The following is from David Mathews, Chair of the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI).
TO: The NIFI Board Members and the NIF Network
FROM: David Mathews, Chair of the National Issues Forums Institute
DATE: November 22, 2019
RE: An opportunity not to miss
Our veteran New York Times editorial writer, Maura Casey, is doing a great job of collecting stories about deliberative forums and the people who are organizing them. Sometimes I put her stories in a letter from the chair. Sometimes (like this time), I send them as a memo.
The year 2020 is going to be very special. There is a chance that, by working together, we could bring more public judgment to bear on the election because of a unique partnership of the media and NIF. Public Agenda (the organization that began this initiative), USA TODAY, some public radio stations, NIFI, and the Kettering Foundation are all involved; it’s big news.
USA TODAY wants to try another way of covering an election and has identified four major topics it will focus on: health care, immigration, the economy, and divisiveness. Kettering is using its research to provide nonpartisan issue guides. The NIF network will convene forums on these issues. NIFI will provide online forums. Kettering will, as it always has, report on the results from the forums. Public Agenda will contribute its survey research on areas where people are more in agreement than recognized. (Public Agenda describes this as its Hidden Common Ground Initiative.)
We may be about to show how the average American sees the electoral issues, what people do when faced with difficult choices, and where there are ways that the country can move forward, even when there is no unanimous consensus on any issue. There may be opportunities in USA TODAY and other media outlets to share what happens in these forums.
My purpose in writing is to urge you to convene forums and to encourage others to do the same. Many studies show democracy is in trouble. Here is an opportunity to strengthen it.
NIFI Board Members: Fostering Deliberation in Kindergarten, Communities, and Congress
NIFI Board Report, May and December 2019
NIFI board members go to extraordinary lengths to promote deliberations among citizens. They work with children, members of Congress, college students, and their own churches; they drive for hours here in the U.S. and travel to other countries to promote forums on shared public problems. They understand, as few do, that deliberation is a way for people to consider others’ viewpoints and avoid the partisan rancor that has immobilized our national conversation. Ultimately, they come at this from as many different directions as there are NIFI board members, and what follows is an eclectic roundup of their many activities.
Ike Adams lives in Kentucky, but for the last two years has driven eight hours to the Mississippi Delta to run public forums. He has concentrated on convening forums in Cleveland, his home town, and the traditionally African American town of Mound Bayou. Citizens attending Ike’s forums began deliberating on national issues and are expanding their scope to include local issues.
He convened two deliberative forums early this year, one on the opioid epidemic and another using the issue guide A House Divided. They were held at a community health clinic that has been a vital part of the town of Mound Bayou for more than 40 years and were well attended. The forum on the opioid epidemic was incredibly diverse, with elderly, young people, and health professionals all bringing their own perspectives in deliberating together about how to address the problem. Ike has also moderated two forums on economic prosperity, one held at a restaurant and another at a church. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We want the people to own these forums, so we will do this work at our own pace.”
In October, 18 people signed up for moderator training, and 8 more observed. Erin Payseur Oeth, formerly of Baylor University but now at the University of Mississippi, offered to train the moderators. She is an experienced hand in deliberation and has attended workshops at the Kettering Foundation. Ike is excited that four young people were among those who want moderator training.
“I left Mississippi to go to college for two years, thinking I would get an education and come back. It’s taken me nearly 50 years to move back,” Ike said.
Jule Zimet and her posse of volunteers have kept greater El Paso, Texas deliberating since 1983. This year is no different. During the first months of the year she held three forums, one each in March, April, and May. The three forums used the guides A House Divided, A Nation in Debt, and Keeping America Safe.
Yet little in her years of deliberation prepared Jule for the challenge she faced in the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting. In August, a gunman entered a Wal-Mart and, targeting Hispanics, killed 22 and wounded 26. Her committee of volunteers, which keeps her corner of Texas deliberating together about public issues, supported forums on the issue of mass shootings. But despite having three committee meetings, their hearts weren’t into holding the forums so soon after the murders. “For each of us, the shooting was really very personal. This was a hate crime in a community that is overwhelmingly Hispanic. Everyone knows somebody who worked at the Wal-Mart or was almost at the Wal-Mart that day. I think we have not processed it enough,” she said. As an alternative, the committee will make deliberating on mass shootings its first forum next year, in February. Jule is also looking into having a therapist attend the forum to support the people who are engaging in the deliberation.
