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?