community organizing and public deliberation

Matt Leighninger, director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, has written a wise and inspiring paper called Creating Spaces for Change for the Kellogg Foundation. It is the product of several meetings in which community organizers interacted with people who define their roles as promoting public deliberation. The tensions between these two conceptions of “democracy”–and the potential for melding them–have interested me for many years. I’ve addressed the topic in published writings, e.g., here. But Matt’s report breaks new ground.

Deliberative democracy first arose as a response to a blinkered notion of politics as mere power. The dominant view of political scientists during the 1950s and 1960s was that individuals and organizations want things. They have options, such as to vote, to contribute money, to run for office, to strike, to sue, or to threaten violence, and they make their choices in order to get as much of what they want as possible. Political outcomes are the result of many simultaneous choices.

Deliberative democrats criticized that theory from a moral perspective, saying that we should not be satisfied with policies that arise because individuals and groups try to get what they want. They may not want good things; their power is starkly unequal; and some of their tactics are unethical. Besides, people don’t know what they want until they have communicated with others. So we should talk and listen before we try to get things.

But talk can be very harmful, as when evil dictators talk their followers into murderous action. Thus a crucial second step for deliberative democrats is to define some kinds of communication as better than others and to name the better kinds “deliberation.” Typically, the hallmarks of deliberation include the diversity of the participants, their equality of influence, freedom of speech, openness and transparency, reasonableness, and civility.

There is now a field devoted to organizing tangible public deliberations at a human scale: meetings, summits, “citizens’ juries,” community dialogues, moderated online forums, and various hybrids of these. They all involve convening diverse groups of citizens and asking them to talk, without any expectation or hope that they will reach one conclusion rather than another. The population that is convened, the format, and the informational materials are all supposed to be neutral or balanced. There is an ethic of deference to whatever views may emerge from democratic discussion. Efforts are made to insulate the process from deliberate attempts to manipulate it.

In contrast, activism or advocacy implies an effort to enlist or mobilize citizens toward some end. At their best, advocates are candid about their goals and open to critical suggestions. But they are advocating for something. Many advocates for disadvantaged populations explicitly say that deliberation is a waste of their limited resources. They note that just because people are invited to talk as equals, the discussion will not necessarily be fair. Participants who have more education, social status, and allies may wield disproportionate power. Individuals and groups who are satisfied with the status quo have an advantage over those who want change, because they can use the discussion to delay decisions. (They can “filibuster.”)

Talking with people who hold different views can cause us to temper or censor our sincere views in order to avoid confrontation; and such self-editing reduces our passion and our motivation to act. Social movements that oppose injustice seem to arise when “homogeneous people … are in intense regular contact with each other.” (Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, 1996).

For their part, proponents of deliberation often see organized advocacy as a threat to fair and unbiased discussion; hence they struggle to protect deliberative forums from being “manipulated” by groups with an agenda. One tactic for this purpose is to select potential participants randomly (like a jury), so that it is impossible for an interest group to mobilize its members to attend. Overall, deliberation seems cool, cerebral, slow, and middle-class. Activism seems urgent, passionate, effective, and available to all.

Community organizing is a type of activism. It is concerned with just social outcomes (not just processes). But many community organizers have deep concerns about respecting all voices, including ideologically diverse ones, building trust and networks among fellow citizens, and developing civic skills that include skills of listening and collaborating. Thus the gap between deliberation and community organizing can be very small. After one meeting that Matt describes, Eduardo Martinez of the New Mexico Forum for Youth and Community (a community organizer) remarked, “We may use different terminology and have different local issues, but most of the discussion was about how similar our work is.”

Another organizer, Jah’Shams Abdul-Mumin, nicely articulated the limitations of both fields in making a case for combining them: “The organizing community often treats people in a pejorative manner. Meanwhile, the deliberative democracy crowd includes a lot of extremely intellectual types. Neither group owns up to the things they can do better to relate to people.”

There were, evidently, tough discussions about the value (if any) of neutrality and whether concern for social equality needs to be built into deliberative processes. There were also debates about what to call the whole field that includes both deliberation and community organizing. “Civic engagement” seems too dry; “citizenship” can be understood as exclusive and merely legal. Nobody knows what “deliberation” is, and “community organizing” has perhaps “been stretched so far over the last forty years that it has lost much of its meaning.” But overall, there seems to have been much enthusiasm for the idea that issue advocacy, community organizing, deliberative democracy, and racial equity may be parts of one larger cycle or ecosystem–a “wheel of engagement,” as some called it.

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