Let’s face it…the public is not comfortable with the idea of public engagement. Thanks to numerous, ugly media video clips of angry, out-of-control people at town hall meetings, it’s no wonder that most citizens would rather have a root canal than attend any public gathering to discuss a potentially divisive community issue. This is a troublesome reality for those of us who want to coax our neighbors into community conversations that could actually solve some of our problems. How do we get people to show up to discuss the actions and weigh the options in public choices? When people feel like strangers in their own communities, it’s obvious that we need to reconnect with each other.
Through the years, I’ve come to see more and more the need for pro-active hospitality in our deliberative work…showing respect to one’s neighbors, providing for their needs, and treating them as equals. Hospitality isn’t about serving coffee and cookies at an event…it’s about honoring your neighbor’s uniqueness, and appreciating their contribution to community problem-solving as an equal partner. It’s about being hungry to hear their voices on an important issue. It’s about doing whatever it takes to get the full flavor and richness of the community involved in deliberative conversations that can contribute to inclusive and sustainable, public decisions. It’s about people!
First and foremost, how do we let people know that their opinions are important to us? Each of us should have a very short statement of purpose as deliberative practitioners…12-25 words in just one or two sentences we can say without having to take a breath. When people ask…as they invariably do…“What are you doing these days?”…we need to have an answer. Of course, I’m constantly revising and refining it…but it’s poised and ready for friends in our home, or strangers in an elevator. My current statement is this: “I help people like you in an important task…‘build a great community…together.’” Hospitality connects neighbor to neighbor…and encourages more conversation about the critical issues that hold us back from being great communities. Hospitality starts with creating a space into which we can invite people.
Several years ago I participated in a workshop at the Kettering Foundation on the essential components of public decision-making through deliberative conversations. As part of our workshop, we discussed the various ‘roles’ we believed were needed to conduct an effective, deliberative project… we identified 7 unique roles, including the role of ‘convener.’ When I brought this topic to the California NIF Network, we ended up making some adjustments to the workshop list…we identified 12 unique roles, including the roles of ‘convener’ and ‘public-maker.’
The ‘convener’ practices a pretty traditional form of hospitality…making the deliberative experience accessible and comfortable. This person handles logistical support for deliberation…choosing the most convenient date and time…providing a neutral and inclusive space…preparing the space for deliberation…arranging for advertising and public notices. It’s most helpful to have some refreshments, and child care is essential for some conversations. The site needs to be accessible to people with disabilities, and should be near public transportation, if possible. Hospitality communicates welcoming, acceptance and respect in all of these details.
The ‘public-maker’ practices a social networking form of hospitality…populating deliberative conversations with a full range of community stakeholders. This person knows the community…its public history and its political barriers. This deliberative role is all about relationship building and trust building…it strives for the inclusion of all voices…it uses social and political capital to bring people into relevant, effective and deliberative conversations. Hospitality personalizes the inviting and welcoming of neighbors into the space and attitude of deliberative, public decision-making.
At the end of the day, it does matter that we have some technical skills in the practice of dialogue and deliberation…but, what matters most is that the public is actually present and truly engaged. Through a personal commitment to deliberative goals and conversations…through effective preparations as ‘conveners’…through creative networking as ‘public-makers’…we can extend deliberative hospitality to our neighbors. And…in those moments when we really connect with people who are suspicious and hurt and angry and fearful, we can replace those feelings with trust and confidence and fulfillment and fun! But, first…we have to be a neighbor to a neighbor by extending genuine and wholehearted hospitality.