I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what to do about a difficult shared problem.
One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.
These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.
But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.
(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)
I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. (See right.) I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.
Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.
What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.
In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.
One terrific benefit of working in the philanthropic sector is the opportunity to attend the Council on Foundations’ annual meeting. This major event invariably brings together significant thinkers who share their learning and insights with foundations, which are a key part of the social sector and arguably one of the most important leverage points. This year we will be in San Francisco.
I had the good fortune this year to be invited to play a role in the planning of this conference, serving as a member of the “Civil Society Working Group.” I have no idea how I ended up with this group of people, which includes some real leaders in the field, mentors, and people I have admired for years.
We were tasked with developing a series of breakout sessions that focused on how civil society can more productively work and be supported by philanthropy.
I’m particularly excited to be moderating one of the sessions:
Philanthropy’s Role in Free Speech, Press, and Religion
The recent Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris reminded us across the globe of the democratic values we enjoy and must protect in a civil society. In addition, these events remind us of the ongoing need for civil discourse that allows disparate ideologies to have voice. What is philanthropy’s role to ensure open speech, inclusion of ideological and religious differences, privacy, and the right to assemble?
Discussants on this topic will be:
- Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice
- Eboo Patel, founder and president, Interfaith Youth Core
- Abdi Soltani, executive director of ACLU NorCal
If you are coming to the meeting, join me at 11:15 am on Sunday, April 26 for this session! We will be in the Yerba Buena Ballroom, Salon 1/2, Lower B2 Level.
This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:
What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.
To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.
This morning marks four full weeks of daily spiritual work: prayer, reading, journaling, and meditation. I have done each of these things every morning since the year began. I’ve done them even when it felt as if I did not have the time. I’ve done them even when I had to look at my watch and say, “I have fifteen minutes and that is what I have to devote this morning.” So some mornings have been better than others. But I haven’t missed a morning.
So in other words, this has been a practice. Something I have done regularly and without fail.
I ended 2014 at a very low point emotionally and spiritually. I felt exhausted and pressured. Things that had brought me joy before seemed tepid at best. I had fleeting periods of good feeling, but they were briefer and briefer. I felt increasingly empty, even in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and evident physical health. I was working out. I was doing yoga. I was eating right. Indeed, some Facebook friends would say I over-emphasized my “healthy lifestyle,” flooding the Internet with pictures of happy-me at yoga and the gym, and plates full of good Paleo grub.
At the new year, people often make resolutions or set intentions. I resolved to try to take some kind of action. I could not go on so empty. I decided to shed all of the “activities” I had engaged in, all the body-worship and inward-focus. My healthy eating, my working out, even my yoga . . . it was all focused on me. It was a circle leading nowhere.
So I dropped it all and got back to basics. Simple, spiritual practice. Period. Nothing fancy. Each morning:
- Read spiritual literature
- Pray to the God of my understanding
- Write a “letter to God,” which counts as my journal
I can’t say I am a person with deep faith, so the prayer was nothing fancy. I asked each day for knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power and willingness to carry it out. In other words, my prayer was just that I would know the next right thing to do, and have the willingness to do it. I did not picture a being overseeing the world, it was not a Christian or any other kind of religious god I was praying to. Just a force for good that I think of as x. An unknown quantity. I’m not even sure I believe, nor do I think I have to.
The journaling was simple too. You often see people in movies writing a “dear diary” kind of entry. I thought it would be useful to feel as if I was telling someone what was on my mind that morning. A long time ago someone mentioned to me that when they were feeling bad they wrote a letter to God and that stuck with me. So I tried it again.
And as for meditation, this, too, was nothing fancy. A few years ago I obtained the book Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. It’s got a CD with a few short meditation exercises. (Here’s audio of the first one, which just focuses on being aware of breath.) They are each about ten minutes. I would just listen to one every morning. If I had little time, I would just set my timer for five minutes, and count my breaths, trying to be aware of how I felt for each one. Again . . . nothing fancy.
The purpose of all this was twofold. I wanted relief from the hamster wheel rolling in my head. And I wanted to focus outside of myself. By asking for the power and willingness to just be helpful in the world, I thought I might fret less about my own little dramas.
After a few days, perhaps just short of a week, I began slowly to feel better. My world did not change, the skies did not part, there was no “awakening.” I just felt better.I began slowly to feel more able to handle things that came my way. I did not fear the day so much. Troubles began to shrink. I began to have some perspective.