“These things are tough. I don’t think you get over them,” Jule said. And yet, how fortunate is the El Paso community to have Jule and those who engage in the good work of deliberation.
Anyone in need of hope should talk to Kim Pearce, head of the nonprofit CMM Institute for Personal and Social Evolution, who continues her extraordinary work helping very young children develop communication, empathy, and citizenship skills. For the last three years in Hammond, Louisiana, Woodland Park Elementary School pupils from kindergarten to second grade have used CosmoKidz activities to help them develop kindness, and to aid in deliberations and decision-making. Parents and teachers have been delighted to see the good things that happen when children are encouraged every day to SOAR (Sense what’s around you, Open your hands to help others, Act with kindness, Respect other people), part of the CosmoKidz daily routine. Parents have noticed the difference in their children becoming better listeners; teachers have overheard their pupils intervene in disagreements, telling each other, “You have to talk it out.”
Kim is also working with a K-4 grade school in Independence, Louisiana, that is entirely deliberative. They have daily conversations about their experiences using the Cosmokidz activities that help deepen and expand empathy and the CosmoTweenz activities that help the older kids do the same. The school will hold deliberations throughout the year, and as usual, Kim will be involved, encouraging teachers and students alike.
Because older students also (perhaps especially) need help managing their social and emotional lives, the CMM Institute developed a third through fifth grade activity using a deck of 51 cards. Each card has a different scenario, and all were developed by students of the same age in the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, and Romania. The topics are divided into home, school, and friends, and the activity is called Three Choices … and Then What Happens..........................The
purpose is not only to get “tweenz” to talk about these experiences, but also for them to realize, through talking and listening, that such experiences are shared. “So many times, they think they are the only one, and yet it is comforting to know that many others are going through the same things,” Kim said. “We want them to realize they are not alone.”
Jay Theis, professor of political science at the Kingwood Campus of Lone Star College, has been busy, as usual, on campus. He has held about five moderator training sessions for students. He also organizes about four deliberative forums a semester—about eight every school year—on public issues. Approximately 60 - 80 students attend the forums, Jay said. Forum attendance is aided by the fact that several professors ask their students to attend, while others assign forum participation as an option for extra credit.
But many of the students do not need prodding. “The students really like deliberative dialogue,” Jay said. “Kids are really starved for conversations on public issues beyond social media activism. They don’t get to talk in any depth.”
During late winter and early Spring, Jay helped students moderate deliberations on four different issues on his campus: Safety and Justice, The Political Divide, Keeping America Safe, and What Should Go on the Internet? “We spend January and February doing moderator training. Then the forums follow,” he said. Jay started a moderator’s club on campus for students. He requires his students to participate in five deliberations, bolstering the audience of any forum.
Student participation is more than just a good experience; it can also help keep students in college, Jay believes. He has been compiling and analyzing data on whether participating in deliberative forums on campus has a positive impact on student retention rates, and he is writing a paper to that effect. For example, in 2016, Lone Star students who participated had a 7 percent higher retention rate; those who joined the student civic engagement organization Public Achievement had an even better retention rate, 20 percent higher than students who didn’t join Public Achievement.
Not satisfied with his deliberative work at the college, Jay has begun holding forums the third Tuesday of every month at his church, Kingwood Christian Church. He expects to do 10 to 11 forums every year and aims for topics that would attract the larger community, such as Mass Shootings or No Child Left Behind. As always, Jay has his eye on the big picture. “My hope is to start with this church, get other churches involved, and eventually have a broader community conversation,” he said.
