I honestly didn’t realize just how ambitious trying to understand the use of dialogue & deliberation for civic engagement in Chicago actually was until a veteran facilitator exclaimed “wow, you’ve taken on a mighty big project!” After all, at first, I couldn’t find much happening in the Windy City.
As the project progressed, it certainly got bigger, but also richer and deeper and much more exciting than I ever expected. It grew beyond recording what exists to stimulating others to think more deeply about this work. It resulted in the first ever gathering of Chicago D&D practitioners. Together they began to dream of new possibilities for our city and form a local community of practice to make them a reality.
I offer my story to others who are considering similar projects in their cities. However, my hope is that this will just be the first chapter of a longer tale of how D&D ultimately became embedded in Chicago.
A serendipitous beginning
It all began with a chance meeting. Newly returned to Chicago after five years in Brussels where I worked in public engagement at the transnational EU level, I was eager to continue this work at a local level. On a whim, I joined an event at UIC’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE). Chatting afterwards with IPCE director Joe Hoereth, I discovered that he wanted to do more deliberative dialogue, but first needed to know what already existed in the city. I offered to swap notes. Joe, an urban planner by training, hired me to “survey the Chicago D&D territory”. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Eager to get started, I quickly wrote a project proposal. IPCE had recently brought Matt Leighninger of the DDC to town and I was inspired by his work on embedding public deliberation, brilliantly summarized in NLC’s Planning for Stronger Local Democracy. So I took that as a blueprint for what we needed to know about Chicago: public engagement laws, funding, process support, public spaces, etc. The bulk of the research would be interviews, supplemented by secondary sources, all guided by the question “how is D&D used to engage residents in public policy and community issues in Chicago”. I sent my proposal to IPCE. Then I waited.
The problem of language and the limits of secondary sources
While I waited for the university’s green light, my research was limited to secondary sources and informal conversations with national experts. The later easily yielded a dozen names of people to contact. The former was an exercise in frustration. Although some people call this work “dialogue and deliberation”, most do not. This meant that searching databases by keyword was both tedious and unproductive.
I began by googling “Chicago” plus words like “dialogue” and “consultation”. Not much appeared. Then I tried method names like “study circles” and “citizen’s jury”. Better. Then I looked through specialized sources like Participedia, NCDD list-serve archives, and academic journals. Better still. Finally I consulted a research librarian. Alas, she found little more. Although inefficient, this process had nonetheless yielded an initial list of 65 people and organizations I could potentially contact. It was a start.
Before beginning the interviews, IPCE convened a focus group of 10 experts to test some assumptions. My very first question was “what do you call this work?” Everyone had a different answer. Arghh! They all agreed on what effective D&D looks like, just not what to call it. So, for the study, I used the NCDD terms and definitions for “dialogue and deliberation”. The experts though provided valuable historical background and identified opportunity areas. They steered me away from looking for “champions” and “opponents”, saying anyone could be either, depending on the situation. Most importantly, they added 20 organizations to my list of 65 and suggested specific people to contact. Finally, I was off and running.
An accidental community organizer
I spent the next 2 ½ months interviewing 38 additional people involved with D&D in Chicago. My initial goal was to talk to a handful of people in each of five broad categories: process experts, government folks, topic experts, researchers, and funders. Over time, these categories expanded to include groups like community organizers, journalists, and civic educators. I asked each person I interviewed who else to contact. Wherever I went, my eyes and ears were open. I learned of D&D initiatives at cocktail parties, community fairs, and working on other projects. My list of people to contact grew to 150. Since I couldn’t interview them all, I began to think of them as belonging to “clusters” of related topics or methods. Once I talked to enough people to understand one cluster, say the humanities or urban planning, I moved on to another. It was a bit like sketching the outlines of a giant mural. I needed to make sure all the parts were represented, although not in detail.
Most of the interviews took place in person or by phone. Occasionally I got all I needed via e-mail. I had a detailed questionnaire, but used it loosely. I relied on interviewing methods I used as a qualitative marketing researcher: asking an open question, then listening, then probing for details and exploring possibilities. Each interview was different. Most were two-way. I not only asked questions, but shared what I was learning. I supplemented interviews with secondary source research, which was much more productive once I knew where to look and what words to use.
One day, as a community organizer patiently explained why one-on-one interviews were vital to motivating residents for collective action, it suddenly dawned on me that this was exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t just collecting information. I was giving others a platform to think more deeply about their own work and in the process realize they needed to collaborate with others. So, although I thought I was just “surveying the territory”, I was in fact also “organizing” a community of practice.
Telling the Story: The Value of the NCDD Engagement Streams Framework
When the time came to submit my final report, I had no idea how to organize the 1,000s of diverse pieces of information I’d collected into a coherent narrative. As I thought through options, the information naturally seemed to cluster into four areas, strikingly reminiscent of the four NCDD Engagement Streams. At first, I hesitated using that framework, designed to categorize methods, to segment a city’s organizations and projects. Surprisingly though, it has proven the single most valuable tool in helping Chicagoans understand the local D&D field.
Convening the conveners
In early December 2012, IPCE gave the Chicago D&D community a huge gift. It brought them together and flew in NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher to share her priceless insights into building a D&D community of practice and civic infrastructure. I boiled my 30-page report down into a 20 minute presentation. Then we all talked: about what our city needs and what we as a local community of practice might do. Two hours after the event officially ended, people were still talking. Over the next weeks, people continued to talk: in twos and threes, over coffee and lunch. One volunteer spent hours creating a website. Others organized and promoted a follow-up meeting. Many got to work preparing activities. It’s too soon to say what the final outcome of all these efforts will be. Building a community of practice to create a local civic infrastructure for D&D takes time, resources, and the work of many, many people.
Advice to Others
Because nobody had ever explored the D&D field in Chicago in a systematic way (or any city as far as I know), I had the freedom to let the project become what the community seemed to need. So perhaps the most important advice I’d give is to keep an open mind and listen to your own community. Don’t impose too rigid of structure on your work and allow it to move in directions you hadn’t considered. That said, here are a few “pointers”:
* Start with a clear understanding of and loose framework for how D&D might work in your community. You need that to guide what information you gather. NLC’s Planning for Stronger Local Democracy and the NCDD Engagement Streams Framework are both good places to start.
* Define what you mean by D&D and the scope of your project, realizing that others might conceive of it differently. While quantitative research (i.e., a multiple-choice survey) may seem like an efficient approach, the lack of common language could lead to some very misleading results.
* Use secondary source research to supplement interviews, not as a replacement for them. Focus on specialist sources, like NCDD, DDC, Participedia, and academic journals.
* Start by talking with a few veteran experts. They will save you a lot of time. In every city, there are probably individuals who know what’s happening in each of the four “engagement streams”.
*Work in a spirit of generosity and openness. Share what you learn, with your community and NCDD.
This article also appeared on the NCDD Community Blog.
Article Photo: Tom Gill
Slider Photo: Bosc D’Anjou