Another week passed. I began to feel I had the mental (and temporal) bandwidth to start yoga again, and some exercise. But I promised myself if those things crowded out my spiritual practice that I would drop them again immediately. So what if I got fatter and weaker? I had to be right on the inside. And the practice continued.
And things kept improving.
This has been the steady result. Not in a linear progression — it has had its ups and downs, its strong days and weaker days.
I plan to continue this practice moving forward. Not out of any virtue. I don’t think “good people pray and meditate, bad people don’t.” But it seems to be working for me and I don’t want to feel like I did four weeks ago. And it gets easier each day I practice. I am less distracted as I write, my mind wanders less when I meditate.
But overall I can say I feel much more whole than I did on January 1. I feel more useful to those around me. And that’s an OK start.
Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.
And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:
As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.
Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .
Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.
Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.
I want to be a countervailing force.
I want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.
So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?
In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.
I can dream, can’t I?
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.
This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:
Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.
On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:
1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.
2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.
3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.
The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.
Read the whole piece here.
I’m excited to announce the newest report from the Kettering Foundation, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. It’s a handbook for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.
Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about “issue framing” and make it accessible to people so it didn’t seem like such a mystery. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do — or that takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources. But we’ve learned that it is relatively straightforward and really just takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.
It’s also available for free in hard copy! Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know you’d like a copy.
Here is an excerpt:
When issues are named and framed in public terms, we can identify the problem that we need to talk about (naming) and the critical options and drawbacks for deciding what to do about that problem (framing). . . .
A framework that will prompt public deliberation should make clear the options that are available for addressing the problem and the tensions at stake in facing it. It should lay bare what is at issue in readily understandable terms.
Three key questions drive the development of a framework for public deliberation:
- What concerns you about this issue?
- Given those concerns, what would you do about it?
- If that worked to ease your concern, what are the downsides or trade-offs you might then have to accept?
Responses to these questions, together, can generate a framework that makes clear the drawbacks of different people’s favored options. Facing these drawbacks and coming to a sound decision about what to do is the ultimate concern of deliberation.
[UPDATE: Today (8/14) we learned via a statement from his wife that Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and he was not ready yet to share the diagnosis with the rest of the world. She also reports that Williams’ sobriety was “intact.” The below essay could have been written in the aftermath of any celebrity death that related in some way to a struggle with sobriety, so I will let it stand. However, it does not apply to Williams in this case. I (like many) write before I had all the facts. This is a lesson to learn. — Brad Rourke]
What to say about the death of Robin Williams. It is tragic and like so many I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s funny how you feel like you come to know certain celebrities solely by the cues you pick up from their roles and interviews and what is written about them. As if they are friends.
But I also know how ordinary this death was — like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another life claimed by addiction. Happens every day. I personally knew a number of people who also died, and a number of people for whom it is a surprise they are alive (and a proof of grace).
Some, like Williams and Hoffman, had long-term sobriety. Yes mental illness appears to be involved but the greater factor appears to be the drama of alcohol and drugs. Each had a long spell of sobriety that was recently lost, and they were struggling to regain an even keel.
Such deaths are wasted unless we can take something from them. The lesson I take is that just being sober for some number of years does not cure a person. The disease of addiction is powerful and must be respected. It is the disease that says “I do not exist. You’re fine.” Truly, the essence of the devil.
But here is the good news, to the survivors, to we who face addiction. Sobriety is within reach, even after relapse. Others who face this disease want to help — indeed, need to help, as it keeps us sober. “No matter how far down the scale we have fallen, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” This is not an extravagant promise.
That is the message we carry: there is a solution. It is available to all, and there is help in literally every city, town, and village. It is there for those who want it and we need only seek it. We will be welcomed and understood in those places.
Photo: Eva Rinaldi
I’m delighted to announce the publication of a new report, a joint effort by the Kettering Foundation and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), of which I am the author. Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: A Relationship of Respect and Clarity explores how the field of organized philanthropy might think about responding to a growing movement for accountability and transparency.
The report is available as a free PDF download from PACE, where the paper is described like this: “The paper grew out of a conversation we began with PACE members over year ago about how the issues of transparency and accountability might soon impact the field of philanthropy. PACE and Kettering convened three roundtables of philanthropic and non-profit leaders, and talked to dozens more one-on-one. This report is a distillation of what we heard and the issues that were raised.”
I am proud to have worked on this important research. An early preview of our findings, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few weeks ago in an article by me and PACE executive director Chris Gates, outlines the main points:
- Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.
- Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.
- Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.
- Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.