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Posts Tagged ‘Texas Forums’

NOTE: For more information about this project, check out the following:

Earlier this week I participated in a Kettering symposium at the National Press Club to discuss the findings of their recent report, Helping Students Succeed: Communities Confront the Achievement Gap. A prestigious panel with students, a parent, school administrators and teachers, researchers and a mayor were on hand to share their response to this report that documented what happened in ten communities around the country when people came together to deliberate what they could do to help close the Achievement Gaps. Our own Dr. Patty Shafer, San Marcos School Superintendent was on hand to talk about the impact that the community dialogues have had on how people in her community now work together to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.

Over the years I have written in this blog about this project in Central Texas and Texas Forums’ fruitful partnership with E3 Alliance and the many school districts and community members that have pledged time, energy and resources to work together on education with an eye toward regional solutions. My next step in this venture will be to work with the Blueprint Team for Goal 4: Central Texas as a community prepares children to succeed. Stay tuned for more postings about community engagement and evaluating progress toward this hard to measure goal.

But back to the DC symposium…

I was proud to represent Central Texas at this symposium and even more proud that our work is prominently featured in a forthcoming documentary about this project. We had a chance to preview the trailer for this documentary at a working luncheon following the symposium.

During the working luncheon following the symposium, I was charged to lead a discussion about the Achievement Gaps and to take notes for the Kettering Foundation. Below are snippets from our conversation.

What in your judgment is the most significant finding from the study? Did anything surprise you?

Several of the participants were surprised that so few people were familiar with the achievement gap issue. One participant wondered what this meant for the way the issue was named and framed. In other words, perhaps the public has a different perspective on what is really at issue when it comes to disparities in educational accomplishment. The project researcher noted that, based on his experience, those within the system hesitate to raise the issue of achievement gaps even to the extent of presenting data about the gaps in unfriendly, inaccessible formats so that the School Board would not readily detect the seriousness of the issue. Our superintendent countered that her annual performance review is heavily dependent upon being able to demonstrate strides toward closing the gaps. While many districts may be less than transparent about the data and may be reluctant to confront the issue, the ability to hide the seriousness of the issue may vary according to state reporting requirements. However, it is still clear that there is a huge disparity in the student achievement across the country as well as disparity in how much we know. One participant asked, “who is looking at this closest?”

One lunch guest commended the forum participants for their insight and willingness to confront the complexity of the issue and not grab at easy fixes. Instead, the forum participants rejected these easy fixes and moved beyond their pet cause or, as one participant described it, they gave up being “one trick pony advocates” and opened up to a range of possible actions. We briefly discussed how this shift occurred and concurred that the structure helps people bypass their firm notions about what should be done and makes it comfortable for them to entertain other options. The structure also creates the space for parents who have never been asked to realize “we can be part of the solution.” One participant cautioned that we must be diligent about the language that we use and aware of how language can keep people out of seeing themselves as part of the solution.

Since one of our participants had traveled to several sites to interview forums participants in depth for a documentary she is producing, we asked her to compare how different communities were defining he cause of the achievement gaps. In Central Texas, the primary driver (San Marcos community in particular) was the changing demographic and rapid growth of the ELL population.

She reported that poverty was also an issue in San Marcos, but not in the same widespread way it was expressed in Helena where poverty seems to be fueling a sense of hopelessness. The hopelessness is exacerbated by the concern that an improvement in the school and in the outcomes for children would lead to youth flight and the demise of the community. And yet, the community seems stymied from making the kind of improvements (renovating old buildings, attracting new business) that would be necessary to attract employers that could provide stimulating economic opportunities for new graduates. As one Helena participant noted in the documentary trailing, “the running joke is, ‘the last person out of Helena, turn out the light.’”

The gaps in Bridgeport are caused not just by poverty, but by the allocation of resources. While many in the community are poor, participants identified the disparity in resources between schools as an important consideration. Students feel safe while at school, but they don’t have the same level of security in their communities.

Because we were fortunate to have three young scholars in our group, I asked them how these conversations about the achievement gaps relate to their recent (more so than the rest of us at the table) high school experiences.

Astonishingly, one young woman raised in New Mexico responded, “It would have been great if someone had cared about this at my school.” She then relayed a story about being bused to a school south of town where there was a “mish-mash” of kids, what could have been a rewarding multi-cultural learning experience, but was really a holding place for kids who were given no direction, incentives, or experiences. It was the opposite of what Dr. Edmund Gordon (a panelist at the National Press Club) described as a community dedicated to education that included a school. Instead, the picture she painted was of a walled-in school in the middle of rich cultural opportunities that the students never experienced. [Ed. Note: Dr. Gordon is a brilliant thinker with remarkably diverse and deep scholarship and I felt blessed to be in attendance for his comments. Check out his biography and this brief video tribute from EdLab – Teachers College, Columbia University to him for more information.] Of her school of approximately 400 students, only100 students graduated (admittedly some moved away, and a meager 5 ventured out of state to pursue higher education opportunities. Other participants noted that even in the shadow of our nation’s capitol, there are entire school districts whose students have never visited the Smithsonian.

