Contents of Winter 2006 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In this issue:

Practice democracy, promote active citizenship and empowerment
        The Ladder of Participation - How much participation do we want?
                  Variations with youth, and public deliberation
        How do we encourage democratic participation?
                  Basic practices
        Collaborative leadership
        A Community Story - The Cleghorn Neighborhood Center Fitchburg ,Mass.
        Study Circles, Public Conversations, Right Question Project, Youth on Board

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Practice democracy, promote active citizenship and empowerment


       Practicing democracy is the third core principle of collaborative solutions. Now you might ask, “Why is practicing democracy a critical part of community building? When we are facing serious community problems, shouldn’t we just get professionals to solve the problems and avoid the messy process called democracy?” The answer to this question is a resounding no. While professionals have a great deal to offer along the path to solutions, they understand the view from above, not the view from the ground. Without everyone’s perspective, any solutions devised will focus on symptoms, rather than root causes. (For an example of a situation where the democratic approach could produce the best solutions, see the special Fall 2005 issue of this newsletter concerning the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. )
         The next questions that follow are: “Does democracy have a role to play in systems where we deliver care or fix serious community problems? Does democracy belong in the nonprofit sector and in service delivery and in health and human services?” The answer to these questions is a loud yes. Democracy has a role to play in every subsystem and community activity within a democratic society.
         Democracy is a process through which the common people wield political power; where the majority rules; and, where the principles of equal rights and equal opportunities reign.
          We often think of democracy as being centered on voting. Democracy is so much bigger, and more everyday, than that. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that beyond having the power to vote, people must have avenues for “expressing, discussing, and deciding." In a way, these interactions are more important than voting. Voting may only happen once a year, or every two years, or every four. Other democratic processes can affect our actions in daily life, and they lay the groundwork for voting. The Right Question Project suggests that every occasion where a resident encounters the system ( government, corporations, health care agencies etc.) is a moment of micro-democracy where democracy may or may not be practiced.
         Suzanne Morse (2004) notes: “Public deliberation, the core of our democracy, rests on the opportunity to discuss and decide what is in the public’s interest. The stated goals are both to prepare people to act as responsible citizens and to carve out ways in which meaningful participation is feasible and possible. Public deliberation, as opposed to public debate, is an opportunity to join with others to learn, discuss, and understand the multiple perspectives that enliven democracy.”
         Community building requires community participation. These two concepts work hand-in-hand—we cannot do one without the other. The community must be at the heart of decision-making on issues that affect its members. We cannot come up with effective solutions for a community without the residents’ contributions in identifying the problem, exploring possible solutions, implementing changes, and ultimately evaluating the community-development efforts.
         Yet, within our democratic society, change doesn’t always occur this way. Too often the community is not only not at the heart of the decision making, they are barely consulted. I was once asked by the mayor of a small city to work with his buddy, who was charged with converting the old police station into a youth center. It took three months to convince the mayor's buddy to invite youth to our meetings. When we finally got some young people in the room, we asked them what they wanted out of the proposed center. When they said “dances on Friday night,” the mayor's buddy replied, “We won't do that. What else do you want?” At that instant, the community-building process for the youth center died. It was clear that their voices would not be heard. Why would they even bother to participate in the process any further? So-called discussions, during which we ignore the voices of those most affected, take place much too often
         It is our perception that many institutions in America have suppressed the voices of their constituents, so that these constituents no longer feel like they have a say in the system and therefore do not participate. We see evidence of this in low turnouts of voters for elections, in diminished parent participation in schools, and in citizens who choose not to get involved in local government. We also see this diminished democracy in the role that recipients play in the design and implementation of health and human services. 
         Our country wasn’t always this way. Our country was founded because people objected to not having a say and because they did get involved.
          In order to build a system of democratic public deliberation, we need to reverse the trend away from involvement. As groundwork, we need to look carefully at how our systems either encourage or discourage participation and democratic decision-making. While we do this, we need to work with the people in the community and with the constituents of the systems to encourage their participation, to gain (or re-gain) their trust that their voices will be heard, and to provide them with the skills and support that they will need when they participate.
         In sum, to fully encourage democracy and promote active citizenship and empowerment in our community-building work, the process of public deliberation in a democratic manner involves two key components: First, the system must desire, and be willing to facilitate, public deliberation. That system must have mechanisms for eliciting public opinion that are fair, productive and that place decision-making power in the hands of the people. Second, people within the community must have the skills, confidence, and self-respect to productively participate.
         We have to understand:

