William Greider, an astute chronicler of the American political system, has come to believe that without citizen interaction the United States itself will grow increasingly dysfunctional – as if it isn’t enough already. He admits to certain doubts as to whether citizens are actually equipped and up for the challenge but also comprehends that the politics of the professionals has placed the country in a box from which it cannot escape. And so he looks to average people to rescue politics from itself. He didn’t start with this position, but following years of disenchantment observing the political order, it is where he has ended up in the later years of his life. And so he would seek to draw us to a simple conclusion:
“Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered.”
As times draws on, Greider is appearing more and more correct. But the desire for dialogue all comes down to one thing: Who frames the questions? Who establishes the agenda? We have grown so accustomed to allowing the elites in policy and politics to establish the parameters of our official conversations that we have only recently come to the realization that some of our most important queries aren’t even on the official agenda.
Put a group of citizens in a room, or a coffee shop, and ask them how our communities can be renewed and something remarkable transpires – the framing of an agenda actually comes later in the process of talking. It’s messy work but it’s actually how people communicate. They assess their surroundings, take measure of those around them, and overcome their own nervousness in order to speak up. In other words, they have to feel democracy before they can formalize it. Only when that is under their belt can they begin talking about certain objectives. I have participated in dozens of such conversations in the past year and have been amazed at how the participants became group directed over the duration of the conversations. A professional facilitator hasn’t been trained that way, preferring to put the subjects and their proper order on pieces of paper in front of the participants. This is done because it’s how the professional world stays on its game, but democracy doesn’t work like that – not in coffee shops, gathering places, or even our homes. We don’t sit at our dinner tables and lay out for the family what we’ll talk about during the meal. If we did, we would be met with a stony silence.
Here is why an agenda is so important: whoever controls it controls the outcome. Citizens are getting wise to this and are trying to discover ways they can bring their own concerns to the table. In other words, they want the agenda to be set during the course of the discussion, not at its beginning. This is only natural, as they don’t want someone else determining what kind of direction the dialogue will take. For the politician or the bureaucrat this represents nothing but headaches because they have places they want to get to and sometimes view involving citizens as a necessary evil if things are to appear inclusive. It seems to me that London’s own civic engagement exercise – ReThink London – has understood this, and in holding out only five broadly based subjects – grow, move, green, move, prosper – has permitted plenty of room for free-flowing discussion that might well see some kind of agenda emerge during the process.
But there’s another development that occurs when an agenda comes out of a discussion as opposed to preceding it. Citizens conversing over important issues in their communities understandably come from different places and emotions. Yet when they do dialogue they don’t just exchange facts but transform them. They toss concepts around for a time, reshaping them and learning different dimensions to them. New ideas and trains of thought emerge that would never have arisen when following a set timeline or a rigid agenda. Community conversations like this don’t just shuffle the cards, but actually introduce new cards altogether. For anyone with a set idea this can be maddening, but for citizens looking at challenges from various dimensions it can be liberating.
The city of London, Ontario presently seems bent on a “growth at all cost” direction that is alienating many citizens who had once dedicated themselves to the engagement process. Old fault lines are re-emerging – growth versus sustainability, cars versus public transit, waste versus environmental stewardship. Forced agendas put us into this mode with little chance to extricate ourselves. But what would happen if in the course of discussions citizens and their civic leaders suddenly discovered third or fourth options? I’ve been in a lot of negotiations in my time, long enough to have learned that compromises are frequently discovered, not by finding some space between two rigid positions, but by happening upon other options people hadn’t thought of yet. It happened in Sudan, Ireland, Bangladesh and Guatemala – all places where I have worked.
What is missing is the process of dialogue without forced directions. It’s about the ability to discuss our way into a solution. It won’t occur in the timeframe our leaders would desire, but in the end everybody owns it and the victory is the community’s. Given the failure of the present political construct, it’s perhaps time for someone to introduce some new cards.