Changing communities, difficult discussions

Postville Prairie Robin FlickrHow D&D Can Help Communities Adapt to Rapid Change

Since the 1960s, the US Department of Justice has provided peacekeeping services via its Community Relations Service (CRS) for community conflicts and tensions related to race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability.

In 2015, the heads of the CRS and the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) organized a series of nationwide meetings to identify possible areas of cooperation between the two groups. I and a dozen other NCDD members from Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan met with CRS staffers in Chicago and Detroit on February 23, 2015.

During our meeting, it became apparent that the types of conflicts the CRS commonly addresses are often symptoms of multiple stresses communities can experience as a result of rapid demographic, social, and economic change. The CRS can legally only act as a first responder after a crisis event. However, NCDD members can help support these communities to address the underlying stresses and so prevent crises from ever occurring.

As farming and manufacturing declined in the Midwest, service sector jobs grew, and real estate values fell, newcomers with very different histories, needs, and values from those of long-time residents moved into what previously were fairly stable and homogeneous communities. As a result, traditional ways of handling everything from public safety to education to transportation planning just aren’t working anymore. Resources are stretched. Residents are frustrated. Community leaders are desperate for new ways to meet residents’ needs and resolve issues before they fester into anything as destructive as hate crime. Importantly, this is happening not only in the Midwest, but throughout the country and in many other parts of the world.

As specialists in dialogue and deliberation, methods for helping communities to engage in meaningful conversations and make wise public decisions, we NCDD members knew that we had powerful tools to bring to communities struggling with rapid change. But how could we convince more communities to try them?

Three of us, Tracy Rogers-Tryba, Hubert Morgan, and I, decided to start answering this question by creating and testing an introductory D&D training designed specifically for communities struggling to adapt to disorienting demographic, economic, and social change.

With the support of The Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and the DeKalb County Community Foundation, on August 5, 2015 we shared this day-long training with members of DeKalb area civil society. We showed how 12 D&D methods have been used in other towns, suggested ways they might be applied to a fictitious case study city, and then provided time for participants to reflect on how they might be used in their own community. D&D methods were chosen to represent diverse approaches. Each was well-developed, time-tested, and supported by organizations, trainers, and resource materials.

We used the NCDD four streams of practice model to structure our discussions. This framework was originally designed to help practitioners decide which D&D methods to use when. However, it can also be a very helpful way to show how different D&D methods could complement each other when used by various groups within the same community (e.g., government, museums, schools). Below is a summary of methods we shared from each stream.

D&D methods from the Exploration stream encourage residents to learn more about themselves, their community, and/or an issue. They also teach skills in respectful listening and considering diverse viewpoints. They can thus provide a low-risk way for communities to begin to discuss difficult issues. We shared the Civic Reflection, Conversation Café, and Study Circles methods. For the case study city, we suggested using the first with teachers to address issues of burnout caused by growing student needs and declining resources. Conversation café would be used to explore community aspirations and address the issue of declining community spirit. Study Circles would explore public safety, both examining causes of increasing crime and identifying potential solutions.

Conflict Transformation approaches are used to resolve conflicts, foster personal healing, and improve relationships between groups. They provide safe ways to discuss divisive and sensitive topics, including issues linked to race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. We shared the Public Conversations Project (PCP), Restorative Justice Circles, and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) methods. In the case study city, we proposed using PCP to diffuse religious and ethnic tensions related to immigration. Circle would be taken up by schools to resolve non-violent student conflicts. NVC would be taught within diverse faith groups as a way to embed conflict transformation skills in the community.

Decision-making processes seek to influence public decisions and public policy, and to improve public knowledge on topics such as public education, policing, and economic development. We outlined the 21st Century Town Hall Meeting and Citizens’ Jury methods, as well as various approaches to informal and online engagement. For the case study city, we suggested using the first method to get resident input when cutting the city budget. A Citizens’ Jury would provide neutral guidance to voters on a contentious ballot initiative to change the tax structure. Informal and online engagement would both be used to get the input of “hard to reach” residents on a regional transportation plan.

Collaborative Action methods empower groups and individuals to solve complicated problems and take responsibility for the solution. We presented World Café, Open Space Technology (OST), and Appreciative Inquiry. World Café would be used to improve university-resident understanding and identify common goals. OST would help residents and economic development stakeholders to collectively identify ways to build a more vibrant economy. Appreciative Inquiry would help kick off a housing summit on a positive note by reminding participants of current assets and successes.

Our primary goal with this training was to introduce participants to dialogue & deliberation by demonstrating how a dozen different methods might be used in a community similar to their own. That we achieved.

We also wanted participants to start thinking about how they could use these and similar methods in their own work. They did. Collectively, they identified about a dozen potential projects or areas to explore.

What we could have done better, however, was help them to overcome risks inherent in trying something new in a potentially volatile environment. While they saw the need for and benefits of D&D, they were also worried about possible negative outcomes. Careful planning, involving key stakeholders from the beginning, and starting small could help reduce some of these risks. However, ultimately it takes courage to be the first to host a community dialogue on sensitive topics. Hopefully, we will have inspired some individuals and organizations to try and that their efforts will in turn make it easier for others to follow suit.

This blog was also published on the website

Photo: Community gathering in Postville, IA, Prairie-Robin, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0


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