Shhh…can you hear that?
It’s the sound of an invisible movement. Over 33,000 people across the U.S. and Canada are engaging thousands – and, at times, millions — of people in doing something that most people have no idea is happening.
What are they doing? They’re leading conversations – a different kind of conversation that challenges the assumption that our society is getting ever more divided. This is a network of thousands of innovators who bring people together across divides to tackle today’s toughest challenges.
At the center of this growing network is the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. NCDD (ncdd.org) is a non-profit organization that provides resources for people who plan and lead meaningful conversations that help find common ground for action on important issues that affect all of us.
1 – Who are these people and what are they doing? The NCDD network is made up of a wide variety of group facilitators, professors, students, government officials, organizational development consultants and committed volunteers. While the range of backgrounds is diverse, NCDDers share a common dedication to creating opportunities for people to talk, listen and act together in new ways – ways that build deeper understanding and create new openings for solving problems.
We are not advocates for any particular position – instead we are advocates for more constructive and inclusive process.
NCDDers might be leading dialogues about health care, schools, land use decisions or the environment. And these conversations can be taking place in community centers, in churches, county or town council chambers or in classrooms – with community members from all kinds of backgrounds and often with translation. What binds us together is that we believe that inclusive dialogue can generate shared understanding and shared goals – and that shared understanding is the “secret sauce” for new possibilities and new paths forward that can help us make progress as we join forces rather than waste energy on divisive debates.
The “deliberation” part of this work is when we frame up a topic by acknowledging the real choices and trade-offs at hand – whether it’s about the drought, increasing educational opportunities for all kids and the workforce of the future or what should get built where. In deliberation, we make sure that these tough choices are informed by the perspectives of everyone who is impacted and by the values we as a society decide will shape our decisions.
2 – Why haven’t you heard of us? Here are my theories:
A. – Dialogue and deliberation are not embedded in the formal structures of our democracy. We vote yes or no on ballot measures. We often choose between two candidates. We are well versed in a thumbs up/thumbs down kind of thinking that leads to winners and losers. In a debate, you listen to hear your opponent’s weakness. But in a dialogue you listen to learn from each other.
At the local level of our democratic systems, we have public hearings. But taking turns for three minutes at the microphone is not the same as a dialogue where community members can set the framework for what’s important and explore and ask for clarifications from each other to see where we agree and don’t agree.
B — If you want the kind of dialogue I’m talking about, someone has to go outside the norm to set it up, find the resources, plan it and convince people something good is going to come out of it. But most people have rarely if ever had this experience of genuine public dialogue, which makes it harder to convince them to participate.
So our invisible movement of NCDDers is finding ways to set up these experiences so people can feel what it’s like to come together and learn from each other and discover that the “other” can be an ally. The problems we face may not be easy – but there are solutions when we can talk about them in constructive ways with a broad range of the affected community.
C – Facilitators don’t draw attention to themselves. When I do my job well as a facilitator, I fade into the background as I let the group do its work. When I first started out, my facilitation was more visible, like the old yellow version of scotch tape. But the better I get, the more invisible I become and the meeting participants remember their experience rather than my expertise.
3 – Why do we persist in this work?
Because we know that most people outside of the political system are looking for connection, and practical solutions to the pressing issues of our day. And as the size and complexity of our challenges keeps expanding, we know that more inclusive and collaborative dialogue can generate more effective and longer lasting solutions.
As we go through yet another election season, with exceptionally divisive campaigns that purposefully use wedge issues to isolate groups from one another, and a news industry perpetuating a tired old strategy of selling conflict and controversy, people are left to wonder if a new politics is possible. NCDD operates on the premise that it IS possible because we are planting and nurturing the seeds that we see growing every day in communities across the country.
4 – What can you do?
Visit NCDD.org to see how we work to change how we do democracy. Look at the map and the extensive set of resources to see who in your area and/or on your issue of interest is working hard to make a difference.
Check out the amazing array of presenters and projects featured at our last biennial conference in 2014. Over 400 leaders young and old met to connect their work and passion for the Next Generation of Democracy. And mark your calendars now for the October 14-16 2016 NCDD conference in Boston.
Consider joining NCDD. NCDDers are in the “parallel universe” of what democracy can be like. Your membership is like a vote that makes this alternate reality more visible to all.
And, next time you hear someone say “that’s just politics” and throw up their hands, I ask you to instead engage them in a dialogue about what they think is important. Maybe you’ll find some common ground. And that leads to new possibilities to change the world.