In January of this year, Lisa Strahley, coordinator of the Civic Engagement Center at SUNY Broome Community College, conducted a Public Voice forum on budget priorities for her community around Binghamton, New York. She invited local, state, and county public officials to meet with citizens and grapple with spending priorities. “Lots of people thanked them for coming and for working together,” Lisa said. “People appreciated being heard and engaging in a respectful conversation.” The effort was so successful that she’s planning to do another such forum to encourage greater public deliberation around budget priorities early in 2020.
When the New York State legislature proposed a bill legalizing marijuana in 2019, Lisa organized a communitywide forum on the issue. “It’s quite a complicated topic,” she said. “We did some presentations ahead of the forum just to give the audience some information.” A professor with a doctorate in biology gave a presentation on the impact of marijuana on the brain. A member of law enforcement talked about what the police needed to prepare for legalization, such as a simple test to determine when someone was driving while impaired due to marijuana use. Democratic Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo attended and gave the audience specifics on the bill. For their part, citizens considered the various concerns raised by the presentations and contributed their own experiences and feelings about the issue, Lisa said. Ultimately, the legislature did not vote on the state law, but it is likely to be proposed again.
On a separate note, Lisa had a deliberative campus forum on substance abuse using the NIF issue guide. In the spring, she plans to hold additional campus forums using the issue guide, Where Have All the Voters Gone? to get a jump on the 2020 election. “We want to help students be more savvy when they listen to debates, and understand not only what is being said, but what is being omitted,” Lisa said.
Matthew Johnson, who is an educational leadership professor at Central Michigan University, has been busy writing articles about how the field of student affairs can and should advocate for more deliberative practices. One article was published in the 2019 issue of the Kettering Foundation’s Higher Education Exchange. The other is slated for the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.
Matt is drawing on his past experience as a researcher at the Kettering Foundation in looking for “soft bricks” and helping change the approach to civic engagement on campus in the field of student affairs, which often relies on volunteer experience to impart democratic lessons. “Volunteer work is great, but it is more episodic than helping them work together to address shared problems in their communities,” he said. “I’d like to help the student affairs field recognize limitations in their approach and propose some solutions using the six democratic practices and using NIF material.”
Central Michigan is one of 15 public universities in that state, and it is increasingly worried about its falling student population. As a consequence, the university has set aside $3 million for innovation grants to help turn around the trend. Matt has teamed up with a political science professor to apply for a grant to establish a center for public affairs and engagement. He believes such a center can help anchor deliberative practices both within the university and in the broader community. Matt will hear the outcome in January, so we are all keeping our fingers crossed.
Kara Lindaman, of Winona State University in Minnesota, is also working with college professionals. She is helping them find ways to help students talk about difficult and divisive issues in deliberative ways. She has been working with a group of five student affairs professionals on an issue guide titled, Free Speech and Inclusive Campus: How Do We Foster the Campus Community We Want?
In January, she and her colleagues will roll out the guide to a larger audience in New Orleans at a gathering of the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals. It will also be released to a national conference in March, in Austin, Texas.
“Colleges want to be a marketplace of ideas, but sometimes fear immobilizes people. Often the faculty doesn’t know what to do,” Kara said. “The tension between free speech, wanting universities to be open to ideas, and responding to students who feel that anything goes when it comes to speech can be threatening. We want to help students navigate all of this in a helpful and constructive manner.”
Kara is helping her students get a sense of citizen power, ramping up her use of online deliberative forums on campus and in her political science classes at Winona State University in Minnesota. It has made for a busy winter and spring. In the first few months of this year, her students participated in four online forums, among them “Safety and Justice,” “Coming to America,” and “A House Divided” Her students also participated in the National Week of Conversation, held April 8-14.
Margaret Holt’s activities took place down the street from Capitol Hill. She spent part of the spring preparing for a May moderator training at the National Archives with members of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. They have written a guide based on the NIF approach titled, The Divided State of America: How Can We Get Work Done Even When We Disagree? Those involved will participate in a deliberative forum as part of their training, then practice as moderators to prepare for doing their own forums in their communities.