    1. Our systems and how they encourage democracy,

    2. The people whom we wish to engage, and, finally,

    3. The interactions between our systems and our constituents.

         The work is exciting. It also requires preparation, flexibility, and an awareness of the full range of alternatives. In this Newsletter issue we will focus primarily on changing our systems. Working democratically may require profound, and  fundamental change.

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How much participation do we want? - The Ladder of Participation

         Before we start along this road to change, we have to ask ourselves: “Do we really want participation? Do we really want democracy?”
        There’s no simple answer that applies to every situation, but evaluating potential levels of democratic involvement  will help us figure out what we’re getting into and how we want to proceed—and will help us become aware of the effects that will accompany shifting the way we make decisions in our communities.
        More than thirty years ago, I ran across Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Participation,” which allows us to see the many levels of participation between totally authoritarian and fully democratic decision-making. (Arnstein,1969). Arnstein defines eight categories of citizen participation, clustered in three groups. The bottom group, nonparticipation, includes manipulation and therapy. The next group, called tokenism, includes informing, consultation, and placation. The top group, called citizen power, consists of partnership, delegated power, and citizen control. The higher you go on the ladder—in the direction of citizen control—the greater the likelihood that both citizen  engagement and democratic processes will occur.

        When you are considering either existing initiatives or programs that you are developing, you can use the Ladder of Participation to ask, “What is our goal for participation and how will we achieve it?” The Ladder of Participation can be used with all projects. Just remember that shared decision-making cannot happen when we areusing techniques at the low end of the ladder, the non-participation categories.

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Variations on this theme:

Several useful variations of this instrument are available today.

        A.  Ladder of Participation modified for working with young people.

Photo courtesy of the Freechild Project
(Photo courtesy of the Freechild Project)

         Some who work with youth have modified the ladder concept, probably inspired to do so because young people are so often used as token representatives. (see Roger Hart 1997)This ladder incorporates specific values. The first is that shared decision-making is the democratic participatory goal toward which we are aiming. The second is that participation is strongest when the project or program is community-initiated. Hart has added appropriate categories to reflect these values such as “community-initiated and directed agency-supported” and “community-initiated shared decisions with agencies”.
         If you are working with young people and have decided that you want meaningful engagement with them, you will find that you need to do more than just get the young people to the table. You will need to modify the table. We have found, as have many others, that it's very hard for adults and youth to find ways to carry out respectful public discourse. Youth on Board (see resources) has developed wonderful manuals, assessments, and practices that suggest mechanisms for successful youth and adult interactions on boards of directors. The materials developed by Youth on Board can be applied to other situations as well.

            B. The Ladder of Participation modified for working with public deliberation.

         If we are to create democratic community-building processes, we must be able to determine whether our own work and processes are conducive to community participation and democratic decision-making. Another instrument, based on Arnstein’s work, can help us conduct this necessary self-reflection.
         Williamson and Fung (2004) use a variation of the Ladder of Participation in writing about public deliberation in general, not just with youth. Their ladder covers six categories: manipulation, informational, consultation, partnership, delegated power,and citizen control.

These categories are listed from least to most democratic:

Manipulation: At the low-end of the empowerment scale are occasions in which the objective of sponsors is to bring participants around to their position or increase participants’ acceptance of policies and decisions. Arnstein illustrates this category with examples of citizen advisory boards used as a rubber stamp or as a public-relations stunt.

Informational: The central objective of most forms of public participation is to provide information to participants. In many forms of public deliberation, information flows only from officials to citizens, with no mechanism for meaningful feedback. Public meetings in which officials announce policies and answer questions are informational.

Consultation: In consultative forms of public deliberation, citizens are asked for their input but have no clear assurance that their advice will be heeded. For example, at some public hearings, citizens have the opportunity to speak although officials have little responsibility for considering citizen comments. Other venues produce reports and recommendations without assurance that policymakers will adopt them.

