How is it in this democracy that we have come to understand ourselves so little? In urban and rural places, it’s getting harder and harder to talk with one another, and our decisions tend to favor one group over another. How do we nurture a different narrative between people that leads to stronger, more inclusive communities and therefore more durable decision-making? How do we design and encourage a civic dialogue that engages more people, leaves fewer out, and restores peoples’ sense of building something together rather than having something taken from them? How do we have hard conversations together? From Maine to Virginia to California, I’m part of local, on-the-ground efforts that begin to answer these questions.
My greatest skill and passion is intercultural facilitation and helping to foster intentional, purposeful dialogue between people on matters of consequence to their lives.
This is not conflict resolution; it’s community-building and finding a durable narrative that leaves fewer people out of the civic process and yields more inclusive, successful public policy. In some projects, I’m asked to help a community reconcile and heal from a crisis that divided them; other projects aim at learning from the past and building new agreements to address a focused challenge that no one could meaningful address in isolation.
In Virginia, I was part of a team working in a predominantly African American community to build relationships with the primarily White city government to co-design a “win” between the community and the city that builds relationships which address a specific threat and builds over-all capacity to create a more resilient community. As African American residents with long generational roots in the community look to the future they must consider the reality of climate change and sea level rise. Because large, critical parts of this community are below sea level, we are making allies who will create community solutions such as a realistic evacuation route that will build resiliency and avoid Katrina-like disasters.
In rural Maine, I’m helping to sustain a productive dialogue within a specific place struggling with increasingly controversial land use decisions as the community becomes more and more separated by class and personal experience and divided by the community’s orientation to production or consumption. By initiating and sustaining very honest dialogue that explores the history of changing land use – and who has been included and who has been left out- we are slowly re-creating a culture of listening that will enable this community to make decisions about land that are less polarizing and more inclusive of different goals and histories. Read more about this work in Western Maine
In southeast Alaska, I assisted an unusual partnership of 5 Native rural villages and 5 conservation or community development organizations committed to rebuilding together a more prosperous, resilient home. The path to that civic dialogue and shared work had to begin with explicitly developing a deeper understanding of each others' lives and differences. The most important and inspiring goals of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership rest upon complex relationships between people. Everything SSP hopes to do will rise and fall on the authenticity and durability of those relationships. And the most profound, and watched, set of relationships are the ones within the partnership itself, between the Native and non-Native participants. How they decide to act inside the partnership deeply informs how they will perform outside in the communities. The foundation of their partnership is how they understand and leverage their differences in age, gender, race, education, and how each brings the skills and life experiences that are fundamental to the success of the other person. Read more about this extraordinary partnership here.
Here’s what I’m observing about these different civic dialogues and some early reflections on principles.
The work begins with creating a new map of the community that seeks to make more parts of a community visible to each other. Sheltered conversations among different groups on this map may be necessary before they are willing and prepared to have conversations with others. The next critical step is sharing the different personal experiences of the community through storytelling, research, workshops on land loss, published interviews, whatever helps the community to develop a much better understanding of the different personal experiences that have created different cultures there. We reach people (not “stakeholders’) who aren’t typically “engaged” in a civic process by demonstrating that their story within that community is seen and understood. By making the less visible more visible, we bring people into the narrative rather than exclude them further. Now it may be possible to talk with one another, with a strong emphasis on listening and making agreements. Then shared action.
- Begin by mapping and naming the human parts of a community that are more visible and less visible from your vantage point and why.
- Explore the forces of economic and social change that have created and which now sustain these different shades of visibility of people. Name them.
- Invite sheltered conversations among different parts of a community to understand what they need to have dialogue with others. How do they ask others to be prepared?
- Seek an understanding of the history of land loss and land use change that has accompanied or been caused by the social and economic change. Share that history openly.
- Humanize that history by making it visible in the faces of people we know. This fosters empathy.
- Name the differences between people (or organizations) who seek to be in relationship.
- Understand how people and organizations, though different, relate to one another within a community. Be explicit about power dynamics between most visible and least visible. How are they connected and disconnected? What do they need from one another?
- Seek to bring together the most affected with the most connected to create dialogue with clear agreements about what’s needed to sustain this.
- Identify self-interests of people and groups. Openly discuss where there is reciprocity between self-interests and when there is not.
- Commit to a process before committing to a product. Create a process that people are actively invited to be part of that does not too early lead to a vote or a product that divides them into winners and losers.
- Create and revise agreements between parties at each step for how power and decision-making is to be shared.
- Go deep in one place, resist the temptation to scale up.
Recent clients for this Making Allies work includes The Environmental Protection Agency (Virginia), The College of William and Mary's Coastal Policy Center (Virginia), The Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative (Maine), Land Trust Alliance (Wisconsin), Sustainable Southeast Partnership (Alaska).