From David Mathews - The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) Chairman's Letter

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NIFI Chairman’s Letter

July 24, 2018


To: National Issues Forums Institute Members and National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) Alumni


From: David Mathews, Chairman


National Issues Forums (NIF) forums usually begin during the fall. Summer is for vacations and travel. But it also is a time for reading. Hoping to catch you doing that, I’ve decided to send the Chairman’s Letter out this month. It is based largely on Maura Casey’s interviews, with a few notes from me.


       Gary Paul


Current NIFI directors will have already seen some of the interviews in an early draft of this letter handed out at our spring meeting. We were in Washington and attended the Public Voice program, with Gary Paul presiding.


I was pleased to hear back from so many of you after the last Chairman’s Letter. Jule Zimet brought us up to date on one of the oldest NIF programs in the country. The El Paso forums have been going on for more than 30 years and partner with local media like El Paso’s PBS station.

Before going on to Maura’s vignettes, I want to acknowledge what John Dedrick is doing on behalf of the Kettering Foundation to carry out its part of the collaborative pact with NIFI. Kettering does research; it doesn’t hold forums or participate in their deliberations. But it does share its research on deliberative democracy with the NIF network, largely in the form of reports on how the public sees or frames issues—research that goes into the NIF issue guides. Kettering also analyzes forum results and reports on those results through such events as the annual Public Voice program in Washington. For its part, NIFI surveys the network to identify the issues forum conveners want to consider, encourages deliberative forums in as many venues as possible, and fosters networking among all the people and organizations involved in NIF deliberations. The relationship between the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute is based on this division of labor and each organization benefits from the collaboration. Kettering research enriches the deliberations that NIFI promotes, and the results from the NIF forums are an invaluable resource for the foundation’s studies.


And now for Maura’s interviews:


NIFI members are keen observers, quick to notice what sparks tension as people at forums struggle with what is most important to them and to their communities. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the power of emotion in those rooms. The best deliberations don’t just make people think—they make people feel, and feel deeply.


  Jerry Elijah Brown


That is clear from the report of Jerry Elijah Brown, who said that he attended a forum held in North Carolina on the opioid epidemic. The forum used the issue guide on the same topic, and Jerry spoke individually with students afterward.

He was moved by the emotional intensity exhibited at the forums. “It was so raw and immediate that it was difficult for some to talk about it with any objectivity. One gets a perspective on the issue unavailable elsewhere,” he said. “You realized during the forum that students were in grave danger and the teachers present needed to tell that story.


From talk to action 


       Jay Theis


Jay Theis understands what it takes to turn students on to deliberation. He has continued his work under extraordinary circumstances in the wake of last year’s flooding in Houston, which had a great impact on the campuses of Lone Star Community College, where he directs the Center for Civic Engagement. Jay said that all classes are online now until the college reopens in January of 2019. Undaunted, Jay has taken deliberation on the road, and recently completed a forum on The Political Fix issue guide with 10 members each of the Democratic and Republican parties in Kingwood. “I’ve always sensed that people are not as far apart on issues as they seem during campaigns,” Jay said. “Both sides agreed they wanted transparency on campaign contributions and they wanted Congress to follow the same laws as everyone else.” They also valued the experience of discussing issues together, he said. “It showed that these sides that don’t seem to agree on anything can have a civil conversation.”


Jay also moderated a forum on Safety and Justice with students of color, police officers, and the chief of police in the room, he said. He noted that at the end of the forums, particularly when both sides have had a robust, animated discussion, “We are left with the feeling of, ‘So, now what?’ The challenge is to figure out how to move beyond deliberation and develop public work with the participants based on the findings of a dialogue.”