Partnership: Less frequently, some venues of public deliberation invite citizens to participate as partners in public decision-making. Such arrangements often create an accountability mechanism to ensure that citizen input is not flagrantly disregarded. Some advisory boards, for example, operate with a charter that requires policymakers to take the advice of the board or to publicly justify their differing choices.

Delegated power: Still more rarely, government may delegate authority over some area of policymaking to a venue of public deliberation. Some neighborhood associations, for example, enjoy substantial zoning authority; other such associations possess budget authority over local projects.

Citizen control: Some venues of public deliberation exercise authoritative decision-making power over a wide-open agenda of issues. The classic example here is the town meeting in the New England tradition, still practiced in hundreds of towns in the northeastern United States.

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How do we encourage democratic participation?

         So how do we go about practicing democracy, promoting active citizenship, and empowering people in communities?
         One set of strategies involves examining how we operate internally to see whether we encourage and support civic engagement in a way that truly allows the airing of diverse issues and the pursuit of new solutions. To achieve this, we need to go beyond bringing those with the least power to the table. We need to design ways for everyone to be heard and respected equally, regardless of power or other status. Two excellent models for promoting community deliberation on difficult issues, called Study Circles and Public Conversations, are listed at the end of this newsletter (see resources).

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        Basic practices:

        What initial steps might we follow when we set up a collaborative effort, in order to increase the likelihood that community participation and democratic processes will happen?
Some practices are simple and may be so obvious that we overlook them, thinking they don’t really matter.
         For example, it’s helpful to set up the room so that participants take seats in a circle, an arrangement that conveniently undoes the authoritarian dynamics that are set up when an audience faces a leader or group of leaders. Yes, moving the furniture is important. Just saying “we’re all here as equals” doesn’t have the same effect.
         The next step is to start the meeting by going around the circle and asking for introductions. We have done these introductions with groups of 60 or 70 people. Although the routine can be time-consuming, it communicates the critical message that we are all here as equals, and all here to participate. Introductions encourage those who are reluctant to talk, making a space at the beginning in which they hear the sounds of their own voices in the meeting.
         Here’s an important side note on introductions. Often when the a room contains many people with formal community roles and only a few residents, the residents introduce themselves by saying, “I’m just Jane (or John) Doe.” Who taught people to introduce themselves that way? The word “just” essentially devalues their position. This happens so frequently that we cannot write it off as the result of individual low self-esteem. Instead, we need to own the fact that we have previously taught people that their voices are not valued in community decision-making. This is a sad conclusion. Our challenge is to create settings in which people will feel that their thoughts and opinions are valued.
         We communicate a very different kind of message as the meeting proceeds. When we ask for community thoughts on a specific issue, we write everyone’s opinion in letters of the same size on the same sheet of newsprint. This represents the fundamental idea that the resident in low-income housing and the mayor both have thoughts that are of equal value in this meeting.
         Dominant voices are the ones most likely to be heard in the meeting. As collaborative leaders, we can use simple techniques and processes that encourage everyone to have a say, regardless of his or her personality or decibel level. We can create a worksheet to clarify the issue at hand, and ask everyone to fill it out. The worksheet can contain questions like, “Where do you want to go?” and “What are the barriers to getting there?” We can then have participants share their answers in pairs or small groups, which then report to the large group. This will dramatically increase the likelihood that we will hear from the quiet participants as well as the vocal ones..

When you think about it, these simple actions—sitting in a circle while sharing issues and thoughts equally across the community hierarchy in order to solve problems together—are what democracy is really about. Unfortunately, this type of interaction occurs far too infrequently.