The experience of a young woman who went to high school in Denver was equally as dismal. She described multiple gaps – the number who did or did not complete high school, those who held high grade marks vs. those who did not, and those who pursued academic studies. She remembers having these conversations as she speculated on what it meant and why it occurred that she was only one out of two Black students in the Advanced Placement track at her high school, but she doesn’t remember that any of these conversations were intended to uncover the reason nor did they result in any changes.

A third young scholar did not remember any conversations about this topic in her school and was impressed to learn that students in the forum wanted adults to have high expectations of them. She reflected on how the naming of the problem indicates who will be involved in “fixing” the problem. The issues of education and youth seem so personal and so local that there is a danger of losing this when the issue becomes national or global.

Returning to the earlier challenges in Helena one participant summarized the tension facing communities, particularly the rural and declining communities: How do you preserve a local way of life while exposing kids to the world beyond? Some piece of the solution may be found in examining communities like York PA which has become a multi-ethnic community where kids grow up and go to college, but after they graduate, marry and start a family, many of them return to York because it offers a way of life that they want to give to their children.

Ultimately, our table agreed that education must be more broadly defined as an ongoing activity that occurs in lots of places, not just in school and that the over-riding question we must seek to answer is:

How can we make sure that
every student has every opportunity to succeed that they need?

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On November 4, twenty-five students, faculty, and administrators at St. Edward’s University (SEU) participated in a deliberative forum on Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role. Organized by the SEU New College, the university’s program for working adults, the goal of the forum was to explore different ways that students can learn and practice their roles as citizens.

During the two and a half hour forum, participants explored the role of higher education in helping students to recognize their own unique contribution to our democracy and discussed ways to inspire them to become engaged citizens. Using a discussion guide prepared by the National Issues Forums Institute, participants considered three perspectives of what it would take to reclaim the public’s role in democracy.

Even though participants agreed the the university needs to provide students with opportunities for citizen engagement, the group recognized various barriers within educational institutions and within society that can prevent people from participating fully.

The lack of trust in government, the disconnect people feel with the process, the inability to talk about tough issues without polarizing around the differences, the loss of our public spaces used for public deliberation – all of these items were explored with a spirit of curiosity and respect. One of the most compelling ideas to come out of the discussion was an awareness that civic engagement in the future might look very different than what it has looked like in the past.

While it wasn’t immediately clear how dialogue and deliberation could be used more fully on campus, there seemed to be agreement that the skills would be important for SEU graduates, and that students could use these skills out in the community as they talk about issues that matter to them. New College is also considering whether or not to use this process in their required mission courses that every student takes upon entering New College. The university has already scheduled a follow up to the forum, which will be a two day Moderator Training on Jan. 8-9 on the St. Edward’s campus.

Following the event, Vicki Totten, who helped organize the event for New College faculty and students, said

I am excited about the potential of using dialogue and deliberation to help students talk about difficult issues in the classroom.

She added that deliberation might be an important foundation for any student, since in order to work on difficult issues, it is important to be able to know how to move a discussion from a debate toward true dialogue.

Another important aspect of the deliberative model is that it emphasizes the need to understand the important role that values play in forming our perspectives, an important hallmark of a St. Edward’s education.

This forum, a project of the LBJ Presidential Library was one of dozens of forums being held by all twelve presidential libraries across the country, and made possible with funding from the National Archives and Records Administration and the National Issues Forums.

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The Vice-Chancellor’s Office for Public Engagement at the University of Illinois will be hosting a Public Engagement and Technology Symposium on March 9. Since I will be in Illinois for my on-campus session with students in my online Community Engagement class, I’ve signed up to present the Texas Forums collaboration with E3 Alliance.

Just in case any of you are planning to be in Urbana-Champaign on March 9, here’s what you can expect from this gathering:

Your participation will provide faculty, staff, student, and community partners the opportunity to share innovative ideas and approaches to engagement activities in and outside the classroom.

