Polarization Hangover

This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on November 15, 2016. You can listen to the original commentary here.

In the wake of one of the most divisive elections in history, a lot of us have a wicked post-election hangover caused by the polarization bender we’ve been on for the past year.

It’s not exaggerating to say that political polarization is an addiction. Many of us, on all sides, have been binging on a diet of confirmation bias. Among our divisiveness “dealers” are the media silos we choose, and social media tools that are designed not to inform or challenge us, but to give us more fuel for our pre-existing beliefs.

Polarization works on the human mind like a drug. Our tribal, even reptilian brains crave certainty. We’re suckers for a simple, good-versus-evil narrative. Brain studies show that when we receive new information that doesn’t fit our worldview, the prefrontal cortex responsible for conscious reasoning may hardly fire. Instead our emotional circuits are activated.

And - get this - when we go through this process of reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs, the reward centers of our brains light up. Like a drug, we get a hit every time we ignore information that challenges our worldview.

Polarization is effective for building tribes. But it’s terrible for processing information or - dare I mention it? - finding solutions.

Many of today’s hot topics - climate change, race, immigration - are what analysts call “wicked” problems. They’re especially hard to solve because of competing underlying values.

Colorado State professor Martin Carcasson explains that most problem-solving models focus either on expertise or on activism. But wicked problems are inherently different. They don’t respond to expert, technical solutions, or to deal-making. They respond to slow, trusting, face-to-face communication.

So for our polarization hangover, the “hair of the dog that bit you” isn’t going to help.

A real cure is to sit down with someone who voted differently from you, and ask them whether they have their snow tires on yet. How are their kids? Just remember what it's like to be human with them.

Later, once you’ve rebuilt trust, you can listen to them about issues. Take a breath. And try to discover the concerns beneath their stances. The interests beneath their positions.

The cure for our wicked polarization hangover begins with patience, listening, and the knowledge that with wicked problems, it’s the problem that’s wicked, not the people.

Hamilton and America's Story

This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on June 10, 2016. You can listen to the original commentary here.

I’m old enough to remember America’s Bicentennial in 1976 – but young enough to have been an impressionable pre-adolescent at the time. I was swept up in the national celebration, and my giggling all-girl birthday party even went to see the new film, adapted from the musical 1776.

That’s when I developed one of my earliest crushes - on Thomas Jefferson. He was portrayed as a young, homesick, lovesick, fiddle-playing revolutionary poet, and he won my heart. To give you an idea of the vibrancy of my crush, the first time I visited Jefferson’s home in Monticello, I actually got butterflies in my stomach.

My early Jeffersonian impressions have matured and sobered, but they sparked a long-term interest that’s served me well as a democratic researcher, writer, and activist.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, with his astonishing score and magnificent storytelling skills, is now making history come alive for a new generation. Classrooms are vibrating with the music, families are rocking out to it, and Miranda himself can’t wait for high schools to perform it.

In this show, except the wonderfully foppish King George, nearly all characters are played by non-white actors – including Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, himself – with a driving hip-hop sound that makes history relevant by beaming it through the prism of today’s America.

The Revolution sings as a story that stars new Americans. Caribbean-raised Hamilton and French General Lafayette celebrate their battlefield collaboration with the shout “Immigrants! We get the job done!” This line gets so much applause when performed that the actors have had to add a pause to the score.

Hamilton’s wife Eliza didn’t have the policy influence of an Abigail Adams. But the vibrant presence and soaring vocals of Hamilton’s female characters are powerful reminders that half of our nation’s history was made by women.

Most of us won’t get to see the sold-out Hamilton anytime soon. But the soundtrack alone tells the story, and it’s readily available to buy, download, or stream so you can get your ears on Hamilton. It’s fierce, funny, romantic, tragic, passionate, and deeply human. It makes America’s creation story new and real and alive again. Maybe you’ll even fall in love.

And America’s story could use a little love right now. Hamilton’s story, like Jefferson’s - like America’s really - is loaded with imperfections. But only through a loving lens can we understand these flaws and work to improve them.

In this time of disillusionment, when it seems that polarization could destroy our great American experiment – such a rich historical celebration was never more needed.

The Vase of Community

This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on June 5, 2015. You can hear the original commentary here.

A well-known optical illusion shows two silhouetted faces in profile looking at each other. At first, most viewers just see the faces, then comes the sudden realization that there’s a contoured vase between them. Even though this image is only a simple drawing, it’s compelling. It engages us as we focus, and then focus again. The face? Or the vase?

In the education debate, we’ve focused a lot on faces: faces of taxpayers who want spending reduced, faces of children whose educations, we’re warned, range from excellent to below-par.

Consolidation advocates argue that students could benefit from more uniformity in education, and newly regionalized districts would be better able to move around resources and teachers, gaining efficiencies that could slowly save money.

But this law also pays towns to eliminate local school boards. Consider the impacts on the vase of community.

When neighbors work together at the local level to take responsibility for services held in common, we build social capital — a vessel to support our kids. Or to return to our puzzle picture, the vase at the center that defines the faces.

When small schools become a minority voice on a regional board, the school’s future is no longer in local hands.

Meanwhile, eliminating local boards removes a key training ground for democratic leadership — especially for women. And research shows that when we dilute opportunities for participation, citizens turn away.

It’s true that Vermont has many small schools and school boards. But that’s because we live in many small towns. More of our population lives in towns of under 2,500 people than any other state except Maine. And this may be our strength.

Schools function best when community is involved. Public education depends on a public – engaged and willing to invest time, wisdom and dollars.

Too often, Americans think of government as a “they.” But Vermonters consistently view local government as a “we.” Last year, more than 90% of school budgets passed. With our local focus, we can see that they’re all “our” children.

With regionalization, our values may change – and as in much of America, Vermonters’ attitudes may shift from “everybody’s kids” to “nobody’s kids.”

The new law comes with many unknowns. But one thing is sure. It doesn’t protect Vermonters’ sense of community. In fact, it pays us to dismantle local democratic involvement in schools.

It will take vigilance and wisdom to maintain the dual nature of our communities - that elusive, mesmerizing balance between the face and the vase. As with our state motto, Freedom and Unity, both define us.

Warm Cookies of the Revolution: Social Change and Happiness

This piece by Susan Clark appeared on the "Slowstruck" site in September, 2014. See the original post here.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the glories of summer -- especially slow-paced time with friends. In summertime, relationships are warm and the hours are fluid. A day at beach stretches into an evening around the campfire, stars overhead and crickets chirping.

 But as autumn creeps nearer, things will inevitably quicken. In the worst case, my autumn relationship with the world will be characterized by frustration -- annoying school board meetings, polarizing debates, or nasty elections. My slow, summery community fades, to be replaced by cold politics and, frankly, people I simply may not agree with.

 As a community-development kind of gal, I’m always looking for other models – ways to hold onto much-need connections and “slowness.” Here’s a new favorite.

“Warm Cookies of the Revolution” has been busy in Denver, Colorado for the past few years building community engagement – while having fun. They call it a “civic health club.” Their website explains, “Well, you go to a gym to exercise your physical health, a religious institution to exercise your spiritual health ... Warm Cookies of the Revolution is where you go to exercise your Civic Health.” 

Founder Evan Weissman can hear your skepticism already, but his enthusiasm is contagious. He explains, “It doesn’t have to be, like, ‘I’m going to tell you why the world is horrible! And you have to listen and feel bad, and not know what to do!’”

Yes, as you’d expect, every “Warm Cookies” event features free milk and a variety of baked goods. But the name also symbolizes a far-reaching vision. Politics and social change don’t have to be scary; they can be appealing, lively, and often very funny.

One event, entitled “Bring Your Government,” featured a three-person panel discussing what an ideal government should look like. But with Warm Cookies, expect the unexpected. The panel featured a state senator, a mayoral candidate, and a local comedian. Oh, and while listening, the audience was simultaneously collaborating on building a Lego city.

