Our young people need some public engagement tools for the really tough decisions that face them. Today I was completing a survey about the future challenges of our children and youth…completing a colleague’s deliberative survey, because she’d already completed mine. My wife and I are very blessed to have six, amazing grandchildren…and as I completed the survey about their future, I was picturing them 20 years from now, having to face some hugely complex and troubling public problems. How will they be able to meet those challenges with more wisdom than we seem to be able to find today? How will they commit the time needed for important community conversations when we’re unwilling to do so today? I have hope for our next generations of citizens…because I have confidence that our children and grandchildren will learn to be like us in some ways…and not like us in other ways.
We have an awesome opportunity…and responsibility. Those of us who have developed our skills in dialogue and deliberation have some very powerful tools in public engagement. And…these skills can be developed even further through a greater willingness to learn with and from each other as colleagues in a ‘Deliberative Practice.’ How do we effectively pass them along to the next generations? How do we involve them in the refinement of these tools…so they can translate these tools into the next generations’ culture? We have two critically important tasks in the early 21st century…to develop and to apply our skills in public engagement to the best of our abilities in our nation and in our local communities…AND, to gently mentor younger generations into this lifestyle of public participation.
First and foremost, our skills need to be more relevant, more effective and more practical. Because some of us have been in the dialogue and deliberation ‘business’ for so long, we’ve made our discussions way too academic. People who want to get something done don’t want to wade through our dense theories…they want to know how to get their neighbors in the room to solve problems. Public engagement needs to get the job done…and, if it doesn’t produce results, it’s not going to get a second chance. We need to fine-tune our methods, so literally thousands of committed citizens across the USA and around the world can pick them up easily and use them successfully without a graduate degree.
Next, we need to appreciate and embrace technology and social networking in public engagement strategies…even email is slow and passé these days. Facebook and Twitter on smart phones and iPads will emerge with fresh, public initiatives quicker than anything can be published by the traditional press. Virtual worlds like Second Life will soon become the preferred meeting places beyond the local community. Technology applications we haven’t even dreamed could be possible are being developed today…for application tomorrow. If we’re really serious about preparing our next generations for the challenges they will have to face, we’ll work in tech-based media and social networks now…to find ways for public engagement to be more accessible for a broad cross-section of society, so more voices are included in our critical public decisions.
One additional comment…we have to practice ‘generational hospitality’ to effectively mentor the next generations into public engagement partnerships. Let’s get real…young people are skeptical about our willingness to accept their participation and their ideas. If we don’t extend hospitality in inviting and welcoming and supporting, we should not be surprised when the younger generation says: ‘Thanks, but no thanks’…no matter how good our methods or our intentions might be. No…if you build it, they won’t necessarily come! We need to energetically seek partnerships with our younger generational friends. It’s a great honor to be in a position to extend hospitality to others…let’s take it seriously as we look into the future together.
Yes, I’m very hopeful about our next generations’ capacity to shape their circumstances, rather than to simply accept that their circumstances will shape them. I believe they’ll find more energy and enthusiasm and creativity and ingenuity than we did…because they must! I’m a ‘Baby Boomer’…and my job today is quite simple: add what I can; invite and encourage who I can; and then get out of the way! This is our season of hope, friends. With a tear in my eye, I look forward as our children and grandchildren learn to do what we couldn’t.