     Jean Johnson


Jean Johnson agreed. Reflecting on her experience in forums all over the country, she said, “One of the tensions I see a lot is the need for action. People want to do something after the forum. On the other hand, sometimes people barely weigh the issues and want to act. I would hope that the forums encourage a mind shift and influence how people talk to their neighbors.” Jean also observed that while the network is “amazing,” so many of the forums take place on college campuses that it is a real challenge to pull in people outside campuses and reach the rest of the world. “It won’t happen naturally,” she said. “We need to push ourselves and give conveners more tools. We need to build some other strands, like having forums on military bases.” Jean also said emphasizing videos more than print issue guides could be useful because few community groups read the issue guides. “Videos can get everyone focused and are pivotal in getting the meetings off on the right foot,” she said.


   William DiMascio


William DiMascio, laboring in Upper Arlington, Ohio, outside of Columbus, knows that “Now what?” feeling at the end of forums very well. He recalled that much of his experience running forums came from living for years in Pennsylvania, before he moved to Ohio in retirement. He said one day in Pennsylvania at the end of a forum, a mother stood up and said that she had attended the event despite the fact that she had three children to care for, homework to oversee, and chores left unfinished. In light of her sacrifice of time, she had one question about the impact of the forum: “What is going to come of this?” she said.


“I hear her voice in my head every time I run a forum,” Bill said. “A forum is not a rush to the ramparts. If you can get people to change their feeling a little bit, you have succeeded. If we get people to be a more thoughtful voter and a better citizen, it’s all good.” Bill is involved in engaging the community of Upper Arlington to navigate in a thoughtful way issues of taxation and double-digit percentage growth of the population predicted in the coming years. Members of the previous city council appeared to give lip-service to citizen opinions but the present council is far more open to public engagement, which Bill is only too happy to help provide.


Helping legislators deliberate


    Dolores Foley


Bill isn’t the only one influencing an elective body. Dolores Foley, who chairs the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has for years been holding forums for citizens in Hawaii’s state legislature.


With the help of Hawaii state Sen. Les Ihara, who encourages his fellow lawmakers to attend, Dolores has held multiple forums on immigration (Coming to America), climate change, endof- life issues, and Safety and Justice. The forums on immigration have special resonance in Hawaii, she said. “We see our state as a special place because of our diversity. When you have a forum on immigration, you find Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Japanese, and other races all in the same room. So there is typically sympathy and concern with how immigrants are treated, whether they came here legally or not.”


The work keeps her busy. The first week of April, for example, Dolores set up and helped moderate three forums on Coming to America, taking over three rooms in the legislature where about a dozen people each discussed the issue, including three state senators. Dolores credits the forums on end of life, held in the last decade, with educating participants on the issue and influencing legislation on palliative care and rights for patients with terminal diseases. Dolores hosted a conference late last year in December on civic issues in Hawaii and people wanted more training in moderating forums, she said. Foley hopes that NIF will consider an issue guide on homelessness. “There are a lot of myths concerning this issue,” she said. “It’s a big issue everywhere, but especially in Hawaii.”


Life-changing work in classrooms


     Kim Pearce


Kim Pearce, president of the CMM Institute, has taken Cosmokidz to two schools in Hammond, La., to help teachers develop students’ empathy and communication skills in 13 classes ranging from kindergarten to 2nd grade. Teachers spend 10 minutes a day reinforcing the S.O.A.R. message of Cosmokidz: Sense what’s around you, Open your hands to help others, Act with kindness, and Respect other people. The 10-minutes-a-day approach is brief, but powerful, making compassion and awareness of others part of the daily routine of young people. The children are also learning about deliberation by engaging in three modified deliberations on topics that are relevant to them. “It helps them develop social and civic intelligence at a very young age. They are really developing skills foundational to civic involvement,” Kim said.


It’s having an impact in this community, where the majority of public school children come from low-income families. Teachers have told her that they are seeing students help each other more and intervene when other students act unkindly. One kindergarten teacher said that now, “You will always hear my students say to each other, ‘talk it out first,’ when they have a problem.” As many as 200 parents and kids attended an evening at the school recently to share some pizza and listen to student presentations from every class about what they are learning. Parents at the gathering said that their children are listening better, helping more and becoming more respectful at home.


