We held a community conversation on California water priorities a few days ago. It really was a great conversation with knowledge and opinions being shared with passion and respect. At the end of our conversation when we were reflecting briefly on our time together, it was remarked by one person that he was saddened by the fact that other voices weren’t at the table with us…it appeared to me that all others agreed with this sentiment. This is characteristic of our deliberative efforts though…the people who want to decide public policy dilemmas through careful and respectful conversation are hopeful that all voices will be included in the eventual decisions. So…this reflection has become a standard part of our conversations. We’re constantly hoping for…and waiting for…and preparing for the active participation of our full demographic profile in our deliberative conversations.
We are richly blessed in our county and in our communities…we have one of the most diverse populations in the state…and the State of California has the most diverse demographic profile in the whole country. But…this means we also know who is missing from our conversations whenever we gather to talk together. We regularly ask: How can we engage a more diverse group of citizens? What can we do to encourage a wider population to participate? Who can we seek as partners to connect us with neighbors who aren’t yet at the table? I believe this has been one of our enduring American questions, however: Since we know our form of democracy is grounded on the inclusion of all voices for long-term, effective and just public decisions, we are uncomfortable when we know some voices are not present.
As we seek a truly diverse conversation on our urgent and important public policy dilemmas, I’m reminded of a real-life story of hoping…and waiting…and preparing. This story involves a church with hopes of new families and new life.
The congregation of mostly elderly adults knew the future was bleak without families and young people. So…they studied and prayed and prepared to welcome the families they knew would renew their vitality as a congregation. They prepared for families and for children. Every week, people were at their posts…waiting to extend a warm welcome. Months passed…no families. Even with extensive advertising and door-to-door flyers, still no visitors. Then…one Sunday morning…four families with 9 children showed up…almost simultaneously. All the volunteers moved to welcome them…and to include them as they’d planned for months. The adults had a great time in worship…and the kids had a really good time in their activity groups. A month later…these families discovered that they’d each visited for the first time on the same Sunday. But…by that time, they’d already established friendships with each other and with members of the congregation. They then became the new core group for a revitalized congregation.
This story fuels my hope that our tenacity in planning…and organizing…and inviting…and moderating…and reporting will eventually bring more people into our conversations and into a greater involvement in the public policy decisions of their community and of their nation. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to be so intentional about it. But…it’s not easy, and we do have to keep opening the door for more of our neighbors to participate in solving our critical public dilemmas.
In the meantime…we’re going to continue to convene community conversations on our critical issues. We cannot and should not wait for everyone to be at the table before we hold a deliberative conversation on a critical issue. Neither should we ever be complacent in including an incomplete segment of the multiplicity of local voices in these public conversations.
In the midst of writing this blog post, I had a chat conversation that reminded me why it’s so important to be tenacious. I sometimes write on one screen at the computer while sitting somewhere in Second Life (SL) on the other screen, usually listening to some soothing online music. A woman sitting near my avatar obviously read about the work I’m doing in SL and my background in deliberative efforts in real-life. She asked about the topics we are addressing…but when she found out we are discussing political topics, her mood changed dramatically. “I don’t talk about politics!” she said. In the chat that followed, she described having several very damaging conversations where she was made to feel uninformed, unimportant and unappreciated. I don’t know if she will check out the websites I gave her about our work…but I do know she was appreciative to know that efforts are being made to make public policy conversations more inclusive. I came away with an even stronger conviction that we need to be tenacious in our efforts.
We need to network more effectively to engage all of our neighbors. We need to invite community members more energetically. We need to make our conversations as accessible as possible. We need to make our conversations as respectful, interactive and relevant as possible. We need to open the doors to our neighbors…so they feel welcomed and fulfilled as partners in public policy decision-making. We’ll keep on gathering for community conversations…and we’ll keep on inviting our neighbors to these events. They can be…and will increasingly be…the core group for a revitalized and engaged public.