When building community, laughter is a great start. But there’s more to this than feeling good. Brain science tells us that we can use our full intellectual capacity better when we don’t trigger the usual “us/them,” “fight/flight” response. We need techniques to slow down and engage people in a less polarizing way, so we can collaborate and discover new answers.

At the “civic health club,” you can experience authentic connection with a variety of viewpoints. Instead of a lecture about how horrible the world is, how about one of these events?

• “The Huddle” encourages participants to take time-outs while they watch the Thursday night football game to discuss the social issues that revolve around professional sports.

• “Pies, Pies, and Pie Charts” is a lively gathering where people enjoy pizza pie, dessert pie, and discuss – you guessed it -- economic issues.

• “Civic Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” features moderated discussions on tough political topics – think gentrification, gun control, or legalizing marijuana. But people are also encouraged to bring their knitting or other handwork – and if you forget your project, craft materials are supplied. The relaxed setting increases friendly idea-sharing (and reduces pontificating).

“People who have come to our events…feel better than when they came,” explains Weissman. “That’s what you expect when you do a workout. … That’s why you do it.”

As Weissman put it with a grin, “My civic muscle? It’s my mind – my heart – my soul!”

With slow patience, humor, and a little help from cookies, we can build the cozy, creative, crackling fire of community -- so important in the coming coolness of autumn.

The Movement of Starlings

This piece by Susan Clark appeared on the "Slowstruck" site on May 28, 2014. See the original post  here.

It’s called a “murmuration of starlings.” Maybe you’ve seen one, either in an online video or, if you’re lucky, in person: magnificent, soaring groups of birds that swoop and dive overhead, creating stunning patterns with their overlapping arcs. Just the word “murmuration” somehow makes you want to slow down and ponder: how do they do it? Hundreds of birds collaborate to create patterns of breathtaking grace and beauty. They never collide. And interestingly, they do it all without any leader.

The movement of a murmuration cheers me up when I’m feeling low. And since I deal with political decisionmaking and community conflicts on a regular basis, believe me: I can feel low pretty often.

What can nature teach us about the way communities work, and the nature of motion and change itself? Pondering the movement of starlings is instructive for those of us who are embracing “slow,” and who may be pained by the direction of politics today.

Let’s face it, most of us shy away from political engagement. In fact, mocking the government is a sort of national pastime in the U.S., and Canadians aren’t far behind in their disdain for elected officials. Last time I looked, the U.S. Congress had an approval rating that was significantly lower than BP’s during the oil spill. After last fall’s U.S. government shutdown, humorist Andy Borowitz reported that the majority of Americans “would enjoy seeing Congress torn limb from limb by a ferocious bear,” and the only disagreement was over “which bear would be best suited for that assignment.”

We turn away from politics in disdain, but we are all troubled by a small voice that wonders where the answers will come from. Whether we’re concerned about social issues, the economy, or climate change and energy independence -- we lovers of “slow” know very well that our world could benefit from more effective political processes. Why can't democratic decision making be more like slow food -- local, organic, and full of the vibrant creative spirit of home?

I think it can. And bear with me, because here’s where the starlings come in.

“Emergence” is the term that scientists use to describe the phenomenon where many local collaborations produce global patterns. And “emergent change” is a model that can give lovers of “slow” a sense of hope about the future.

The Internet has given us an extraordinary new tool to communicate information at speeds, over distances and in volumes that were until recently unimaginable. But it’s done more. It’s changed the way we think. Today’s voters are veterans of the Open-Source Revolution. Gone are the days of top-down control; welcome to networked citizens with extraordinary online research and organizing abilities.

Governments are now slowly realizing that we’ll all do better if they treat citizens as collaborative equals, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki. Reliance on “experts” is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to invite you for a cup of tea, and enjoy some stories of “slow democracy.” In recent years, more and more communities are inviting citizen participation in creative, friendly, human-scale activities. Forget about public hearings with squeaky microphones; I’m talking about neighbors sharing stories, exploring common values, and making a lasting difference. Citizens and governments are collaborating to create processes that are inclusive, deliberative, and empowered. Sometimes “slow democracy” involves art, sometimes storytelling, and almost always, a fair amount of friendly laughter.

I am only a single bird. But as each of us makes the individual decision to slow down and become a bit more mindful about how we spend time in our communities, beautiful, meaningful patterns of change are beginning to emerge.

I look forward to sharing stories with you about slow democracy.

Slow Democracy and Transformation

This piece by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout appeared on the openDemocracy "Transformation" blog on November 20, 2013, as part of their series on trans-partisan politics. See the original post here.

Is there anything less popular among Americans than their own government? During the temporary shutdown in October 2013, the public’s approval rating for Congress dipped to an all-time low of five per cent. “A majority of Americans say they would enjoy seeing Congress torn limb from limb by a ferocious bear,” quipped humorist Andy Borowitz at the time. The only disagreement was “which species of bear would be best suited for the assignment.”

Such stories make us want to laugh and cry. Given this level of cynicism about government, what hope is there that people will use the democratic process to make change? Looking carefully, we find small seedlings of optimism, breaking through green and vigorous, at the local level. While most Americans share a disdain for national politics, many are finding new possibilities locally by taking governance back into their own hands. And by working to change the political process, they are also being changed themselves. It’s a process we call “slow democracy:” taking time to co-create new forms of politics based on inclusion, deliberation and local power.

Citizen advocacy at the local level brings to mind the story of David and Goliath. For some people, these fights are heartening. When communities successfully organize against corporations and ban genetically modified crops, or win back the right to create a local energy plan or market local foods, some feel hope for an empowered future. For other people, however, local advocacy is a source of pain and skepticism. Get real, they say; in the long run, the big money behind projects like genetically modified foods and fracking for natural gas will always win, no matter how earnest the local efforts.

Regardless of where you stand on this spectrum, relentless local battles bear witness to the fact that it’s not just the content of laws and policies that needs changing, but also the system of making them. Local power is necessary but not sufficient. Political systems consist of relationships, and in the US system, adversarial relationships are the norm. Issues are divided along lines that are determined by interest groups, including political parties, industry lobbies, and environmental and social justice organizations. These groups determine the menu of political choices that’s on offer, and it’s a menu that is both short and relatively fixed. There may be a debate that produces winners and losers, but there is little public deliberation out of which something new and creative might emerge.

If we want to re-energize democracy it has to be more than the same old political system transposed to the community level. Instead we need slow democracy, which is not a clarion call for endless meetings but a reminder of the care that’s needed for full-blooded community decision making.

Slow democracy takes its name from the “slow food” movement, which argues that the centralization and homogenization of “fast food” symbolizes much of what is wrong in society. Paralleling slow food’s push for authenticity in what we eat, slow democracy calls for firsthand knowledge of the local decisions that affect us. Just as slow food encourages cooks and eaters to become more intimately involved with the production of local food, slow democracy weaves together three key elements of democratic decision making: inclusion - ensuring broad, diverse public participation; deliberation - defining problems, weighing options, and co-creating solutions through sound information and respectful relationships; and power - defining a clear connection between citizen participation, public decisions, and action.

To appreciate what these principles mean in practice, consider the story of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once the home of a major air force base, the city was thrown into economic and social flux when the base was closed with the loss of thousands of jobs. As Portsmouth’s demographics changed, the city’s elementary schools became unbalanced, with two under-enrolled schools and another that was bursting with students.

“Changing the way schools work, especially elementary schools, is… probably one of the most intense things a city can go through,” recalls city manager John Bohenko. Local lawyer Jim Noucas puts it more bluntly: “Tackling the issue was political suicide,” he said. In early public discussions regarding redistricting, some residents resorted to painful insinuations about other people’s class and culture. Recalls Noucas, “People stood up at public hearings and denigrated the elementary school that was literally ‘on the other side of the tracks.’” While parents argued, leaders equivocated, and students suffered, the issue went unresolved for a decade.

