Life is filled with mixed messages…hope and despair, opportunity and disappointments, beginnings and endings. If we live long enough, we can grow to accept the balance of things…and to understand that nothing happens without a trade-off. But here’s some really good news…trade-offs help to balance our disappointments and difficulties and losses too. And there’s even more good news…many times we discover these trade-offs in conversations. It’s as if they’re hidden from us until we discover they were there all along. When we gather in small groups to talk about what’s really important to us, we can discover new hope…and opportunity…and beginnings, when our minds are filled with despair…and danger…and premature endings. I’m constantly amazed at the power of small group conversations for support and learning. Now, more than ever…we’d better gather small groups across our country, because we need more hope and opportunity and beginnings!
Despair…the erosion of our education, social service and local government infrastructures is accelerating, making talk of ‘economic recovery’ just plain cruel. But…in the midst of these challenges, an effort appears to be emerging in Solano County to engage the public in small group conversations, specifically hoping to connect our diverse population with the non-profit community. In a state-wide effort, small group conversations are being planned by California Forward for November and December to focus on creating a more vibrant democracy and more community-based governance, involving facilitators connected to the project through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). In another new effort that links Second Life small group sessions with real-life small groups through streaming video, local deliberative conversations will have their own unique character and content…but be connected to a more diverse public as well…all in real-time. Many NCDD groups have on-going small group sessions…using a variety of methods and focusing on many different topics. I believe the best way to fight despair is to gather in small groups to engage each other in public problem-solving.
Disappointments…but surprises continue. You may have gathered that a recent community conversation on California water priorities was a bit rocky at first…but gathered some positive momentum as we proceeded. Here’s an excerpt from the press release about our next community conversation:
“These conversations provide a valuable opportunity to discuss water-related issues and possibilities that will affect the future of our region,” said Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan. “I am pleased there is so much interest in the discussion.”
In the midst of our ‘doing’ deliberation, it’s pretty easy to miss the positive responses of participants, especially when there is some tension in the group. The public statement by Supervisor McGowan is included with well-worded endorsement of our non-partisan deliberative style in dealing with complex and emotion-filled topics. So…even when our small group conversations are a bit strained…participants are surprised and pleased that all voices are included and appreciated. And most importantly…they actively encourage others to experience this style of conversation in the future.
Endings…we received news this week of the passing of Ruth Yellowhawk…a colleague in NIF work who exemplified careful listening and respectful speaking in hope-filled, deliberative conversations. Ruth was only 50 years old…but she was taken very quickly by metastatic lung cancer even though she was a non-smoker. The vitality of her life became clearer and clearer as people across the country shared their stories of how Ruth had touched their lives…and how that touch had brought inspiration and hope. Looking at one of the web articles about her death a few moments ago brought a fresh wave of sadness…but the strength of her commitment to a vital and participatory community continues to shine brilliantly through the tears. As we connect our lives in small group conversations…even if these conversations are mostly through emails…we’re reminded of the power in simple and elegant public participation.
We know for certain that small group conversations are effective in public problem-solving. We have a high degree of understanding about the methods that work best in specific situations and on specific topics. We have dedicated and capable volunteers across the country who can lead small group conversations in safe environments, and then connect their data to create a big picture view of public sentiments on our most difficult public dilemmas…and this snapshot of public opinion can be much more accurate than current polls. In spite of all the challenges we’re facing…I’m very optimistic about our immediate and long-term future. Hope…opportunity…beginnings. Be there!!