“We are living in a culture that, too often, is marked by polarization and nastiness. The communication skills these young children are learning are helping them deal with difference in productive ways, solve problems together and develop compassion for others. This becomes the foundation for their ability to be civically minded, and I am so inspired by the teachers who are helping their students learn this,” Kim said.


Stacie Molnar-Main


Stacie Molnar-Main is also working on helping students learn—through teachers. She and two veteran educators are busy exposing teachers to ways they can use deliberation in the classroom. She, teacher Lori McGarry, and Donnan Stoicovy, a retired principal who used deliberation throughout her K-5 elementary school, are creating a one-hour webinar, “Healthy Classroom Talk: Using Deliberation to Build Academic and Civic Skills,” to introduce teachers in Pennsylvania to deliberation. It will be available through “School Health Spotlights,” an initiative of the Highmark Foundation. In March, Stacie, along with teachers Kevin Kreig and Sarah Schneck, did a presentation titled, “Reframing Curricula: Teaching History and Controversial Issues through Deliberation” at the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies annual conference. She also manned an NIF vendor booth during the conference.


Stacie sees great opportunity in the need for most teachers to take courses and workshops every year; most states require educators to complete ongoing professional development courses and webinars about deliberation can be part of that, Stacie said. “If teachers can watch a 30-minute webinar, carefully curated to address certain questions, opportunities or problems of practice, it would give them tools to start deliberation,” she said. The webinar, “Healthy Classroom Talk,” could serve as a pilot.


Stacie has also convened a committee to discuss an award for teachers in memory of Libby Kingseed, who led Kettering’s Deliberation in Education workgroups for years. The committee will explore ways to establish an endowed fund that will give small grants for emerging teachers to engage in deliberation, particularly those connected to the Centers for Civic Life, and other projects. Stacie promises a concept paper on the criteria for the award and possible fund-raising opportunities soon.


A national conversation


Sandy Heierbacher


Sandy Heierbacher spent the spring coordinating activities that occurred during the National Week of Conversation, April 20-28. Planning for the week began last year when the Bridge Alliance Education Fund convened a group of energetic volunteers, Sandy among them, to help Americans hold conversations with each other about issues they care about. The reasoning behind holding the week is simple: “The last few years have been hard on conversations. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that our inability to engage civilly with one another has reached a crisis level,” the website, explains. NIF is one of the 100 or so partners behind this needed week of civil talk.


Sandy worked with the Boston Public Library to schedule seven dialogues on various issues that took place in three conference rooms April 24, among them Safety and Justice. People signed up ahead of time to attend the issue discussion closest to their hearts; members of the public were also welcome to join with no prior notice. “It is an opportunity to let people know that dialogue is a way to bridge divides. We planned the week hoping thousands of dialogues would take place,” Sandy said. She sees it as a great opportunity to reach more people and le 

them know about NIF activities and the potential of deliberation.


     Lisa Strahley


But the reach, and engagement, always comes down to individual stories. Lisa Strahley, for example, has been demonstrating the power of deliberation for six years now. The chair of the Teacher Education and Early Childhood Education Department at SUNY Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York, she’s been introducing deliberation to a wide variety of teachers and classes. She is also coordinator of civic engagement on campus, and she conducted an in-depth, 4-day training in deliberation with 12 area high school health teachers. Students in the health classes use deliberative guides to talk about difficult issues such as obesity, mental illness, and substance abuse. Lisa has also developed a parallel class in which high school students go to college and engage in deliberation. The college students then volunteer to help the high school students run their own forums. “When kids feel like their voice matters, their participation increases,” Lisa said.