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Collaborative Leadership

        To truly engage a large group in community decision-making requires us to practice what is probably an unfamiliar form of leadership called collaborative leadership. A successful collaborative leader has the ability to share power, is flexible, can see the big picture, is trustworthy, has patience, abundant energy and hope.
            Being a collaborative leader requires a range of skills:       

  • Be inclusive, promote diversity
  • Practice shared decision making
  • Resolve conflicts constructively
  • Communicate clearly, openly, and honestly
  • Facilitate group interaction
  • Nurture leadership in others and encourage top-level commitment

And here are some helpful “Dos and Don’ts” of collaborative leadership

  • DO remember to delegate
  • DON’T try to juggle too many balls
  • DON’T take it personally
  • DO maintain an action orientation
  • DON’T hog the spotlight
  • DON’T avoid conflict
  • DON’T forget to celebrate the small victories


(Collaborative leadership material adapted from Developing Community Capacity, WK Kellogg Foundation 1994)

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The idea of microdemocracy

        What happens in these meetings can be understood better by looking at the Right Question Project’s concept of microdemocracy. The Right Question Project believes that every time a citizen has an interaction with any part of the democratic system (at a doctor’s office, the welfare office, the bank, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and so on), that moment offers an opportunity within which democracy can be played out—during which the citizen can be heard and respected, can ask questions, can maintain dignity and be a locus of power. Or not. Too often our system fails at these opportunities for microdemocracy. The Right Question Project teaches question-asking skills as one way of increasing the odds that democracy may flourish during these moments.
         The Right Question Project says, “When people are able to focus clearly on decisions, how they are made, the basis for making them, and their opportunities for having a say in them, they are asserting the centrality of transparent, accountable and open decision-making processes in a democracy. Our educational strategy and our vision of Microdemocracy offer a clear way to build a better and stronger democracy.” []

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A Community Story

        I've recently been doing some work with the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Cleghorn is a low-income Hispanic community in an economically struggling former mill town. The neighborhood has had a generally negative reputation in the community.
         The Cleghorn Neighborhood Center (CNC) decided to take a community-building and community-development approach to its work, with the support of the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts. The people at CNC began with an idealistic commitment to visit door-to-door with every household in the 3500-person neighborhood. During these visits, CNC staff made individual contact and did not just ask what was wrong with the community. Building on the work of Kretzmann and McKnight (1993), they also asked what was good about the neighborhood, what the residents would be willing to do to help improve the community, and how the residents thought they could become invested in creating change.
         The door-to-door surveys indicated that 85 percent of Cleghorn residents are unemployed, 82 percent are looking for employment, the majority speak only Spanish, and many of these Spanish-speaking residents are not literate in their native tongue. This has created interesting challenges for the community mobilization process
         The CNC also organized a candidates’ night, at which the five candidates for the local city council seat talked about their positions. Borrowing from the wonderful work of Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Dubois (1994), the candidates were asked to go to five tables where the residents were sitting and to listen as residents described their neighborhood. Then, instead of getting up and giving a political speech, each candidate was to summarize what he or she had heard. This was a huge success for all participating. The format highlighted residents’ concerns and made a lasting impression on all the candidates—especially on the one who was successful in the election. He became a regular visitor to the center, attending all resident meetings and maintaining a mail box on site! The residents began to understand that what they say mattered, and that political candidates might actually listen to them.
         Building on the door-to-door individual contacts and earlier meetings, a well-attended community meeting was held in June of this year. Community members identified needs and issues, and they formed problem-solving volunteer work groups. The residents also identified and reported on the community’s strengths, which were acknowledged by strong applause and smiling faces. This community was not accustomed to talking about itself in positive terms.
         During this year’s campaign season when the city councilor was running unopposed, that councilor held a candidates’ night for people running for other citywide offices, such as city councilor at-large and school committee member, and located this meeting in the Cleghorn neighborhood. The meeting was scheduled on the night of a regular biweekly Cleghorn Community meeting, after which a group of twenty community meeting participants marched over to join the candidates’ night group. When they arrived, they were surprised to see that the second meeting had been delayed for their arrival. The city councilor who'd been elected the year before wasn't going to start without the Cleghorn residents. The following week, eighteen of the residents who had attended this second candidates’ night accompanied the CNC outreach worker to the polls and voted for the first time in their lives.
         If people are offered respect, they will participate in the system, and their participation will benefit all of us.

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Arnstein,S.(1969) A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planning, 35, no. 4 : 216–224.

Hart, R. (1997) Children's Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care, London: Earthscan Publications; New York: UNICEF.

Kretzmann,J & McKnight,J. (1993) Building Communities from the Inside Out, ACTA Publications, Chicago.