“It is a wonderful way to help them think about deliberation. As much as I like that we prepare guides, I love it when people around the country frame their own,” she said. “I really feel that once people get their mind around how deliberation is not debating, then when any issue comes up in people’s lives, they use their deliberative thinking to talk about these other issues. They see that issues can be addressed with multiple approaches, and the hard but necessary work is the weighing and choosing among actions, trade-offs, and consequences.”
Margaret is a natural networker. Armed with material about deliberative practices and citizen forums that she has compiled since 1981, she is spreading the word among lawmakers and judges that adopting these practices would help them be more effective in reaching citizens and understanding their concerns. She sends research reports to public officials, such as Mayor Dave Sheron of Watkinsville, Georgia, who told her that he found the information very useful. Georgia State Rep. Deborah Gonzalez used deliberative forums as a way to connect with constituents; now she is using the same approach as she runs for Western Circuit district attorney, an election that will take place in 2020. And Margaret has invited judges to forums that discuss alternatives to incarceration, just to expose them to different approaches.
Margaret is also working with the Russell Library at the University of Georgia and the anti-gun group, Mothers Demand Action, to hold a deliberative forum on what to do about mass shootings. “Forums and deliberation are healthy ways of communicating, and we need more of them,” Margaret said.
Nancy Kranich, Rutgers professor and librarian extraordinaire, has had a busy fall. In September, she co-led the third working meeting of the US-Russia Dialogue on the Civic Role of Libraries in the 21st Century. The Russians and Americans who attended the dialogue divided their time between Chicago and Urbana, Illinois. The librarians began meeting annually beginning in 2017 as a subgroup of the Dartmouth Conference with the encouragement of the Kettering Foundation and the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature. This group of Russian and American librarians agreed on a joint statement of support of their libraries’ roles in contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “The goals are broad-based ideals,” Nancy said. “Libraries worldwide are focusing on them.” She said that both in America and Russia, libraries have become de facto community centers, uniquely positioning them to foster the UN goals locally.
Nancy has been working with the American Library Association, of which she is a former president, to encourage voter registration prior to the 2020 election. She just completed work with a voter drive at Rutgers; such activities, Nancy said, are a natural extension of the role that libraries play in the community. “Libraries have long been involved in voter registration, and many libraries were designated polling places,” she pointed out. Through the ALA, she is also working with the Purple Project to help bring about greater faith in American Democracy, particularly since confidence levels in our system of government are at historic lows. The Purple Project is a non-partisan media and education campaign involving a coalition of leading American institutions to spark interest in and understanding of our democracy.
Nancy has also written an article revisiting her 2001 book, Libraries and Democracy, scheduled to be published in the Library Quarterly next spring. In it, she argues that libraries can be more connected to the communities they serve through democratic practices. In recent years, Nancy remarked, “Libraries of all types have deepened their work engaging citizens, providing local opportunities for people to come together and bridge their differences in respectful ways.” Among those engaging this transformative effort are the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute.
For three years, Nancy has been building up her own legacy endowment fund through the American Library Association. It now tops $60,000, large enough to begin giving some small grants to encourage community engagement and more deliberative practices among libraries. Nancy admits she is excited about its potential. “I want libraries to do innovative things, and use the money for any actions in communities to help create dialogue and bring people together,” she said.
Michael Neblo, a faculty member at Ohio State University and founding director of the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA), has also been busy this year. He has testified before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on innovations in public engagement, calling the committee an “underappreciated gem.”
Yet Michael, too, has been doing great work encouraging members of Congress to try new ways of reaching the public. So far, he has met with 40 congressional offices about using deliberative online town halls to contact constituents and listen to their concerns and how they are weighing them with regard to various pressing issues. Michael said that only two offices were lukewarm about trying it, and several were so enthusiastic they organized town halls in coordination with other offices. He’s worked with four members of Congress since May to hold online town halls and is currently working with six more.