Desperate for a solution, the school board appointed a redistricting committee in 2000 that discovered a technique called “study circles.” Organizers rallied 105 citizen volunteers to participate in a series of small-group meetings, a diverse group that represented the demographic make-up of the city. Rather than diving into decision-making, the study circles encouraged a slow and careful approach to deliberation. First, the groups visited all three schools to ensure excellent information gathering. They also spent hours sharing stories as parents and neighbors, breaking down stereotypes and building trust and understanding.

Then, when the groups were ready to discuss policy options, the issues were framed openly. Rather than polarizing “option A against option B,” the study circles talked about “what issues…the redistricting committee should consider in balancing the enrollments of the schools.” This inclusive framing generated innovative ideas and common ground. In the final phase of the process, the groups reported back to a school board that had been involved in the process from the beginning and was therefore more open to hearing their ideas. The board developed a proposal to help balance the quality of the three schools backed by $2 million of improvements, which the 105 “ambassadors” explained to parents and neighbors. The proposal received broad voter support and was approved, ending a decade-long destructive stalemate. A “slow” process proved to be the fastest route to success.

Over the past fifteen years, Portsmouth has used study circles to address many more issues including school bullying, the city’s master plan, racism, and environmental sustainability. Citizens have created “Portsmouth Listens,” a committee of volunteers trained in facilitating the public dialogues that are now integral to addressing the city’s toughest issues. Small-group discussions are now used at election time as an alternative to divisive debates between candidates. And hardest to describe but perhaps most important, many of Portsmouth’s residents sense a fundamental shift, speaking of an increase in civic pride, an improvement in public participation, and heightened expectations of what democratic participation can offer. As city councilor Chris Dwyer noted, “we’ve raised the bar.”

Portsmouth’s experience is not unique: it represents a new generation of slow democracy experiments. For example, participatory budgeting techniques are inspiring renewed citizen energy in cities around the globe. Scholars and practitioners have dramatically increased the study and practice of dialogue and deliberation both nationally and internationally. This new wave has the potential to transform both individuals and communities.

Neurological research is revealing why slow democracy processes can help citizens to absorb new information and craft fresh solutions. Brain science tells us that we can use our full intellectual capacity more effectively when we avoid triggering “us versus them” responses. Communications researcherJohn Gastil notes that democratic deliberation “has shown the power of thoughtful, respectful, public exchange in generating consensus among citizens of diverse moral persuasions…appropriately structured deliberation achieves this…by slowing people down.

Portsmouth and other communities have shown that citizens will take the time that’s needed for slow democracy when they can see that their involvement makes a difference. Yet time and time again governments create policies that shift power from local entities to the state and federal levels. The removal of opportunities for citizens to collaborate face-to-face, create local solutions, and experience real, hands-on decision making is causing a creeping democracy deficit in the United States.

We desperately need leaders with clarity, wisdom, and courage - and voters to elect them. If people have been in leadership positions themselves, they will have a much better idea of what real political leadership entails. They will know not to expect agreements overnight, and be able to distinguish between bullying and respectful deliberation, and between political posturing and authentic debate. 

Slow democracy is not just an add-on to representative government - the two systems complement each other. As communities become more engaged in decision making, larger agencies can step back from micromanagement and work to support and connect local efforts. As one local official in Portsmouth, New Hampshire concluded, “There can be no going back to the old ways of doing things.”

Democracy and Baseball

Democracy and baseball: two great American traditions, although we don't usually think of them as going together. But if we did combine them, what might we learn?

It was an imaginative promotional gimmick. Early this season, Mike Veeck, independent baseball league executive and part-owner of the St. Paul Saints, hosted an “umpire-less game.”

Was the runner safe or out? The tough calls were crowd-sourced.

Mike Veeck is the son of Bill Veeck, legendary Hall of Fame team owner and crazy baseball promoter. In August, 1951, Veeck the elder hosted “ Grandstand Managers Day, ” allowing fans to vote on game strategy. Before that game, fans even voted for the starting line-up. And here’s a tip for improving democratic turn-out – everyone who voted got free game tickets.

At the stadium, the crowd - 1,115 “ managers ” - received placards with a green “yes” on one side and a red “no” on the other. Throughout the game, Veeck’s staff asked the fans questions like “Steal?” or “Infield Back?” Meanwhile, to symbolize his uselessness, the real manager sat on top of the dugout in a rocking chair.

It’s revealing that Grandstand Manager’s Day is one of Veeck’s best known and most-imitated stunts. It reminds us that although Americans enjoy a good show, we’re also consistently willing to take part, as well.

When it comes to democracy lately, many of us think of it simply as bad TV – a lot of fighting and nothing accomplished. It even gets lousy ratings. With Congress recently receiving its all-time-low approval rating of 9 percent, it looks like we’d love to banish most politicians to a rocking chair on top of the dugout.

But just as no two ball games are alike, democracy takes many forms. And studies show that when we ask citizens to take part in face-to-face decision making – and their participation really makes a difference – democracy’s ratings soar. Most participants in deliberative, empowered groups - like juries and community planning projects - not only enjoy the experience, but report that they’d like to be involved more often.

There’s something about giving participants real decision-making power that makes us all less grumpy. In this year’s Umpire-less Baseball Game, manager Greg Tagert said, “What slows the game down is the constant arguing about balls and strikes. I think we took that element away, actually.”

Of course, a certain level of maturity is required for deliberative democracy. For instance, Veeck’s game this year featured “juries” on the first - and third-base lines - fans deciding close plays. Nice idea, except the jurors got bored and abandoned their boxes by the sixth inning. Maybe the juror pool should have been wider than the local East Tonka Little League.

Adding democracy to baseball is a fun stunt; but maybe what we really need is more baseball in democracy. Or at least, more of what baseball stands for – working together at a human pace; being friendly even with members of the opposite team; being a good sport.

Bringing more people into decisions, and more decisions to the people, might bring some of that neighborliness back to democracy. And then more voters might be singing, “Take me out to the ball game!”

This post first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio on July 11, 2013. You can listen to it here.  

 

Who Ya Gonna Call? Deliberative Democracy Resources

As interest in deliberative democracy grows, more and more people are looking for resources to launch an initiative in their communities. Many people have heard of one tool or another (“Study Circles,” “World Café,” etc.) but wonder if this tool is the best fit for their needs; others only know that something needs to happen, but aren’t sure where to begin.

Thanks to Tom Atlee of the Co-intelligence Institute, here is a draft list of clearinghouses, databases, and resource sites related to democracy and participation. Slow Democracy authors have recommended NCDD before, and will again – it’s on the list – but as you can see, there is a wide variety of others as well. Each of these is its own clearinghouse – a doorway to another set of doors. The good news is, many (including NCDD) feature list-serves and other means for you to ask questions and get guidance as you move along. In hopes that this will be invigorating rather than overwhelming, we wish you joy in your exploration. And feel free to add to the list!

