Breakout session: How do we get everyone in the room?

Jack Brighton (convener)
Suzanne Searle
Dorothy Carner
Joy Mayer
Tom Flanagan
Jordan Eschler
Jacqueline Rafferty
Karen Perry

Initial questions:
What do we mean by everyone?
What do we mean by the room?
It’s about democracy, and engagement.

A lot of birds of a feather at this convening. Similarly, there’s a set of people — the usual suspects — who show up for a lot of community events. And there are a lot of people who don’t show up. How do we find divergent voices — people who might make us angry if we talked to them? And if we did, what kind of dialogue would we have? What kind of social contract or ground rules could we adopt that allows us to engage in useful dialogue?

Find common ground.

Where’s the room? Digital sometimes? But what about the have-nots? Media literacy problems get magnified. A lot of people are comfortable letting others speak for them.

Getting tired of the word civility. It’s coming to mean nonimpassioned. Passion works best when it comes with responsibility, and with a commitment to stay in the conversation. Don’t disconnect from each other when people get passionate. Be civil enough to hear someone else’s speech.

Individuals have bandwidths. How do you make your event or conversation worth the investment of time?

Can there be a win-win? How do you construct consensus. Media thrives not on consensus but on drama. Is there any drama in consensus? What’s the story?

Jack Brighton told a story about a community cinema series in Champaign IL. Watch a film once a month, then discuss it. Jack is the host. One movie was about the troubled past and tragic life story of a young woman in Nashville. The discussion was based on the question of how many of these scenarios are playing out in our community because no one’s paying attention to what’s happening to kids from a really young age. People came who were all doing various things about this same issue. They’d never been in the same room before. No one had convened them. How can we build those connections? Whose job is it? The next month, the film series showed a movie about the war in the Congo. 240 refugees from the Congo who live in the community showed up. Who even knew they were there? And how did they find out about it?

Make the invisible visible. Make the unfamiliar familiar. Make the disagreements converge.

The Harwood Institute is a great resource for processes around community engagement and conversation.

How do you make it worth someone’s time to participate? Promise that if people come with something to say, they’ll get to talk about it. PROMISE that all voices will be heard. Avoid the kind of hierarchy that too often develops, with assumed royalty and supplicants. That’s not conversation-based. Can’t have the hierarchy if the point is dialogue.

Another question: Do you actually want everybody in the room? Or just the people who care?

One of the rooms is the school room. There, you want everybody. Elsewhere, maybe not. Maybe it’s okay to not want everybody.

Know what do you want from the group. Information sharing? Multiple perspectives? A decision or action?

Does “everyone” mean literally every body? Or every perspective? How do these things scale? How does democracy scale?

We want to get more people sharing their stories because we don’t understand each other.

Karen Perry shared a story about working on a controversial issue (national broadband). She worked in group designed to bring divergent views to consensus. Agree first on a statement. Then break it down into working groups, with opposite viewpoints as co-chairs. Then work it out. Deep, civil conversations and listening. Targeted participation. Have a clear goal. If the goal is to bring diverse voices together, ask people to participate. Issue the personal invitation.

She also talked about the documentary Freedom Writers: Stories of an Undeclared War. Teacher went to teach at Wilson High in LA after Rodney King. The only thing the kinds agreed on was that they really hated the teacher. But she managed to keep them for four years. Every one of them graduated. They all wrote their stories. Powerful stuff. Find a way to connect, then create a community where they support each other.

Invite people to help plan the library services. All stakeholders, very egalitarian. Less prescription, more collaboration.

Be trustworthy — keep your word once they’re there. Let people talk if that’s what you promise. And if you say you’ll report back, or follow up, do it. Keep your contract.

Jacqueline Rafferty from the Paul Pratt Memorial Library offered these wise, eloquent words:
The role always is to empower people to be informed, engaged citizens. Be more yang than yin. Instead of being passive receptacles and places where people use facilities, think about the ALA model of deliberative forums. Bring people together, and through skilled facilitation, help people to come to consensus. People need and are using libraries more than ever. But funding is getting cut. Accessibility is a bigger problem than ever. Information gaps are widening. But empowered, engaged citizens make a strong democracy. The democracy is in danger of eroding. It’s an economic issue, and a sociological one.

It’s easy for those of us in this room to forget that we’re an island of education and perspectives that big chunks of the community don’t share. We need to be guided experts in a crowded information world.

One story from earlier in the day: A participant shared how she was empowering youth participants to take responsibility for planning a project, implementing it, reporting back on it, engaging others in the outcomes. When she found out young people were often abusive to homeless people, she took kids into homeless shelters, had them conduct interviews, then publish and report back about what they learned. The key is making the participants feel like change agents, not just objects.

Teach listening. Sometimes we think we’re aiming for consensus. But civil dialogue — a recognition of diverging perspectives — can be just as good. Build consensus around what the two viewpoints are. That’s worth something. Consensus isn’t about unanimity. It’s about declaring what you can agree on. Is total agreement even a good goal?

Maybe it’s about the quality of the dialogue.