If someone is offering to send me to Seattle, Washington to attend a four-day conference dedicated to talking and cogitating, does anyone who knows even the remotest thing about me believe I would ever say no?
Precisely. With a blog called, Writes Like She Talks? Yeah. No.
And so it was that I spent October 11 through 14 in the Pacific Northwest at the 5th National Conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation. Being an itinerant backgrounder, before heading out, I dedicated a good chunk of time to researching the sessions, speakers and attendees, as I tried to assess whether my perception that I'd be among rooms full of kindred civic engagement enthusiasts would be borne out.
Within a very short time of reviewing the materials, my anticipation of the conference developed into almost a hunger for being among others who "get it." Organization after organization listed included words like "civic" "democracy" "public" "engagement" or some meaningful combination of those words in their names (although initiatives with titles like "Portsmouth Listens" and "New Hampshire Listens" relayed the same notions).
Seriously? I was like a kid in a candy store from even before the pre-conference activities began. And, just as with each of the three formal conference days, there were dueling good options (and I'm not including the Vice Presidential Debate). My highly annotated hard copy brochure tracks my struggles with narrowing the choices as I tried to figure out what to attend and who I wanted to hear and meet and caucus with if at all possible. But here's the way it broke down ultimately:
Deliberation Bootcamp with Dr. Martín Carcasson whose PowerPoint presentation immediately endeared me to him because incredibly unbeknownst to me (or the CC team), he included a slide of the Civic Commons' landing page, and we had no idea. Now that was cool. (He also gave an excellent presentation and I recommend checking out the “15 Key Aspects of the Deliberative Democracy Movement” that he covered. Also - I mean, come on - how great is it that where he teachers, Colorado State University, not only has the same initials as Cleveland State, but he is the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation - a whole center - sigh.)
When Governments Listen: New Models for Public Engagement, Civic Infrastructure, and Slow Democracy with the outstanding folks from the aforementioned Portsmouth Listens, New Hampshire Listens, Pittsfield Listens and the author of what NCDD folks indicate is the tome to own, Slow Democracy, who discussed her riveting work related to how the Appalachian trail communities have collaborated over time.
Engaging Diverse Communities in Online Neighborhood Forums presented the pioneering souls of E-Democracy.org including Steve Clift whom I've followed since at least 2010 because of his online discussions around local government.
Public Deliberation & Change Management had two top folks from Public Agenda challenge the attendees to consider change management theory as it might apply to the discipline of dialogue and deliberation and in so doing, bridge a divide between dialogue as action and maybe only action, as opposed to dialogue as action that can lead to other and/or more action.
Expanding Liberal-Conservative Dialogue in America: A Strategizing Session blew my mind because it included, as one of its presenters, Joan Blades, the founder of MoveOn.org which I think many people identify with a very partisan purpose, yet now, and for some time, Joan (and the colleagues with whom she presented) are focused specifically on bringing together "red" and "blue" thinkers through their Living Room Conversations. (I do need to note that Joan is also very well-known for her founding work with MomsRising.org, an advocacy organization for women, mothers and families.)
Public Deliberation on State Legislative Issues which featured Ohio's own State Representative, Ted Celeste, and his district dialoguesapproach to public engagement as one of several state-level engagement programs.
And each of these competed with anywhere from three to seven other options, during the same session timeframe. It was excruciating having to pick just one!
Anyway, as you can see from the titles of those I chose, it might be hard to imagine that there were in fact up to seven others at any one time slot that I might also think was spot-on for our work at the Civic Commons but yes, there were. With 400 attendees, having so many options still led to packed rooms in nearly all of the sessions I attended and I know there were other rooms that were overflowing. It was just incredible.
Honestly, I'm still processing all that occurred during the conference and where and how to go with it, but a couple of take-aways:
1. Face-to-face dialogue and deliberation seems to be the meat and potatoes of many who came to the NCDD conference. However, there is great interest, even if accompanied by a healthy dose of skepticism, about online engagement and how it can enhance, enrich and engage the public toward civic involvement.
2. Dialogue is action is quite the mantra, and to hear this and understand how the work that many in the NCDD conference audience pursues revolves around this mantra has been incredibly thought-provoking for me. At the Commons, we talk about turning talk into action, even though we spend a great deal of effort working to get people to talk, to dialogue, to deliberate. We clearly also want to get people to "do" - that is, there's the hope and desire that our work directly assist shaping decisions made by our community decision and policy-makers. This latter point absolutely was addressed by several sessions and there were more than a couple of plenary speakers who also specifically dealt with this. One in particular who I highly recommend is featured in this video: Pete Peterson, director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University (See? Another whole institute for public engagement and civic leadership? Come on, Ohio!). In it, he directly places responsibility on both the public and the electeds to be mindful of their roles if we hope to create local, state and national civic infrastructures (the theme of this year's conference). It was rousing, to say the least.
I can hardly wait for 2014.
Copyright © 2012 Jill Miller Zimon; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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