1.  Participedia - http://participedia.net/

2.  ParticipateDB - http://participatedb.com/

3.  The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation - http://ncdd.org - especially their resource page - http://ncdd.org/rc/ - and even more especially, their participatory practices http://ncdd.org/rc/item/category/participatory-practices

4.  Deliberative Democracy Helpline - http://www.deliberative-democracy.net/helpline/

5.  Involve:  e.g., http://www.involve.org.uk/tag/tools/

6.  WiserEarth - e.g., http://www.wiser.org/all/search?phrase=democracy and http://www.wiser.org/all/search?phrase=participation and others

7.  Wikipedia.org - e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Democracy and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Collective_intelligence and others

8.  Innovations in Democracy database - http://democracyinnovations.org/wagn/Resources_by_name

9.  E-Democracy - http://forums.e-democracy.org/

10.  Aarhus Convention Clearinghouse - http://aarhusclearinghouse.unece.org/resources/?sortby=da&c=1000003&c=1000006&c=&c=

11.  Democracy and Elections Database - http://www.idea.int/resources/databases.cfm

12.  Arts for Democracy Database - http://animatingdemocracy.org/great-links/specialized-databases

13.  The Deliberative Democracy Consortium - http://www.deliberative-democracy.net/ - especially their resources page

http://www.deliberative-democracy.net/index.php?option=com_docman&Itemid=74

14.  Amazon books on Democracy  - http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=democracy

15.  Co-intelligence Institute lists:

a.  Community Resources from the Co-Intelligence Institute - http://co-intelligence.org/CommunityResourcesCII.html (includes extensive materials on multi-process programs)

b.  Compilations from the Co-Intelligence Institute http://co-intelligence.org/CI_compilations.html (which features

https://app.secure.griffith.edu.au/03/toolbox/ )

16.  A Pattern Language for Group Process - http://groupworksdeck.org

17.  Tom Atlee's list of participatory budgeting resources - http://www.tomatleeblog.com/?p=43549766

Vermont Thinkers Aim to Slow a Fast-Lane World

Unlike our other blog posts to date, here's one that's not by Slow Democracy coauthors. The following article by Kevin O'Connor appeared in Vermont's statewide Sunday Rutland Herald/Times Argus on June 8, 2013. The link is here. For photos of the event, see Slow Democracy's Facebook page.

State-turned-national environmental leader Jonathan Lash had seen himself lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as a “hero” for “fighting to stave off the planet-wide catastrophe” when it hit him.

“I have been working on issues of sustainability for 35 years,” the former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources recalls thinking, “and everything has gotten worse faster.”

And so Lash, having climbed the ladder of state government to chair the U.S. President’s Council on Sustainable Development and World Resources Institute, decided to return to New England and grassroots work — in his case, shaping future generations as head of the progressive Hampshire College in neighboring Massachusetts.

“I thought changing the rules was a rapid way to change society,” Lash says, “but at this point, on the issues that concern me most, we’ve got to change the culture first.”

That’s why Lash joined other Vermonters seeking healthier social, economic and energy policies at a Slow Living Summit this past week promoting, as Yankee Farm Credit president George Putnam summed it up, “Sustainable, Local, Organic and Wise” solutions to growing global problems.

“Slow living is not about pace — it’s about whether we are alive with our own nature and the laws of nature,” author Frances Moore Lappé told a crowd of 300 gathered in Brattleboro. “The good news is we can remake the streambeds of our minds with new ideas.”

Lappé had written the three-million-copy bestseller “Diet for a Small Planet” when she moved to Vermont almost 25 years ago. Now traveling the world as founder of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, she’s still studying the best ways to feed the body — and the mind.

“The world is producing 40 percent more food than when I wrote ‘Small Planet’ and yet we have just as many people who are hungry,” she said. “How do we make sense of the fact we together are creating a world that we as individuals would never choose?”

Lappé points to a fear-based “scarcity-mind” that spurs hoarding and separateness. In her latest book “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want,” she advocates a shift from competing to connecting, cooperating and creating change.

“We can move from this scary message of lack, lack, lack, take a deep breath and align with the rules of nature,” the author said. “Think ‘I’m just a drop in the bucket’? Buckets can fill up really fast.”

Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark, co-author of the recent book “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home,” also called for more public participation.

“Slow democracy is not a call for longer meetings,” Clark said. “We really need to reconnect with our decision making and revitalize our role in it. We need to bring more democratic decisions to the local level.”

That begins, she believes, with people talking.

“Deliberation doesn’t mean A versus B — it means co-creating C.”

And that starts with finding ways to listen.

“How can we come up with creative solutions if we can’t even take in the information? So not to trigger ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we need to frame issues and engage people in less polarizing ways.”

Ask about “climate change,” Clark said, and you may spark a political debate. Seek opinions on “energy independence” and you’ll potentially reveal more common ground.

“What kinds of words can we use that resonate with a broader audience, get past this gridlock and move forward?” Clark said. “We can embrace the idea that all of us know more than any of us.”

Alex Wilson, the Dummerston founder of BuildingGreen Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute, confirmed such a shift in language could bring movement. He pointed to people who’ve witnessed natural disasters ranging from Tropical Storm Irene to recent tornadoes. Talk science and they don’t necessarily respond. Talk public safety and they do.

“Convincing people to do something simply because it’s the right thing environmentally isn’t working quickly enough,” Wilson said. “But safety is an idea even the Rush Limbaughs of the world could get behind.”

Several Green Mountain interests are working to widen talking-point measurements such as the gross domestic product with broader assessments such as the Genuine Progress Indicator being developed by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.

“If we keep using the same data, we’re going to keep telling the same story,” said Kate Jellema, project director of Benchmarks for a Better Vermont. “In order to have a new story, we need to start measuring new data.”

Tom Barefoot, co-coordinator of Gross National Happiness USA, noted his Washington County-based group is promoting an array of measurements of good governance, community, culture, education, environment, time balance and material, physical and mental health.

“If you ask people what they care most about, they mention all kinds of markers of happiness and well-being,” Barefoot said. “I think it’s important as a population to start a conversation about what really matters. We not only need measures to tell us if we’ve gotten there, we need them to help enable us to make the change.”

Lash said it all starts at home. The 1969 Putney School graduate served as state commissioner of environmental conservation in 1985, natural resources secretary in 1987 and director of the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center in 1990. After national and international service, the self-described “lapsed Vermonter” decided to take his current college job after facing growing government dysfunction.

“I suddenly thought if anybody is going to change things, it’s going to be people like today’s students.”

That said, Lash also has hope for his peers.

“How do we create a culture of sustainability? Living differently is necessary. I’m slowing down, living in my community and seeing what’s possible.”

kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com

 

Slow Democracy: Power – Do We Talk About It In Polite Company?

This post appeared on May 25, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see the original post here.

This is the last in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

Some people are uncomfortable talking about power. While power is the currency of political activists, it’s a dirty word to many of us—like “money,” it is not mentioned in polite company. But listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” and “control,” and notice how often they come up. Ultimately, power is a crucial element of democracy and something we need to acknowledge and discuss in community decision making—early and often.

It would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Imagine a dial like an old-fashioned speedometer that would tell us how leaders answer the question, “Who makes the decision?” At one end, the dial reads “Me”—the leader holds all the power. In the center, “We”—decisions are made together. At the far end, “You”—citizens make the decisions. Exactly where the needle quivers on this dial should be clear to every leader who plans to engage the public, and to every citizen before he or she commits time to the process.

The Power Spectrum

Social change analysts have been fooling around with some version of this “power gauge” for more than 50 years, offering a variety of advice on where to set the needle. (For a radical 1960s perspective, read Sherry Arnstein’s classic “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”.) From the perspective of community leaders, setting the dial on “Me” allows for speedy decisions; as long as leaders make arrangements for the decision to be well informed and implemented, avoiding public involvement saves time.

But if a community ranks other values higher than saving time—priorities such as keeping the public informed, strengthening citizens’ democratic skills, building a sense of community and teamwork, or tapping public opinion and wisdom—then leaders would do well to move the dial toward “You.”

Clearly it makes no sense to have every citizen participate in every decision. (The International Association for Public Participation has a handy guide to help leaders in this analysis.) Citizen participation is most critical for complex and controversial issues, for those with diverse stakeholders, and those where there are concerns about legitimacy and buy-in.

But perhaps most important, timing is key. Early tasks like goal setting, idea generation, and prioritizing alternatives are ideal times for citizen engagement. Never, ever try to “include” the public in a decision that has already been made; there’s nothing worse than fake engagement.