Lappé,F. & Dubois, P (1994) The Quickening of America, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Morse,S. (2004) Practicing Democracy: How Communities Come Together to Solve Problems, National Civic Review 93, no. 2: 31–41.

Williamson, A. &  Fung, A. (2004) Public Deliberation: Where Are We and Where Can We Go? National Civic Review 93, no. 4: 3–15.

What  are study circles?

         A study circle …

  • is a small, diverse group of between 8 and 12 people.
  • meets for several two-hour sessions.
  • sets its own ground rules. This helps the group share responsibility for the quality of the discussion.
  • is led by an impartial facilitator who helps manage the discussion. He or she is not there to teach the group about the issue.
  • starts with personal stories, then helps the group look at a problem from many points of view. Next, the group explores possible solutions. Finally, members make plans for action and change.

         Study circles …

  • involve everyone. They demonstrate that the whole community is welcome and needed.
  • embrace diversity. They reach out to all kinds of people.
  • share knowledge, resources, power, and decision-making.
  • combine dialogue and deliberation. They create public talk that builds understanding and explores a range of solutions.
  • connect deliberative dialogue to social, political, and policy change.

         A study circle program …

  • is organized by a diverse group of people from the whole community.
  • includes a large number of people from all walks of life.
  • has easy-to-use, fair-minded discussion materials.
  • uses trained facilitators who reflect the community’s diversity.
  • moves a community to action when the study circles conclude.

About the Public Conversations Project -

The mission of the project is: To foster a more inclusive, empathic, and collaborative society by promoting constructive conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions about divisive public issues.
The project serves:

  • activists in adversarial relationships who are interested in talking with each other directly, rather than through the media, in ways that reduce stereotyping and defensiveness;
  • groups and networks who seek to more effectively collaborate despite differences of identity or perspective;
  • civic leaders, political officials, and educators who seek to build community and enhance democracy;
  • religious leaders seeking to foster dialogue on divisive issues within and across communities of faith;
  • citizens interested in communicating across deeply rooted differences of perspective, identity, or world view;
  • mediators and other third-party practitioners interested in learning new approaches to the design and facilitation of dialogue;
  • scholars in the fields of alternative dispute resolution, communication, and community-building; and,
  • the public.

About the Right Question Project -

The Right Question Project (RQP) is mentioned in more depth earlier in this newsletter. The organization’s goal is to help “people . . . ask the right questions to advocate for themselves, and focus on the decisions that affect them.” RQP also says, “When people are able to focus clearly on decisions, how they are made, the basis for making them, and their opportunities for having a say in them, they are asserting the centrality of transparent, accountable and open decision-making processes in a democracy.”
A social service provider and aide to a Member of Parliament from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, shared RQP’s concept of microdemocracy with new immigrants and remarked, “We live in a democratic society and it is possible for us, for all of us, for everyone to have some influence but it’s a matter of just getting involved. [RQP] is a way for people to represent themselves, and to deal with government agencies, and to be able to achieve something.”

Youth on Board Publications -

The Youth on Board publication
14 Points: Successfully Involving Youth in Decision Making is a winner. Here’s the organization’s description:
If you want to include young people in a program, initiative, or change effort, or if you are already working with young people and want to do so more effectively, then this is the resource for you. This 220-page comprehensive guide to youth involvement is a logical starting point for preparing young people to take ownership of their communities. It includes guidelines, worksheets, tips, resource directory, and stories from the street—all designed to help young people and adults work together to improve their communities.

  • Learn how to recruit, hire, train and mentor young leaders.
  • Discover the importance of strong youth/adult relationship change efforts.
  • Hear about other successful youth involvement efforts.
  • Learn how to sell others on the concept of youth involvement.

Also check out Youth on Board: Why and How to Involve Young People in Organizational Decision-Making, which they describe as follows:
Produced in collaboration with BoardSource (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards), this booklet is perfect for the busy staff person or board chair who wants to find out about involving young people in decision-making but does not have time to read our book 14 Points. It features an overview of Youth on Board’s 14-point system for successfully involving youth in decision-making, and addresses why organizations would want to include young people in their decision-making process. The booklet is also great for providing introductory information to boards and committees to help decide if this is the right route for them.

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