THEMES OF THE SYMPOSIUM

Through a free flowing, open forum atmosphere, poster/resource table sessions, participant idea exchanges, 20-minute presentations and 50-minute panel discussions, participants will be engaged in the following themes:

  • Strategies in public engagement; Carnegie Community Engagement Classification Overview
  • Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental
  • Dialogs with Communities
  • Learning through the Ages
  • New Ways with Technology

That “Dialogs with Communities” bullet dot is Texas Forums! Below is the description of the session I will be leading:

Texas Forums is a network of individuals and organizations that use dialogue and deliberation to tackle difficult community problems like health care and education. E3 Alliance, a regional collaborative to increase economic outcomes by aligning education systems in Central Texas worked with Texas Forums to develop community-led action plans to close the education gaps and increase economic outcomes for individuals and the region. As a research partner with the Kettering Foundation, E3 and Texas Forums adapted the National Issues Forums deliberative framework and developed a process to move people through a structured dialogue about potential strategies for closing the education gaps.

It will be a jam-packed day with over 70 sessions to choose from. HMMMM, wonder if we could do the same thing in Texas and partner with universities in Central Texas?

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The participants in the small groups at the Central Texas D&D Summit had almost forty-five minutes to share the lessons and insights they have gained during the course of their dialogue and deliberation work.

Steven Fearing set up the groups with the following comments.

  • This meeting is not a workshop on dialogue and deliberation techniques. Instead it is an opportunity for us to get to know each other and to document what we have done and learned. More importantly, we want to build relationships and find out how we can work together in the future.
  • You will be working in small groups at five tables
  • Each table has a facilitator
  • You have a template prepared by Sunni where you can capture in words and pictures from your group’s dialogue.
  • You will have 45 minutes for this portion and should feel free to take breaks as needed
  • Goal for our time in these small groups is to share and capture key learning, insights, and challenges related to dialogue and deliberation in community work.
  • After 45 minutes, we will come together to capture common themes – such as assets and resources, challenges and opportunities. Sunni will help us integrate all of the ideas we discuss in our groups and chart on our templates into a graphic narrative.

Each group had a beautiful graphic map drawn by Sunni Brown where they could capture their insights. The groups were lightly facilitated by Rod Reyna, Susan Schultz, Tobin Quereau, and Mary Thompson. The facilitators charged the participants:

  • Think of a time when you brought people together to work on an issue or community problem. What lessons have you learned about using dialogue and deliberation for helping people work together? These may be lessons you learned from your successes or things you learned that you would do differently.
  • Think also about challenges you have faced and what you would like to do better, and
  • What else do you need to be more effective in using dialogue and deliberation in your work with communities?

Here are the results of their small group dialogue:

Yellow Group

yellow group

Susan Schultz, Neil Meili, Stephanie Nestlerode, Steve Swanson, Lindsay LeBlanc

Blue Group

blue

Mary Thompson, Ed Sharpe, Margaret Valenti, Robyn Emerson, Oliver Markley, Patricia Wilson

Red Group

red

Tobin Quereau, Ann Brudno, Jenny Meigs, Tom Moran, Landon Shultz, Mike Aaron, Leilani Rose

Green Group

green

Rod Reyna, Sherry Lowry, Robena Jackson, Cathey Capers, Juli Fellows, Steven Fearing

As the participants described their templates, Sunni captured their themes:

reflections

Prior to the reporting out and reflection, Erin Kreeger and Taylor Willingham had a charge for the group:

As you listen to the groups’ posting their templates, listen for assets and opportunities. Think about the opportunities that you identified in this room that will help you in your work. Perhaps you identified asset or opportunities that involve:

  • Connecting with someone else in this room or someone who needs to be part of this community
  • Participation in an event or activity
  • Contributing your expertise or resources

Make note of the ideas as they come to you. After every group describes their template we will have time for collective reflection that Sunni will capture for us in graphic form.

Here are some of the opportunities the group identified to connect:

connect

In keeping with our spirit of reflection and “continuous improvement” (that term is here for Charles’ benefit!) Charles Knickerbocker led us in a period of reflection on the meeting. He asked them what worked and what did we need more of. Here’s what the group had to say:

what worked

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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.”

participantsParticipants 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.

dianeBut 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.

NCDD posting

The summit was organized and sponsored by:

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.

Metric:
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.

room set up

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.

Stay tuned!