Democratic Impact Statement

You’ve probably heard of an “environmental impact statement”—the form that developers must fill out to show the effect their proposal will have on the local wildlife, and water and air quality. New development proposals are also often assessed on how they impact historical resources, traffic and aesthetics.

Well, if we value our democracy, how about a “democratic impact statement”? While we are making sure our policy-making processes are empowered, we must also consider what effect any resulting new programs or policies will have on the power of local citizens to engage. What impacts, positive and negative (and usually unintentional) can our actions have on local democracy?

For instance, in the case of rural school consolidation, we ask about effects on student learning, program efficiencies, and, of course, spending. Rarely, if ever, do we inquire what impact a policy will have on citizens’ power, or their feelings of connection to their local democracy. When small schools close and several school boards shrink down into one board, what are the effects on citizens’ ability to influence education-related decisions? And what about the role of the school in fostering social capital and citizen engagement? Valued qualities like “community” and “democracy” need to be given voice at the bargaining table alongside “economy” and “efficiency.”

Likewise, planners have long recognized that, while their early attempts at downtown renewal were well intentioned, they often destroyed neighborhoods and shredded connections between neighbors, locally owned businesses, and other strands of invisible but vibrant social fabric.

While a “democratic impact statement” has yet to be invented, with each new policy under consideration let’s ask local citizens: How will it affect your power to make decisions and the likelihood that you will engage democratically?

People Power

Communities are becoming increasingly creative in how they boost citizens’ influence, sometimes even handing over decision-making power entirely. For instance, through the Participatory Budgeting process, several wards in Chicago and districts in New York City now empower citizens to initiate and create local projects. The result: citizens making direct decisions about millions of dollars worth of discretionary spending.

In other cities, planners are working hard to give citizens real power in shaping decisions about the future to ensure that the resulting plans foster strong, connected communities. For example, the City of Golden, Colorado involved thousands of residents in its Golden Vision 2030 city planning process, supported by the Orton Family Foundation. With more than 30 percent population grown between 1990 and 2000 and further growth projected, Golden wanted to involve the whole community in the City’s vision for the future. How would the community address new challenges, from affordable housing to neighborhood livability to democratic engagement?

Through inclusive events such as block parties, community summits, and group story listening, organizers were able to distill hundreds of residents’ stories into two guiding principles and ten core community values. The City, in turn, formally adopted these values and incorporated them into the City’s Comprehensive Plan so they would inform future policies, strategic planning, and investment decisions. The values were later incorporated into Golden’s Neighborhood Plans—a testament to the effectiveness of the engagement process and how well the results were received within local neighborhoods.

Power—knowing that their participation will make a real impact on community decisions—makes citizens want to continue engaging in democracy.

Slow Democracy: Deliberation – More Than Just Talk

This post appeared on April 11, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see the original post here.

This is the third in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The scene at the public hearing is all too familiar. A tired-looking panel sits in front of the auditorium at a table cluttered with documents and microphones; although the room is full of chairs, most are empty. Citizen questions and discussion are not encouraged, testimony is polarized and tempers flare.

The “public hearing” is one of the most-used citizen participation processes in the United States, with many local and state governments legally mandated to use it. But leaders and citizens are often frustrated by the format.

While originally devised to improve participation, hearings are too often framed as contests between points of view. They’re not structured to seek common ground or collaboration, and occur too late in a process to be taken seriously.

As former Missoula, Montana mayor Daniel Kemmis observes, “A visitor from another planet might reasonably expect that at a public hearing there would be a public, not only speaking to itself but also hearing itself… But this almost never happens.”

Sadly, “public hearings” are frequently neither.

But scholars and practitioners in the emerging field of “dialogue and deliberation” are working to sweeten the democratic experience.

Effective “deliberation” is much more than just talk. Not a negotiation, not a debate, and certainly not the shouting matches that have come to characterize many public issues, a healthy deliberative process includes some key qualities.

As defined by communications authority John Gastil, key elements include analytic processes, such as: sound research; values clarification; determining a variety of viable solutions; evaluating the pluses and minuses of each solution; and making the best decision possible. But they also include social processes, like: making sure everyone gets a chance to speak; ensuring that participants understand each other; valuing local knowledge as well as expert opinions; and ensuring mutual respect.

Municipal managers and academic leaders increasingly agree that while voting is important in a democracy, it’s not enough. Entire university institutes are now dedicated to deliberative democracy. Check out the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State, the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State, or theInstitute for Civic Discourse at Kansas State, to name a few—none of which existed ten years ago.

Inclusion—making sure everyone can participate—continues to be the bedrock of a good “slow democracy” process. But when it comes to public engagement, quantity isn’t everything; we also need to think about quality. New models that incorporate face-to-face deliberation are popping up all over the US:

  • Two dozen American states and many cities allow voters to create public policy by ballot, via initiative and referendum systems. Supporters of this process argue that it keeps power close to citizens, especially important in this era of deep skepticism about government. However, “ballot initiatives” lack a forum for citizen discussion and amendment. Instead, special-interest campaigns often result in a misinformed, polarized electorate and multiple re-votes. What to do? The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, created in 2011, strengthens ballot initiatives by incorporating deliberation. Here, a random sample of citizens hears from experts and advocates, then deliberates on the merits of the issues. Oregon officials value the resulting “citizens’ statement” so highly that they distribute it to every voting household in the state.
     
  • An innovative technique called Participatory Budgeting (PB) is used in more than 1,200 cities and towns across the globe, including eight districts in New York City and four wards in Chicago. Here, citizens (not elected officials) come face-to-face to deliberate and decide on discretionary funding in their local budgets. Internationally acclaimed for improving local governance, PB has inspired a new wave of engaged citizen-leadership in many cities.
     
  • The Orton Family Foundation finds that focusing engagement efforts on youth pays big dividends. InCortez, Colorado, Heart & Soul Community leaders polled 400 high school students to learn about their interests. More than 300 youth responded, and 54 said they wanted to get involved with the Heart & Soul project and their City as a whole. That interest prompted local boards and committees to create seats for youth representation. In Manchester, Vermont, the Foundation’s youth engagement initiative lead to youth voting members sitting on almost all Town boards.

Citizen engagement and public deliberation are more than just “feel-good” concepts. They strengthen our economy. A 2011 report from the National Conference on Citizenship shows a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment.

They help us respond to crises. As recent storms such as Irene and Sandy have shown, federal resources go further when they’re partnered with local leadership, volunteers, and collaboration.

They can also change us personally—for the better. For instance, new research on juries reveals that people who have engaged in these empowered deliberations are statistically more likely to vote.

Structures that allow citizens to frame issues and craft collaborative solutions are a superb match of today’s skills and today’s complex problems. Deliberation is more than just talk; it’s a key element of creating resilient communities.

Slow Democracy: Inclusion Takes Creativity

This post appeared on March 21, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see the original post here.

This is the second in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

A great example of “outside-the-box” thinking actually comes in a box.

In Essex, Vermont, “Essex Heart & Soul” is working to engage the community in dialogue about the future.

Rather than beg busy residents to attend yet another 7 p.m. meeting, leaders brought the conversation to living rooms and other gathering places across the community with—you guessed it—a “Meeting in a Box.”

It’s an actual box full of printed materials: a discussion guide, priority-setting tools, clipboards, nametags, and more.

Interested hosts invited guests, and were paired with trained volunteer facilitators who brought the box to each gathering and reported the results of the conversations to organizers. By meeting people in places where they already gather, leaders in Essex were able to hear from residents in a more natural, inclusive setting, which often results in more honest feedback. And the meetings were a lot more fun as well.

Inclusion is critical to the success of public decision making. Without it, community efforts are likely to fail on multiple fronts. Issues may not be explored broadly enough; solutions will not be as well informed by diverse local wisdom; and decisions are more likely to be challenged. In addition, a traditional process is less likely to produce the surprising, synergistic new solutions so often sparked when different perspectives bump into each other.

