Holding a Forum on a Difficult Public Issue

Talking politics may seem like a great way to spoil a conversation, yet issues of public concern cannot be ignored. To remedy the situation, church leaders can hold forums on the public issues of the day, as long as they are well structured and fair. The meeting must be designed so that everyone gets a chance to speak, others listen respectfully, and the best solutions emerge. In other words, make it deliberative. The term deliberation may seem a little opaque, but it describes a specific style of conversation in which “citizens, public officials, public employees, and other stakeholders interact in small-group sessions where they share experiences, consider a range of policy options, and decide together what should be done.”[1]

Deliberative work has become increasingly important given the sorry state of political discourse these days.Whether at the federal, state and local levels, policy making has become an arena of deadlock and dysfunction. Ordinary citizens often feel marginalized when it comes to political decision making, as issues get framed in the media and by elected officials in a way that leads to divisiveness, so that elected officials and even voters make poor decisions because they not allowed the time to discuss the options together.[2] Deliberative forums are a tool that churches can use to help communities think better as they grapple with these issues.

Deliberative forums go by a variety of different names and take a variety of forms. Some processes were named by the people or organizations that developed them, such as Public Issues Forums, Dialogue-to-Change Programs, and 21st Century Town Meetings. Or you may hear them under more generic rubrics like “community conversations,” “study circle programs,” or “roundtables.” A few of the key organizations promoting deliberative forums are Everyday Democracy, the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, the National Institute for Civil Discourse. What these forums have in common is a highly structured process which usually requires some advance preparation from the participants, and which aims at securing a diverse group of people.[3]

Deliberative work tends to be exploratory and open to revision. The meeting must be designed so that everyone gets a chance to speak, listen respectfully, and move toward understanding so that some common ground or possible solutions emerge. For this reason, the guides for National Issues Forums always present three different and sharply defined policy options, then ask participants to play with the options, keeping in mind the trade-offs or disadvantages implicit in each one. Hard tactics have no place in deliberative work.

Deliberative forums can be employed when rhetoric has spiraled out of control. For example, two pastors in Oak Ridge, Tennessee joined forces in 2015 in response to the heated public debate over police violence and community safety. Oak Ridge has been dubbed “The Secret City” in reference to its origins in the 1940s as a community for workers in the federally sponsored Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Over time this city of 29,000 has become more diverse (White 83%, African American 8%, Hispanic 4% and Asian American 2%). In the summer of 2015, (the largely white) Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church responded to widespread outrage over police violence nationwide by posting a message on its electronic sign: Black Lives Matter. When the pastor, the Rev. Jake Morrill, began receiving death threats, he called a meeting with his colleague, the Rev. Derrick Hammond, Pastor of Oak Valley Baptist Church, a largely black congregation in the city. At that meeting, also attended by a Roman Catholic priest and the city’s chief of police, the group decided to take the sign down and to host a series of three public forums called “Community Matters.”

Though not acquainted with term “deliberative” at the time, the group managed to design its own process for discussing the community’s issues fairly and in depth. The process aimed to 1) identify the issues of most concern to the community, 2) do research using quantitative data that would offer an objective basis for understanding the concern, 3) identify resources that might improve the situation, and 4) resolve the issue by taking collective action. The ground rules were simple. Participants were to 1) Speak as an individual, not as a representative of a group, 2) Speak to concerns without laying blame or personal attacks, and 3) “Remember there is no room for disrespect.”[6]

The Reverend Gregg Kaufmann, a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) in Jacksonville, Florida, has begun using one type of process, the National Issues Forum, to introduce deliberative work to church groups. A few months before the presidential election in 2016, Kaufmann held forum at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on the topic of political dysfunction. Using a guide designed by the National Issues Forum Institute, Political Fix: How Can We Get American Politics Back On Track? Kaufman laid out the process for the group.

First, everyone present was invited to speak of a personal stake in the issue. Next Kaufman presented ground rules that emphasized listening and respect. Then he added a twist: no talk about the Trump/Pence or Clinton/Kaine tickets. The goal was to find ways to talk about the political dysfunction and solutions to the problem in a way that encouraged respectful speaking and listening. Discussing politics with strangers can be intimidating even if it’s an issue that might find wide agreement like the topic of reducing political dysfunction. Some had arrived at the meeting tense, expecting heated arguments. Before the discussion was very far along, however, the tenor of the group began to shift. “Speech that was like shaky steps on thin ice began to take on the feel of a driveway basketball game.” Kaufman has held over a dozen such forums in the Jacksonville area, with most of them using churches as sponsors or to provide the venue.

Cool speech can be learned. Group discussion does not have to be twisted by anger or marred by disrespect. Deliberation is possible, even concerning controversial matters such as immigration, community policing or gun violence. By hosting forums, church leaders can offer a space where difficult issues get raised, and though perhaps not resolved, at least considered respectfully and well. Along the way, churches might help their neighbors learn how to be better citizens.

 

[1] Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation For The 21st Century (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2015), 276.

[2] What Does the Kettering Foundation Do? (Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation, 2018).

[3] Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation, 276-277.

[4] Richard Wood, Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 3.

[5] Richard Wood, Faith in Action,168.

[6] Derrick Hammond, “Employing Democratic Practices to Address Community Forum Concerns” presented to the Kettering Foundation, October 20-21, 2016.

Drawing: Small Group Discussion, Kayak Wallpaper, March 8, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation For The 21st Century (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2015), 276.

[2] What Does the Kettering Foundation Do? (Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation, 2018).

[3] Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger, Public Participation, 276-277.

[4] Richard Wood, Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 3.

[5]Richard Wood, Faith in Action,168.

[6] Derrick Hammond, “Employing Democratic Practices to Address Community Forum Concerns” presented to the Kettering Foundation, October 20-21, 2016.

[7] Linell Ajello, “Out of the Shadows of Polarization,” Kettering Review 34, no. 1 (Fall 2017), 23-29.

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