance is targeted at community leaders, elected officials, academic practitioners, concerned citizens and all others with a passion for creating a stronger community. The conference will provide resources, examples and best practices for community activists, government officials, nonprofit leaders, academic researchers and those interested in better understanding how we can create more inclusive, equitable and thriving communities.

Speakers for the event include Jandel Allen-Davis, M.D., vice president of government and external relations for Kaiser Permanente; Secretary Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary for Housing and Urban Development; former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, who served on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission; and Manuel Pastor, Ph.D., director of University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

The conference will feature three issue tracks:

Health Equity
Healthy, thriving communities use all sectors to make better health possible for all residents. Whether it’s access to fresh food, green space or affordable housing, local governments, nonprofits, school districts and businesses all have a role to play. This track will focus on creating a complete picture of health, from physical environments and planning to strategies for promoting mental health. Equity will be a connecting focus throughout the conference, with a focus on eliminating disparities and a vision of creating a community in which demographics or a zip code do not determine residents’ health outcomes.

Youth and Education
Investing in equitable educational opportunities for youth and adults creates a strong foundation for a thriving community. For this track, education goes beyond just the school system to include all learning opportunities a community can provide for youth and adults from libraries to monuments to arts spaces and more. This track will also explore the strategies and programs that create spaces for youth to be leaders in the community. The vision for this track is a thriving, learning community that provides equitable, culturally responsive educational opportunities that lead to meaningful work.

Community-Police Relations
Fostering community trust and relationships with police departments is top of mind for American communities. This track will explore successful programs that begin to honestly address policing issues and increase safety and well-being for all residents, regardless of race or other characteristics. Implicit bias training and hiring practices for police will be highlighted. Breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline will also be a focus. A thriving, safe community is one where all residents feel welcome and supported by law enforcement and justice systems.

You can find the original announcement on NCL’s site at www.nationalcivicleague.org/national-conference-community-governance/.