The reality of our social structures means that inclusion doesn’t just happen; local organizers have to pay special attention to get spirited, diverse participation. Traditional community organizing techniques are invaluable—for instance, recruiting participation via known and trusted neighbors and reaching out through existing organizations. But the goal of organizing for inclusion is not simply to make sure “your side” gets heard. It’s critical that we bring all perspectives to the table.

Here are some useful tips from communities doing just that:

--Make sure your effort mirrors the diversity of the community itself.

In rural Randolph, NH, political discussions often divide this way: conservative, traditional land-use voters on one side, and progressive, ecologically minded voters on the other. In Randolph, one key to a successful effort to create a town forest was that the steering committee included both a senior member of the state police, who was well known in the hunting, fishing and snowmobiling community, while another member was an environmental activist. Because most people in town could look at the steering committee and recognize “someone like me,” they could then examine the town forest question with an open mind about its merits. (See also: Compromise and Community, a post about how two residents of Bristol, VT, from opposite sides of the aisle found a compromise to a 10-year-old land use debate.)

So in addition to seeking critical gender and racial/ethnic balance, brainstorm a list of your community’s diverse assets: longtime residents and newcomers; all age groups; businesses, schools, government, and non-profits; low-income and homeless people; artists; computer users and the non-tech-savvy; day and night-shift workers; and so on. Orton’s Heart & Soul Community Network Analysis will walk you through this exercise. Remember, if you look around the room at your first meeting and recognize only friends and neighbors, you have not looked far enough.

--Frame your convening question to ensure that all sides are at the table.

Living Room Conversations (LRC) is an open-source project designed to short-circuit national political polarization and reweave community fabric by launching 2½-hour gatherings. The trick is that LRCs call for two co-hosts: one self-identified conservative and one progressive—and each host invites two additional people who share their political views. In their pilot conversations, participants focused on “Energy Independence/Climate Change,” a title deliberately chosen to accommodate both conservative and progressive viewpoints. By beginning with an inclusive frame, and continuing to explore issues in an open-minded and civil way, Living Room Conversations now launching across the US are helping people find common ground.

--Use a variety of techniques to help people make their voices heard.

Although getting participants into the room is a big part of inclusion, that’s not all there is to it. It’s just as important to engage people in ways that allow them to participate as fully as possible.

While some people are comfortable with deliberative processes, the status of those deliberating—based on factors like race, power, and privilege—can affect the process and the outcome. It is critical that organizers offer participation options for a variety of cultures and learning styles. Creative options include:

  • Storytelling – a forum for sharing personal experiences so that “non-experts” can offer their local wisdom.
  • Deliberative theater – a combination of drama and discussion used effectively in Pennsylvania to help neighbors understand different points of view of the hydraulic fracking controversy.
  • Online tools – Online polls and deliberative tools offer critical participation flexibility for those who dislike crowds, for introverts who need to process information before they respond, and for those with work or childcare conflicts. Whether you want to use a survey to discover and aggregate opinions, help citizens develop documents collaboratively via Wiki, or simply create an online space to share opinions, it is important to choose the right online tool for the right scenario.

What outside-the-box approaches have you tried in your community?

Slow Democracy: Citizen-Powered Communities for the 21st Century

This post appeared on January 30, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see original post here.

This is the first of a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

The “slow food” movement began in the mid-1980s with protests against the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, but it has since inspired untold thousands of supporters across the globe.

Slow food argues that fast food symbolizes much of what’s wrong with the world today. We’ve taken the goal of “efficiency” too far, advocates argue. We need to slow down and understand where our food comes from, and recognize our connection to agriculture, to communities, and to our natural systems. We have a responsibility to do so, for human, economic, and ecological health.

I was thinking about slow food while thinning carrots in my garden one weekend, listening to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on my ear buds. That’s when it hit me: the work I had been doing in community development was perfectly aligned with the efforts of the slow food movement. Local, human-scale, interconnected…the metaphor was inspiring, and it brought a wave of fresh, exciting ideas to mind. Slow Democracy!

I ran inside to test the idea out on my husband Mark. He seemed impressed, saying enthusiastically, “Slow Democracy? Great idea! Hey, I bet you could even get the domain name—SlowDemocracy.org!”

Then I noticed the twinkle in his eye as he added, deadpan, “While you’re at it, why not see if you can get PainfulDentistry.org, too?”

Okay, he had a point. Who wants their democracy to be slow?

Still, despite Mark’s teasing, I remained convinced that “slow democracy” was a concept that should be part of the public conversation. I found a co-conspirator in my coauthor Woden Teachout, and our book Slow Democracy is the result.

Slow democracy invites us to bring the advantages of slowing down, listening, understanding and connecting from our dinner tables to our communities. Just as slow food encourages us to understand the production of local food, slow democracy calls for firsthand participation in the local decisions that matter to us, encouraging us to govern ourselves in ways that are inclusive, deliberative and citizen powered. Reconnecting with the sources of decisions that affect us is at the heart of 21st-Century sustainable communities.

“Slow” is a wise, almost tongue-in-cheek term—a raised eyebrow at what “fast” has come to mean. Slow democracy is not a call for longer meetings or more time between decisions. Instead, it is a reminder of the care needed for full-blooded, empowered community engagement and decision making.

Slow democracy observes that as we move increasingly toward centralization and privatization of public resources and decision making in the name of “efficiency” we give only lip service to citizens’ wisdom. As a result, we can wind up with unrepresentative decisions that we need to revisit again and again, and a discouraged, democratically anemic citizenry.

Over the past twenty years scholars and practitioners have discovered a pent-up demand among citizens for authentic community action; we want to make a difference. Given today’s deliberative innovations and extraordinary technological tools, we are more skilled in self-organizing than ever before. Communities now have the ability to make choices that are more ecologically, economically and socially resilient. And as importantly, people have the will to implement them.

The message from slow democracy’s grassroots is clear: it may take time, but it’s worth it. This is evident in towns like Damariscotta, Maine, and Victor, Idaho, where Orton’s Heart & Soul Community Planning approach guided residents through thoughtful face-to-face conversations, and careful analysis of the issues that were unique to their towns. This is how communities can ensure that project outcomes reflect community needs and visions.

Slow democracy can set off a positive upward cycle: discussions that reveal creative new solutions; citizens who open up their thinking and are ready to help solve problems; and smart, lasting results that could, slowly but surely, change the world.

Baked Beans Build Community

By Susan Clark, co-author, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home

As we head into town meeting time here in Vermont, it’s time to say a word about food.

The late Weston Cate, a venerable town moderator and historian from East Montpelier, said it most succinctly: “I am convinced that more progress is made in the presence of food than could possibly be made otherwise.”

We know that the best-attended New England town meetings serve food. We also know that while some of us are organizers or orators, others of us build community with different skills entirely – and cooking provides different members of the community a chance to shine.

But there’s more. Professional mediators and facilitators know that “breaking bread” together is also a critical tool for bringing people’s minds closer.

After two people, or a group of people, have talked too long on an issue, eventually they can’t hear each other anymore. Their brains shut down -- it’s just human nature. But when we stop trying to get through to each other, and connect over something else – even if it’s just “Hey, this is good mac and cheese!” -- the listening channels relax and open up again.

Professional facilitators know that they can use all the flip-charts and power-point tools they have, but the real break-throughs often get made during the breaks.

In some communities and organizations that are trying to streamline their meetings for efficiency, sometimes food breaks and potluck dinners fall by the wayside. We lose this opportunity to slow down and connect at our peril. 

