Connecting Communities: Sandy Heierbacher & the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

For folks who are out in the trenches of communities, opening up dialogues, working on problems, one of the most useful spaces on the Internet is the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation’s (NCDD) resource center, which has almost 3000 items compiled from practitioners throughout the field. Case studies, tools, descriptions, maps, assessment tools—it’s a treasure trove for the dialogue and deliberation field. But another contribution of NCDD’s might be even more important—and that’s the physical (and digital!) work of connecting the many diverse members of this field. It’s this connectivity that makes the community as productive and innovative as it is. But this doesn’t happen on its own—it happens because NCDD director Sandy Heierbacher and NCDD have made it their mission. Former KF research assistant Jack Becker recently sat down with Sandy for a chat about the history and future of NCDD.  Jack Becker: Can you first talk a little about your background? What brought you into dialogue and deliberation, and what lead to the creation of NCDD? Sandy Heierbacher: I was drawn to the concept of dialogue because of my interest and involvement in race relations. I first learned about dialogue in graduate school in 1997, during a course on conflict transformation at the School for International Training, where I was studying intercultural and international management. When I learned about dialogue, I realized I had been approaching anti-racism work all wrong. It dawned on me that people can’t change until they feel respected and safe and until they feel they’ve been listened to without feeling judged. I dove into dialogue after that and decided to focus my studies on race dialogue. Part of my graduate program included conducting in-depth interviews with leaders of race dialogue efforts across the country, asking dialogue practitioners questions like “Which methodologies do you use?”, “Do you feel connected to other dialogue practitioners?” and “What are your greatest challenges?” (among many others!). The interviews were amazing, and I had soon fallen completely in love with dialogue and with the kind of people who are drawn to this work. Those interviews provided me with an amazing learning opportunity on many levels, but two observations really stood out for me from my interviews: one, leaders of race dialogue efforts felt isolated and disconnected from other practitioners, and oftentimes felt they were solopreneurs inventing something completely new, and two, most of the practitioners I talked to admitted they were struggling to know when and how to move their race dialogue groups from talk to action and that they were losing African American participants because of a perceived lack of action. The first learning came into play later on, and led to me and 60 others organizing the first National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation several years later. The second learning convinced me that I should focus my graduate thesis on how race dialogue groups can move from talk to action more effectively. Once my thesis was completed, my partner Andy (now my husband and creative director of NCDD) suggested we simplify the paper a bit, break it up into sections, and put it up on a website. I really wanted people to read my work and perhaps benefit from it, and we decided that to get people to the site, we should add a “community page” to the site, where I’d post news from the field, upcoming conferences and trainings, and calls for facilitators. There was no place like this online at the time. That project, which we called “Dialogue to Action Initiative,” eventually grew into the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation. I think the turning point came about at the 2000 Hope in the Cities’ conference: a group of attendees ended up hanging out in the hallway talking about how great it would be to have a conference designed to allow us to experience each other’s dialogue models and tackle our common challenges—like moving from talk to action or deciding when to use which method. After the conference was over, I started a Yahoo! group so we could continue our conversation on the idea of a dialogue conference. As so often happens with groups, two people emerged as being the real worker bees who push things forward. For this group, it was me and Jim Snow, a retired US State Department official who was involved in running dialogues for George Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. I ended up as the director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation because of a combination of factors: luck and timing; the right kind of skills and tendencies; a great husband who was willing to contribute his design and tech skills and who became as committed to NCDD as I am; a genuine concern and affection for dialogue and deliberation practitioners; a good deal of self-interest that fortunately was aligned with what the field seemed to need at the time; and a certain amount of youthful energy and naïveté about what I was embarking on and whether I had all the skills and resources required to do it! Fortunately, it has never been just Andy and me. We brought together a dynamic, diverse group of 60 volunteers (and 50 endorsing organizations) to make the idea of a National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation into a reality—and that incredible spirit of commitment and collaboration has been a key part of NCDD’s culture ever since. About every two years NCDD members have come together for regional or national conferences. We might call these conferences “exchanges,” since members share insights about their work and discuss their successes and struggles. How do you and the NCDD staff connect these gatherings together and make them meaningful? Our stated goal for the first National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in 2002 was to “unite and strengthen the growing dialogue and deliberation community.” This has remained our primary goal for all NCDD conferences. In many ways, each conference is its own animal, as many attendees and presenters are newcomers to NCDD each time and we try new things with each event. We learn a great deal from each one, both in terms of formats that work for our audience and ways we can help participants tackle their collective challenges. At the very first NCDD conference, we used the study circles “action forum” concept on the last day of the conference, inspiring over a dozen action groups to form around ideas and goals that had been identified at the previous day’s plenary. The action groups focused on goals like increasing diversity in the field, internationalizing NCDD, building a resource toolbox for practitioners, and integrating dialogue and deliberation into educational environments. Though the conference was very highly rated and our attendees did want to see progress made on all the action areas, we learned that conference attendees are not necessarily interested in committing themselves to long-term group work. Since then, we’ve experimented with a variety of different formats and tactics to encourage attendees to combine forces and share knowledge both during and after the events. At our 2008 conference in Austin, for example, we had 5 artists in our graphic facilitator team manage large murals that were placed on the walls in the plenary room throughout the 3-day event. Each mural focused on one of the five “challenge areas” attendees had prioritized during the final session of our 2006 conference in San Francisco, which could easily be considered our field’s most “wicked problems”:

  • Framing this work in a way that’s accessible to a broad audience;
  • Moving from talk to action effectively;
  • Institutionalizing or embedding dialogue and deliberation into government and other systems;
  • Increasing diversity and inclusion in our field and in our communities’ decision making processes; and
  • Evaluating and assessing dialogue and deliberation work.