Interest is bipartisan: Of the 18 members he has worked with to hold deliberative online town halls, 11 are Democratic and 7 are Republican. Michael has met with the offices of Senate Minority leader Charles Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to see whether they would recommend this approach as a best practice—no word yet on that score from the leadership. In the meantime, the Congressional Management Foundation is sending a copy of Michael’s book, Politics With the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy, (co- authored with Kevin Esterling and David Lazer)to every member of Congress. One way or another, it’s certain that Michael will help Capitol Hill adapt in new ways, and hopefully more deliberative ways, to the old problem of engaging with constituents.
In the spring, Cristin Foster Brawner, director of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Montevallo, Alabama, organized and held public deliberations on health and well-being in 13 counties to help identify challenges and solutions. “The sessions were more informal than one led by an issue guide,” Cristin said. Nonetheless, there is a sense of urgency about the issues because many areas have high rates of obesity, chronic health issues, and a number of rural hospitals have closed.
What surprised her? “People explicitly discussed the food deserts, areas which don’t have access to grocery stores, and communities have organized to bring the stores in,” she said. One such success story is the small town of Thomaston, population 378, which helped bring in a store that sells groceries at cost plus 10 percent. “That’s what I love about my job,” Cristin said. “I have a front-row seat to watch citizens take power in their own hands.”
In August, she hosted the center’s fourth annual Civic Institute. The Center planned for 200, but 225 attended from across Alabama. “It was more than sold out!” Cristin said. The institute featured interactive sessions with mayors, university partners, elected officials, teachers, and administrators. A panel discussion gave feedback on the first chapter of Kettering’s forthcoming book, With, and sessions included Geographical Imaginations: The Role of Recuperative Storytelling in Southern History and Identity and The Benefit of the Doubt: Preparing Ourselves for Authentic Engagement and Productive Disagreement. “It felt like we had all our friends in one room,” Cristin said.
In coordination with Mark Wilson, who directs community engagement at Auburn University, the center also produced an issue guide that discusses Alabama’s past and how to deal with historical monuments that, to some, glorify painful episodes in the state’s history. The issue guide, titled Monuments, Memorials, & Memory: How Should We Remember the Past in Alabama?, is now posted on the center’s website for anyone to download. It has proven very popular with schools across the state.
Mark Wilson has plenty of opportunities to bring people together at Auburn University, particularly as the university offers a minor in civic and community engagement. In the spring, he was busier than usual, keeping up with the interest from schools and teachers around Alabama in using the issue guide involving the Creek Indian civil war, especially since Alabama is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Mark is Auburn’s director of The Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, and through the center, he is increasing the number of teacher workshops on deliberation and using deliberative issue guides.
Regarding his work on the issue guide Monuments, Memorials, & Memory, Mark said, “This is where the NIF network is so helpful.” Gregg Kaufman’s issue guide on the same subject in Jacksonville showed how such a divisive subject can be framed to encourage more productive deliberation. “This issue didn’t start yesterday and it won’t be solved tomorrow, but we would like to develop networks as a resource for those who want to make progress on the issue,” he said.
Gary Paul is a consummate networker, besides being a political science professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. He is particularly conscious of the role and potential of historically black colleges and universities, including his own institution, in holding forums. Gary has made an alliance with Howard University with an eye toward increasing opportunities for public deliberations on criminal justice reform, both on campus and off. “Most black colleges and universities are clustered on the East Coast. My hope is that Howard can work with those in the Eastern part of the country, and Florida A&M would work with those in the South,” he said. He also wants to see more colleges involved with the work of the National Issues Forums. “Being civically involved should not be a side note,” he said.
Gary said he also is working on encouraging the social responsibility offices of corporations to sponsor deliberative forums on various issues. “We would work with their social advocacy departments to have issue forums so citizens would have more opportunities to voice their social justice concerns,” he said.
Since July, Charles Moses has been getting accustomed to the Bay Area and his new role as interim dean of the University of San Francisco School of Management. Now that he is settled in, he is making plans to introduce students to deliberation. For one, students are upset about two tuition increases in the last year, and they need more constructive ways of communicating with the college administration, something other than shouting and protesting. The administration, too, could use better communication skills. Charles feels a particular responsibility to help students and the student government organize deliberative forums on the issue. Stay tuned!