   Gregg Kaufman


Understanding disagreements and finding a way to talk about them is a big part of the work of Gregg Kaufman in Jacksonville, Florida. A retired Lutheran minister, he helped organize 11 Safety and Justice forums in the Jacksonville area in which a total of 176 people participated. His work in deliberation with churches in Florida includes both Christian and Islamic faith centers. He has also worked with Lutheran congregations to use deliberation to discuss domestic violence and the issue of shared ministry with same-sex couples and their families. Both have been difficult topics for Lutheran congregations in the past.


     John Unger


Religion is also a bridge for the work of John Unger, who is a minister as well as a West Virginia state senator. He helped start an interdenominational group in Harper’s Ferry called “In Pursuit of Happiness” to take an in-depth look at what constitutes happiness in their community. “We wanted the faith-based community to be a safe place where people could come together and talk,” he said. He also went to Russia recently with the Dartmouth Conference and found a surprising kinship with a Russian Orthodox clergyman who was also participating in Dartmouth. He talked to John about his worries concerning the vulnerability of congregations to terrorist infiltration; John talked to him about the ravages of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. Unsurprisingly, they found common ground. A few weeks later, in October, John held one of the first public forums to use the National Issues Forums book on the opioid epidemic, then in draft form. “We had over 50 people come,” John said. “They were a diverse group— young and old, people in the community and outsiders, people in recovery and even some who are drug users.” He is planning more forums in January, when “the floodgates will open,” John said. “What always comes out after every forum is that we need to have more of these conversations.”


   Kara Lindaman


Kara Lindaman began working with the American Democracy Project (ADP) in 2002. She thought she would be involved for two years. Now, 15 years later, she is the campus coordinator for ADP at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, and she incorporates deliberation in all her classes. She isn’t the only one. Deliberation is also becoming institutionalized in other classes, as well as in the local community. The NIF “Making Ends Meet” guide has also become part of the ADP forums on economic inequality. Not only does civic outreach sustain people, she says, “It gives them hope.” It’s what students need. Indeed, it’s what all of society needs. This is a small snapshot, if you will, of the work being done just by some NIFI directors. It isn’t a complete picture—far from it. The journey doesn’t begin and end with them. They influence others, and the work continues: a tangible network of sound democratic practices that contributes toward making civic life healthier and more meaningful. It is composed of citizens who realize that, even in a polarized era, they have the power to shape their communities.


   Peggy Sparks


Maura is continuing with her interviews and expanding some into profiles. One of these profiles will be about Curtis Sparks, who was tragically paralyzed by an accident while tending children at play. Many of you will remember Curtis’ mother, Peggy Sparks, a pioneering NIF convenor in Birmingham, Alabama. Despite being largely immobile, Curtis is moderating NIF forums. Hopefully, the story Maura is writing will inspire others with disabilities to do the same.


A friend many of you know, Diane Eisenberg, is helping with NIF network development. Imagine it: a citizens’ network promoting public deliberation could be enormously beneficial in today’s political climate. Diane, with NIFI chief administrative officer Darla Minnich’s help, is developing a mailing list for a newsletter that will go to NIF veterans who have been active in recent years. If you still see some of these veterans, please send Darla their names. Darla’s address is


In a complementary project, Jean Johnson, NIFI Vice President, has worked with forum moderators to perfect skills. We are learning from this project what is most effective in explaining what is most distinctive about deliberation—how it differs from other forms of thinking and speaking. Jean’s report on what she learned about explaining deliberation will be available soon in print and on the NIF website.


Recently, there was a meeting with convenors about reaching out to groups that tend not to go to forums yet might join in deliberating in the places they do frequent—churches, for example, or farmers’ organizations. “If there are people who don’t come to our rooms, maybe we can get invited to their’s” is the strategy being discussed now. If you have suggestions about where these rooms are, send them to Darla Minnich. Kettering is also planning to do research on issues of concern to these groups.


A full report from the NIFI directors will be available on line at If you have questions or comments, Darla Minnich will be happy to respond. She can be reached at I hope my letters and the responses to them strengthen the NIF network, so let us hear what you are doing.


Warmest best wishes,