For our most recent national conference in 2012, we tried something new called the NCDD “catalyst awards” to provide two $10,000 awards for collaborative, team-led projects that had the potential to move our field forward. Though we hadn’t thought of it this way at the time, you could consider the catalyst awards an experiment in participatory budgeting. We asked our community members to propose projects, work together on developing them, and then vote on the winners. The framing question for the 2012 Seattle conference was, “How can we build a more robust civic infrastructure in our practice, our communities, and our country?” Why this question? Is there evidence that the civic infrastructure in America or abroad is cracked, crumbling, or otherwise not up to the task of addressing the tough problems governments and communities face? We’ve learned from our members that dialogue and deliberation work is most effective over the long run when it is embedded in their communities and their institutions. Yet it’s extremely challenging for individual practitioners to focus on impacting established systems. With the concept of civic infrastructure, we’re encouraging NCDD members and conference attendees, in part, to think about small things they can do to make it easier for people to engage effectively next time around. Thinking about building civic infrastructure through their work, a practitioner might spend a little more time training facilitators and making sure local organizations can tap into and utilize those facilitators for future projects. A practitioner might think about how their shorter-term project could actually launch a long-term online space where community members can meet and connect. And they might take extra time to cultivate and recognize local champions of public engagement—especially those in government. What is a civic infrastructure? What local and national projects are underway in support of one? I like to think of civic infrastructure as the “big picture” of why we do this work. Ultimately, dialogue and deliberation practitioners are passionate about what they do because they are showing people that there is another way to make decisions, solve problems, and resolve conflicts. Civic infrastructure is what’s needed in our communities, in our nation, and across the globe, in order for these practices to become simply the way things are done. By civic infrastructure, we’re talking about the underlying systems and structures that enable people to come together to address their challenges effectively. This includes some things that would require major changes in most communities, like changing local laws and procedures so the public is consulted more effectively when a decision needs to be made on a contentious public policy issue. But it also includes many things that practitioners can influence on a project by project basis, like whether a cadre of trained facilitators is being developed in a community they’re working with and being sure local nonprofits and government champions have access to those facilitators when they decide to engage people next. There are many local projects underway that support civic infrastructure. One example is New Hampshire Listens, which is building a statewide infrastructure to take the successful dialogue to action techniques used by Portsmouth Listens to scale. New Hampshire Listens is working with local and statewide partners to bring people together for productive conversations that augment traditional forms of government, like town meeting or school board meetings. Their vision is to create a network of engaged communities in New Hampshire that can share their experiences and resources for getting “unstuck” and solving public problems. NCDD is involved in a national dialogue process on mental health called Creating Community Solutions, which has been developed in a way that could potentially be replicated for different subject areas. The website’s online map in particular provides a model for connecting people and organizations locally to encourage them to self-organize dialogues with some centralized support and resource materials. The winner of NCDD’s 2012 catalyst award on civic infrastructure is developing an infrastructure for a different kind of self-organized national dialogue. Their approach is to open up the whole process to the public – from selecting an issue to framing the discussion materials to implementing solutions. Can you comment on what you’ve been up to since NCDD Seattle? What came out of the conference that you’re still following? A few things of the things we’re still following and supporting from the Seattle conference are:

  •  The two NCDD catalyst award-winners and their projects—one of which is focused on developing a truly self-organized, public, national dialogue infrastructure, and the other has been experimenting with exciting ways to use mass media “infotainment” to promote participatory democracy.
  • Our emphasis on civic infrastructure has continued, partly through our involvement as one of seven Community Matters partners (a project of the Orton Family Foundation we’ve been involved in for two years which is focused on developing civic infrastructure in communities), and partly through our focus on and involvement in national dialogue efforts, which rely on communities with strong civic infrastructure in order to get to any level of scale.
  •  One or two workshops at NCDD Seattle focused on the growing challenge many public engagement practitioners are facing: organized disruptions to public meetings. I have been focusing on this behind the scenes, learning and gathering as much as I can on these unique protests, and plan to engage the broader membership in this soon.

We’ve been focused on many other projects and programs that are unrelated to the Seattle conference as well, including:

  •  Experimenting in combining “thick” and “thin” engagement by incorporating text messaging into small, simple face-to-face dialogues (part of the Creating Community Solutions project we’re involved in).
  •  Launching a series of “Tech Tuesday” webinars for our members who are interested in gaining a better understanding of how they can utilize online technology in their engagement work.
  •  Working with leading organizations in the field to promote a new set of model ordinances that local government can adopt in order to bypass some of the longstanding legal barriers to quality public engagement.

And of course much of our time is devoted to keeping the NCDD network strong, active, and valuable to our members. This is a time of extraordinary progress, momentum, and productivity in our field, and we are constantly supporting our members by highlighting their programs on our blog and social media, sharing their resources in our online resource center (which now has over 2,900 listings), and providing them with numerous spaces to connect with each other about their successes and challenges. One thing we’re starting to do now is to gear up for the 2014 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. We have a great venue secured in the DC area for October 17-19, and we’ll soon be engaging our whole network around what they’d like to see at the next conference. Jack Becker is a former Kettering research assistant and current graduate student in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.