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I am pleased to accept the NCDD nomination to the national board of directors. It’s a pretty humbling invitation and I am honored to be a part of this outstanding organization. My fellow board members listed with titles on our facebook group page are:

Leah Lamb (San Francisco, CA)
Queen of Arts-Based Dialogue
Priya Parker (UVA)
Coordinator of NCDD Mentorship Program
Tim Bonnemann (Silicon Valley, CA)
Online D&D Extraordinaire
Sandy Heierbacher (Harrisburg, PA)
Queen of all things D&D
Tokz Awoshakin (Dayton, OH)
Director of the African Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation
Avril Orloff (Vancouver, BC)
Deputy Minister for Colourful Dialogue
Leanne Nurse (Washington, DC)
EPA Rep
Taylor L Willingham
Director of Building Excitement about Technology and Libraries
Lars Hasselblad Torres (Burlington, VT)
King of Peace Tiles and Deliberation Research
Windy Lawrence (Houston Downtown)
Networking Coordinator for NCDD 2008

I look forward to working with this group and the hundreds of volunteers – dozens right here in Central Texas! – working on the national conference to be held in Austin October 3-5. Stay tuned for more details.

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At the UHD workshop on Day 1 we had people work in small groups to craft responses to challenges that a moderator might encounter. Tom Workman did a fabulous job of leading this exercise. I’m glad that we have a video recording so I can go back and harvest his pearls of wisdom.

People are just waiting their turn to “have their say” 

Ask the participants to relate their comments to what they heard earlier. Listening is not just reloading. Talk about what good listening is during the groundrules. The investment in the groundrules up front is really critical. We may need to return to the groundrules, but need to do so in a way that doesn’t make it sound like we are the groundrule police.

The moderator can say, who else has a story that relates to what we are hearing. This is bridging. another tactic is to ask if there are other perspectives.

All comments are directed to the moderator

Encourage responses from others non-verbally. Redirect the comment. Sometimes the moderator needs to step back so that they don’t seem to be the center of attention. There are some non-verbal cues we can use such as literally stepping back. Chairs are set in a circle which takes the moderator out of the “front of the room.” Also, don’t be afraid of silence. Trust the silence. If the moderator is too quick to speak up, then it puts them back into the driver seat. Remaining silent tells the group that it is ok that no one has anything to say right now. Also, spreading hands out to the group and using “we” language.

There are “sidebar” conversations or interruptions

Invite the sidebar conversation into the larger conversation. Ask them if they have something to add. “You seem to be having a lively conversation. Would you like to share?” “Can I get the group to bring this back into one conversation?” We are nice people and worry about someone getting offended, but allowing sidebar conversations is unfair to the rest of the group. Remember that some people are not accustomed to speaking to the large group. Perhaps those engaged in sidebar conversations want to speak and do so with a subset of the group. Help them feel comfortable contributing to the larger group.

The group mainly concurs on each choice

Push beyond the ramifications; press for details. Provide motivation for understanding an alternative point of view. At some point they will have to take their deliberation to a wider audience so moving beyond full agreement would be excellent preparation for going out into the community. Some moderators use an empty chair to symbolize who might have a different perspective.

The pro arguments have no negative consequences

Moderator can serve as a devil’s advocate. How do we get people to think about the outcome? There is a difference between agreement and consequences, so perhaps we need a different strategy than playing devil’s advocate. “Consequences” may not be a term that people can relate to so be prepared to use different terms such as “side effects.” The NIF materials are stuctured so that there are consequences or downsides for each approach.

People speak theoretically/analytically

Ask people to give an example. Reframe the ultimate question. Ask “why?” and “why is that important to you?” Bring people back to the stories.

The forum is cerebral and lacking feeling

Ask for a personal story that relates to whatever is being discussed. Ask what people are willing to give up. These strategies help to make the issue real. We can ask people to share feelings. But we have to be careful because it is an odd experience going through a forum because you are revealing yourself, but you are still holding something back. This is not a group therapy session, after all.  Another counter point is that sometimes people don’t want to talk about their feelings because they don’t want to generalize their feelings onto the group. They often appreciate the chance to divorce from their feelings so that they can be more open. We need to talk more about the role of emotion in public deliberation. The quest that we want to continue to talk about is, how do we incorporate safely issues related to emotions.

Remember, that it is important for the moderator to feel comfortable and to develop their own style.

Comments ignore prior comments

Reframe the comments, and summarize. Refer back to earlier comments. Return to the earlier comment and ask the person if they could say more.

Reflection on the exercise: 

All of the ways in which things can go off track are just part of human nature. These are not bad, nor are they malicious. These things just happen and we carry on.
Part of the problem is that this is not how we are conditioned to talk. We have been taught to sit down and shut up or stand up and shout. Where do we go to practice the skill of deliberation?

Tom’s charge to moderators. However you do this is good. There is something valuable in the stumbling. So what if we never get to #3. Something may have happened in that group that is valuable information. It is our desire to make it work, but we need to allow ourselves to live in the ambiguity. Going off track is not a sin. It is a knowledge opportunity.

How cool is that?! Beautiful, Tom!

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