When I was working on a book about Vermont town meetings in 2005 (All Those In Favor: Rediscovering The Secrets of Town Meeting and Community), I heard a lot about food. Here’s a comment I received from Patty Haskins, who was Town Clerk in Pittsfield, which is typical of the stories I heard in many Vermont towns:

“Virginia Colton's baked beans are done in an electric cooker right at the Town Hall, and it is a two-day-long process. When you arrive at Town Meeting on Tuesday morning, the meeting room is filled with the aroma and warmth of those baked beans. The potluck luncheon is a wonderful social time for town residents after a long cold winter. Local politicians, reporters and photographers try to make their appearance at Pittsfield Town Meeting shortly before lunch so that they can also partake in the luncheon.”  

Here’s the recipe. Have a great meeting!

Colton Farm Baked Beans

Serves: 75+

Cooking time: 4-5 hours on slow.

This amount is for Town Meeting Dinner.

10 lbs Soldier Beans (notice the “soldier” on each bean)

Sort over, wash, and soak overnight. Then parboil until skins separate.

Add (in same water):

2 qts Grade B maple syrup

4 Tbsp salt

2 Tbsp dry mustard

Stir carefully, then add:

4 large onions, scored down two ways. Place one onion in each corner of cooker.

Score 1 lb. of lean salt pork or slab bacon to the rind and put into the middle of beans in cooker.

Set control at 250 degrees and cook 4-5 hours or until done. Along the last, remove the cover so beans can brown.

Community Responders

This piece first appeared as a radio commentary on Vermont Public Radio on December 5, 2012

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, writer, educator and commentator Susan Clark is struck by the extent to which many of the best and first responders have been local.

From Brooklyn down to the Jersey Shore, Sandy has left its mark. But now, stories abound of community groups shoveling sand out of living rooms, feeding and housing the homeless, and arranging online help through listserves and crowdfunding. Somehow, communities have married the best of old-fashioned neighborliness to 21st century networking --  resulting in a steady flow of local energy against a sea of devastation.

Federal help is still critical. State and local governments can’t respond alone to disasters of this scale. As comedian Steven Colbert quipped sarcastically, “Who better to respond to what’s going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?”

But when physical infrastructure is swept away, it reveals another layer of community:  its civic infrastructure. And just as storms have a way of revealing deferred maintenance on bridges and levies, disasters also teach us the cost of neglecting civic participation, neighborly communication, and a strong citizen decision-making process – qualities that FEMA and the Red Cross simply cannot replace.

Given that our world is likely to be threatened by more Katrinas, Irenes, and Sandys, it’s time to appreciate not just our federal government agencies, but our own, local, governance abilities.

Community democratic structures that are inclusive, deliberative, and empowered are a critical way to build trust and social capital. And in turn, those constructive personal relationships reinforce a functioning democracy. It’s an upward, virtuous spiral. That’s why a key recommendation in many U.S. cities’ emergency preparedness plans is that people get to know their neighbors. Social capital saves lives.

Increasingly, communities understand that the best investment against crisis is to strengthen citizen leadership. Reliance on "experts," a leftover from the industrial revolution, is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing. Governments and citizens who collaborate, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki, create more responsive and resilient communities.

In recent decades, “citizenship” has too often meant just being a consumer of policy, or a spectator of political showmanship. But when we’re treated as collaborative problem solvers, we show the value of local engagement. Vermonters are accustomed to governing themselves with town meetings and empowered school and town boards; and after Irene, Vermonters dove in immediately to take responsibility.  

Sandy is revealing similar stories: at least at the local level, Americans haven’t lost the key skills of leadership. Creative, collaborative decision making, leading to well targeted action – these are the qualities we want in our governments.

Government is not a “they” but a “we.” And the skills we gain by governing ourselves year-in and year-out are powerful tools in a crisis. One of the most creative, low-cost ways to protect against problems — be they meteorological, social, or even political — is to empower community decision-making. We build community best by working together, over time, on common issues—in other words, local, sustained, slow democracy.

You can listen to this commentary here.

Heart, Soul and Courage in Essex

“Villages,” “towns,” “cities” – the boundaries between them are just lines on a map to most of us. In Chittenden County, Vermont., for instance, most shoppers and commuters don’t even notice as they cross from the “Town” of Essex to the “Village” of Essex.

The story is different, however, for those who keep these two distinct but overlapping municipalities running. Leaders have long struggled with how best to coordinate the governing boards, volunteer committees and local services of Essex Town and Essex Village. Old habits die hard, especially if they’re a couple of hundred years old. The two municipalities have long debated whether to merge, separate, or find better ways to collaborate (the most recent, contentious vote was in 2005) -- but no resolution has been found in over 50 years of tension. And ultimately, many argue, the lack of a shared vision may have caused missed opportunities.

Meanwhile, Essex is growing; indeed, as home to about 20,000, Essex Town and Village comprise the second largest community in Vermont. In addition, demographic changes, with a diversity of new Americans finding homes here, add to the complexity. Clearly, it’s time for a new way to talk.

Starting this month, area residents are ready to try exactly that. With help from the Orton Family Foundation, Essex is launching a two-year, citizen-based initiative to celebrate their history, identify common values, and search for a unified vision. They’re calling it “Heart and Soul” planning.

Essex is not alone. It is one of the hundreds if not thousands of communities in the past decade to take on complex issues with new tools that fit under the umbrella of “dialogue and deliberation.” They range from Portsmouth, N.H., where a ten-year stalemate over school redistricting was solved by citizens; to downtown Chicago, where neighborhood deliberations helped alleviate crime; to eight council districts in New York City, where citizens are actually creating the budgets for local parks and open space.

Each of these communities is using a 21st century, breakthrough recipe: neighborhood conversations and community-wide deliberation processes, aided by citizen-powered research and communication. Through the slow and inclusive process of listening, identifying values, weighing trade-offs among a full range of options, and linking their discussions to real action, communities are finding sustainable solutions to problems that many had thought were beyond resolution.

The process is neither liberal nor conservative; in fact, it would be a stretch to call it political at all. Here, we can leave behind polarizing left-right labels so prevalent in national politics, and look at real-world solutions to real-world problems, right here at home. There is no pre-ordained answer; this is an open invitation for neighborly conversation, with all ideas welcome.

It won’t be easy or quick – Essex is launching on real, slow democracy. But, although “Heart and Soul” planning may sound idealistic, the truth is more down-to-earth. Communities are using these strategies because they work.

And there’s an added bonus: researchers have found that when we are involved in people-powered deliberations, both citizenship and communities can be strengthened in unexpected ways.

• People who have participated in deliberations often go on to increase their community engagement – increase voting rates, volunteering, and interest in the news and community issues.

• Deliberation can strengthen our sense of community and respect, helping us look beyond stereotypes and reducing problems of marginalization.

• We all know that in this age of sound bites and position statements, an open mind can be hard to find. But studies show that deliberation can make us more open to new information – allowing new solutions to emerge.

• Long after the issue of the day is resolved, deliberation can have lasting effects, improving people’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and solve future problems.

There’s another bonus: many researchers have noticed a link between citizen involvement and the local economy. A 2011 report by the National Conference on Citizenship reported a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment. Researchers posit that the link may be due to multiple factors, including:

• transferable skills (developing leadership and deliberation skills is valuable in the workplace);

• improved information flow;

• enhanced social networking (we hire people we know);

• increased interpersonal trust (trust is critical to business associations and investing);

• higher performing democracy (active citizens demand and support excellence in governance).

Essex is launching on this project to move beyond long-standing, troublesome issues. But with the help of the heart, soul and courage of village and town residents, the community’s efforts will pay dividends. Essex will not only create a clearer vision, but a stronger, more sustainable community.

This piece first appeared as an op-ed in the Essex (Vt.) Reporter on October, 4, 2012.

Women as Town Moderators

(This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on March 6, 2012.) 

Susan Clark, town moderator of Middlesex, attended a training for moderators recently. She couldn’t help notice a change in the people Vermonters are electing to lead their town meetings.

