In a recent online meeting, Margaret Holt and Bill Muse, veteran National Issues Forums (NIF) moderators, conveners, and network leaders, shared their reflections about the question of how best to engage individuals and groups who are often underrepresented in deliberative forums.
Holt began by saying that she has had many conversations with people within and outside of the NIF network about the voices that many feel are underrepresented in deliberative forums. One example she shared included reports of contentious exchanges on social media such as Facebook that leave some feeling sad at the inability to have productive exchanges about issues, and noting that the divide seems to have gotten worse over time.
She has been thinking and writing about the question of how to make deliberative forums more inclusive and shared the following about assumptions, opportunities, and actions that may drive progress:
After almost 40 years of NIF forums, we realize that some categories of people are missing or underrepresented from many of the forums. What needs to happen to ensure that our forums are most inclusive?
Opportunities for Becoming More Inclusive:
- For those who we believe are already having conversations, learn more about these places and the nature of their exchanges - for example Sunday School classes, workers at their worksites, people in online communities, barbershops, hair salons, bars, union halls, PTAs, etc. Investigate the possibilities for being invited to places in their "cultures" where they talk about issues.
- Consider the cues, codes, and signals in language, and practices that trigger mistrust.*
- Invite others earlier in the processes of the forum process, such as naming, framing, planning, reporting, etc. Consider complementary approaches to planning and holding conversations.
- Evaluate and monitor our individual capacities for "building human relationships" and authentic "listening" - Begin with listening, ask questions "after listening."
- We need a library of resources and stories; share what works with the network.
- Are there "opportunities" generated by a pandemic to bring us together? (Inspire Atlanta, e.g.)
- Engage medical/mental health practitioners to help us by describing bad outcomes of anger, hostility, angst for individuals and communities. Benefits beyond democracy - (somewhat like Social Determinants of Health - SDOH, but instead Social Determinants of Democracy - SDOD?)
Read or reread:
a. With The People: An Introduction to an Idea by David Mathews
*b. Field Playbook on Engaging Conservatives in the #ListenFirst Movement to
Bill Muse began by reflecting that over the years there have been a variety of efforts by forum conveners to include usually underrepresented groups and individuals in forums.
Muse recounted one example: in the 1990s in Dayton, Ohio, some pastors of predominantly black churches and pastors of predominantly white churches decided to have forums for which one church would invite congregants of the other church to participate together in a monthly forum. Eventually twenty churches were involved in the project. He said that the forums also led to other shared activities such as cookouts, picnics, and doing other things together that led to real relationships between black and white churches in Dayton, Ohio. In archival public television footage, the mayor of Dayton at the time lauded the project as making a great contribution to race relations in Dayton.
Muse pointed out that it took the leadership on the part of the two pastors who started the project to make it work. Trying to replicate that kind of project may not succeed if key leaders (such as church pastors) are not supportive of the efforts. If the influential forces in an organization or group are not in favor of a project, it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to keep any momentum going.
Muse also recounted his experience with a forum that included older white men and young black men that at first seemed unlikely to succeed but ended up being a great deliberation. He credits the success of the forum to the willingness of the older men to show that they would listen to what the younger men had to say.
“We all have to work at it – on bringing different segments of the community together,” Muse said, “because once they have experienced it, they will want to continue to do that.” He noted that it is also helpful to bring more than one person from an underrepresented group into a forum to make it a more comfortable situation for them.
Margaret Holt is a retired faculty member in the Department of Adult Education at the University of Georgia, and since 1981 has been an associate with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. She is one of six founders of the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, a nonprofit organization that annually awards scholarships to older women pursuing higher education.
Bill Muse is president emeritus of the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), a non-profit nonpartisan network that, in partnership with the Kettering Foundation, publishes issue guides on major problems facing the nation and works with groups to conduct deliberative forums around the country. NIFI is based in Dayton, Ohio.