On April 19, 2008, thirty advocates for dialogue, deliberation and community engagement in the Central Texas region gathered at the LBJ Library for a “learning summit.”
Participants represented a range of sectors – civic, government, business, non-profit/NGO, education – with a myriad of expertise and knowledge both on issues and approaches, from smaller-scale group dialogues to large, multi-stakeholder initiatives.
There was no magic or mystery to how participants were selected. The planning team simply brainstormed until we had 50 potential invitees with the understanding that 1) we could physically and design-wise handle 30-40 and 2) this was only the first gathering of what we hope will become a sustainable network.
The initiative for this gathering came from the growing number of people in Central Texas dedicated to engaging citizens in dialogue about deep-seated community problems and finding opportunities for people to meaningfully engage with each other in building relationships. Momentum has been building for five years and dozens of informal networks were already engaging with each other.
But the upcoming National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation 2008 conference in Austin; the resources of Patricia Wilson and students in the courses she teaches on participatory planning, civic engagement, facilitation, conflict resolution, and group process design; the leadership of the LBJ Presidential Library; and the persistent and gentle persuasion of Diane Miller (gentle? Diane? she may look it, but who are we kidding here?) ultimately led to a formal gathering of these amazing D&D practitioners. This unique gathering of regional practitioners even drew the attention of NCDD.
The summit was organized and sponsored by:
- Patricia Wilson, Director of the Civic Engagement Initiative of the UT Center for Sustainable Development
- Taylor Willingham, Coordinator for Texas Forums an initiative of the LBJ Presidential Library
- Jenny Meigs, MP.Affairs Candidate 2008, LBJ School of Public Affairs
- Susan Schultz, Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution
- Diane Miller, Chair Central Texas 2008 NCDD Conference Planning Team
- and the planning committee: Steven Fearing, Erin Kreeger, Charles Knickerbocker, and Landon Shultz
We identified four outcomes for the day and Charles Knickerbocker (who is our much-appreciated “accountability guru”) provided potential metrics for measuring our movement toward those outcomes:
Inform: Acquaint participants with National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) and the upcoming conference in Austin.
Metric: Track with NCDD and record the number of participants that register for the conference.
Learn: Share and capture key learning, insights, and challenges related to dialogue and deliberation in community work.
a) Identify specific local D&D efforts that could be used as examples of NCDD’s ‘Seven Challenges Facing the D&D Community’;
b) Members of the NCDD_CenTX team (to be determined) will then document these examples (according to a format yet to be determined) for presentation at the conference.
Build: Strengthen professional connections and personal relationships.
Metric: All participants will have complete contact information for each other and will spend quality time in dialogue in small groups and with individuals from other small groups.
Provide the time and format for participants to identify opportunities for their continued collaboration.
Sustain: Understand the assets within the Central Texas D&D network, ways to support each other, and possible next steps.
Metric: Document in report, refer to CentTex D&D Development committee for recommendations
The agenda for the day drew upon the best thinking of several experienced facilitators and meeting agenda designers. Consolidating the best thinking of so many talented, passionate individuals involved negotiation and compromise carried out through multiple phone conversations and face-to-face meetings. But the planning team recognized the huge potential of this meeting and remained committed to a collaborative process.
- We “walked our talk”.
- We left ego at the door, challenged our own assumptions, and put personal agendas aside for the larger common good.
- Knowing that no agenda would ever be perfect, we were at least confident that we had integrated our best ideas.
- We also agreed that magic was possible no matter what the agenda given the talents and expertise of the invitees.
Steven Fearing, Jenny Meigs and Charles Knickerbocker did the heavy lifting, creating extensive, thoughtful and comprehensive pathways to our proposed outcomes. If I could remember the quote or process, I could sound brilliant here, but I can only recollect that there is a process where the dialogue continues until the answer emerges. I think it is from a Native American culture, perhaps the talking circle describe below by wikipedia and amended with my reflections bracketed [ ] and italicized:
A large circle [that sounds like us!] may continue over successive days [goodness! That’s definitely us!]. Discussion continues until consensus is reached, that is, no one objects to the proposed decision (it may be obvious that consensus has been reached [or they may be worn out!]; or the speaker may say that they are “testing for consensus”, silence denotes agreement), or until the stick has been passed around the whole circle once in silence. [not sure we were ever silent, but we did agree to move forward.]
But the NAME of the process that we followed is NOT important. What IS important is the level of trust in our relationships that emerged, the learning we have shared, AND the fact that we successfully created a process for a powerful, creative day with talented individuals we want to include in our growing network of D&D practitioners!
We prepared an agenda for the facilitators that provided more extensive scripting and background information. We enlisted the support of Sunni Brown, founder of BrightSpot Information Design to provide graphic facilitation and to design templates to guide the small group work. We also asked Rod Reyna, Mary Thompson, Susan Schultz and Tobin Quereau to assist with facilitating the small group work.
Participants were invited via a personal e-mail from Diane Miller followed by an e-vite and a reminder one week before the event.
Prior to the meeting, participants received an agenda and a document, Emerging Themes prepared by UT student Jenny Meigs. This document was based on a dozen interviews with local D&D practitioners. A handful of people met over breakfast at Casa de Luz, (the only organic, vegan, macrobiotic restaurant in Austin) to identify recurring themes in the interviews. (Pretty tough on us coffee drinkers to meet that early in such a healthy place, but we’re confident with the quality of the work we did!)
The emergent themes were:
- Designing Processes from a Systems Perspective
- Moving from Dialogue to Action
- Meeting Public Expectations and Changing Perceptions
- Getting Real about Power and Diversity
- Creating Safety to Allow Vulnerability
- Going Deeper Towards Wholeness
While these themes did not drive the agenda, our hope was that we could replicate, on a larger scale and WITH caffeine, the experience several of us had at Casa de Luz.
So we gathered 30 participants on the 19th at the LBJ Library. We provided EXTRA strong coffee from Jason’s Deli (the difference between an event organized by caffeine-addicted Taylor vs. healthful-minded Patricia who is determined to poison us all with her good habits!) as well as fresh fruit (Patricia has had SOME impact on me), morning breads and orange juice. (Apologies to Oliver Markley for the lack of decaf. I haven’t gone THAT far to the healthful side, yet.)
Long-time Texas Forums member Mike Aaron served as the greeter welcoming participants, passing out name tags, providing introductions and confirming contact information.
The room was arranged such that we could accommodate up to five tables of eight people, but we consolidated our configuration to four tables of seven people, leaving the middle table open for the myriad of facilitators we called into action.
(“How many facilitators does it take to screw in a light bulb? We don’t know, they’re still designing the process!)
Within minutes of our scheduled start time of 9:00, LBJ Library Director Dr. Betty Sue Flowers welcomed the participants and invited them to enjoy the current museum display, Bills, Bills, Bills. Then everyone went to work sharing their stories and the lessons they were learning while Sunni worked her magic on the white chart paper posted along the glass wall of the LBJ Library’s Brown Room.
[note: this chart is this author’s chicken scratch layout of the room set up provided to the UT maintenance crew and should not be confused with the artistic charts prepared by Ms. Brown and posted in future blog updates!
The opening discussion of our session along with the really artistic recording of Ms. Brown will be covered in the next blog posting.