Vermonters have traditionally elected men to run their town meetings. I’ve often joked that the best thing about the town moderator’s training is that there’s never a line in the ladies’ room.

But increasingly, women are being elected to town offices, and this year it finally happened. We heard a presentation on some particularly gnarly aspects of Robert’s Rules, we took a break, and there it was! Three women ahead of me in line to powder our noses.

As I chatted with my fellow female moderators, we pondered the new trend. First, kudos to the women’s movement. In my mother’s day, women weren’t even allowed to have their own checking accounts. Now we’re facilitating multi-million dollar budget decisions.

It also might indicate that we’re making decisions differently. As the field of dialogue and deliberation has become established in recent years, scholars are proving what most Vermont towns have known for centuries: moderators need more than rules and a loud voice. And some of the skills needed are those that women are especially good at.

Linguistical studies have shown that for most women, verbal communication is primarily about relationships. A good moderator listens carefully, to help people formulate their thoughts into a motion and get their work done. And a moderator is a good “storyteller”—to describe the decision-making and what voting “aye” or “nay” means in each case. Robert’s Rules haven’t changed much, but the way we apply them is nuanced, and a woman’s touch doesn’t hurt.

A few years ago, I was in Glarus, Switzerland, at their open-air, canton-wide meeting. Switzerland is the only other place besides New England that holds town meetings. As the sun glinted off the snow-covered peaks towering around the town square, I felt a thrill of excitement when the assembly elected its first female moderator in its 700-year-history—a huge symbolic step for women.

But later, I was chatting with a Swiss bureaucrat who burst my bubble. The reason the Swiss were electing women moderators, he told me, is because power is becoming more centralized. The work at the town and canton level is less important. Essentially, in his view, local issues were becoming so trivial that they were women’s work.

Ouch.

Sexism aside, my bureaucratic friend is correct. The historical trend has been toward centralized power. But I think this historical trend might be just that — historical.

Ecological and economic realities are making it clear that more citizen involvement – not less – will be needed to find solutions. More and more, communities are creating energy committees, public-private initiatives, and other creative local solutions to a growing global mess. The pendulum is swinging back. As the movement toward local food, local energy, and local economies grows in strength, we will need a healthy, well-trained civic infrastructure to respond.

Vermont’s town meeting tradition has trained us well. And our town moderators, male and female, will be prepared — noses metaphorically powdered, and ready for action.

You can listen to this commentary  here.

Emergent Social Change

This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on October 20, 2011. 

As thousands of protesters occupy Wall Street and public spaces across the country, Americans are discussing how to fix our economy. Commentator Susan Clark is fascinated not just by the issues, but also the process that “Occupy Wall Street” is bringing into the public eye.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters have been roundly criticized for not being able to say what they want. But really? Come on. Everyone knows what they want. They’re not occupying the shoe store. They’re occupying Wall Street. Due to corporate greed, and flawed government regulation, 1% of Americans now have a wildly disproportional percentage of the wealth – and the protesters are calling themselves the other 99%. 

It's obvious what they want. What’s not obvious, at least not yet, is how they think they—or, statistically, we—should get it.

Traditional organizers worry that “Occupy Wall Street” is doing it upside down—first you define your demands, then you protest. But that might be because they aren’t part of the wiki generation.

Technology today transfers information at speeds, and in interconnected ways, unimaginable a few years ago. The new tools—Wikis! Blogs! Tweets!—aren’t only ubiquitous and effective. They’re also changing the way we think.

For today’s wiki-style organizers, every connection is an end in itself. The Millennial Generation, in particular, values simply fostering connections and watching where they go—confident that great new ideas will emerge.

“Emergence” is the term used by systems thinkers to describe the phenomenon when many local collaborations produce global patterns. The people occupying Wall Street—and more recently, about 50 cities and 80 college campuses on 3 continents—are all part of the same, emerging wave.

The same way that schools of fish or flocks of birds move in sync, these emerging meta-level patterns are naturally self-organized and not under any central control. There’s a reason that they’re hard to define: When people work together, our efforts aren’t simply the total of your work plus mine, but also the vibrant synergy created by the interaction. Aristotle said it first: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Researchers at Stanford call it “working wikily”: an emergent, bottom-up style of collaboration and decision-making named after wiki web sites (such as Wikipedia) where anyone can contribute or edit information.

The Wall Street protesters aren’t just picketing—although that’s a good old tool to grab a place at the table. The diverse participants are convening in consensus groups to determine their long-term goals. Consensus is time-consuming. They may not succeed before winter forces them to disperse. But keep an eye on where their energy takes them from here. It’s a look into our future.

Increasingly businesses, non-profits, and, slowly but surely, governments are switching to more decentralized, self-organized strategies that reward innovation and information sharing. This is where the new solutions will come from. Those who continue trying to hold all the power at the “command-and-control” center will be left behind.

In other words: get used to it. Maybe not the sign-waving and yelling, but the slow, unabashedly public process of saying “we have something in common. Let’s work together to find out how to move forward.” This is what a decentralized, network-based culture looks like. Or, in the words of the protesters: “This is what democracy looks like.”

You can listen to this radio commentary  here.

 

Under Political Siege

This commentary first appeared on Vermont Public Radio on October 27, 2010. 

In the lead up to Election Day, political battles are raging ever hotter. Commentator Susan Clark suggests ways that voters can avoid a bunker mentality.

Every day, we’re bombarded with political ads. Even the so-called facts are overwhelming – candidates refer to so many contradictory studies, I feel like I’m under siege.

I like to think I’ll battle it out and choose candidates who best reflect my views. But according to new research in cultural cognition, I might not even bother. If I’m a typical American, I’ll find simpler ways to pick a winner.

Before voters even consider a candidate’s platform, we’ve received dozens of coded messages. We each have our own cultural orientation interpreting candidates’ signals. We hear a candidate’s views on one hot-button issue – or notice whether a candidate pronounces words as we do, or even what his wife wears – and we might allow these to stand in for learning his views on the deeper economic, environmental or social issues we thought we cared most about.

This “cognitive cuing” has happened since time immemorial. But surely we can override such tribal urges. Can’t we?

In 2006, brain researchers at Emory University wired up some voters to find out. A group of self-described Republicans were subjected to unflattering information about Republican candidates. According to their MRIs, the Republicans’ brains under-processed information that contradicted their bias – in fact, the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for conscious reasoning, hardly even fired. Then, when shown information boosting their candidates, the emotional center of their brains lit up -- essentially rewarding themselves for ignoring input that contradicted their beliefs.

And liberals, bad news -- the same, pathetic results were true for Democrats’ brains.

Most of us won’t question a candidate’s so-called facts – even if they’re increasingly unbelievable – as long as his or her hairstyle and glasses look trustworthy to our demographic.

That’s why some political professionals reduce issues to polarizing extremes. We’re easier to manipulate when our brains are shut down.

But happily, people of good will can also use this research. Because it turns out that the great majority of Americans don’t live at polarized extremes. Most of us want the same things from our political system – security and economic health. We’re busy, thank you very much, but we agree on a lot more than we disagree on.

Organizers who want real, citizen-based decisions are learning to frame issues very carefully. High-quality deliberation elicits perspectives from right, left, and center. So: in a conversation about, say, energy, we’ll talk about “climate change”; but we’ll also talk about “energy security.”

Then, we’ll skip the grandstanding, and engage in face-to-face deliberation. Where respectful, open-minded dialogue occurs, research shows that humans can overcome cultural biases. We’ve all seen it happen – a new neighbor, a fresh-faced exchange student, or a conversation at town meeting changes our mind or expands our world.

We’ve can’t live in this no-man’s-land of stereotypes and sound bites. We’ve reached a sort of Cold War of political organizing – both sides have escalated equally, and it’s a war no one will win. I’m ready to tear down the wall -- and start talking.

You can listen to this radio commentary here.