Authentic community engagement

It can be argued that our nation now stands at a more divided place than possibly any other time in our history, with the exception of the Civil War. Then, the divisions were around region (north versus south), economy (industrial versus agricultural) and morality (debates about the institution of slavery).

Today, we have serious and real divisions present around things such as ideology (conservatism versus liberalism), values (freedom versus equality) and even religion (believers versus non-believers).

In no way diminishing the terrible sacrifices that occurred during the Civil War, in some ways our divisions today are possibly more difficult to reconcile because they are not generally sectioned off into the north and the south. Our divisions are within states, communities, neighborhoods and even within families.

Instead of communities working together on their problems, the conversations quickly descend into fact wars, distortions based on any number of logical fallacies and intentional efforts to portray the other group as a "them" and undermine "their" legitimacy of even being able to engage in the conversation. Snarky sound bites and ad hominem attacks, coupled with an increasing "tuning out," become the norm.

While one need look no further than the daily circus that is the current state of our national government, the same sorts of behaviors that are all too common in Washington are increasingly present within our communities.

As many of you know, I am leaving the superintendent role with Eagle County Schools to assume that position with Jefferson County Public Schools on July 1. As I've worked on my professional transition from our relatively peaceful Eagle River Valley into the more bare-knuckle politics that come with the Front Range, I see a microcosm of the same tensions and behaviors that are fracturing our nation.

One of the main problems is that we have lost our ability to hear one another and acknowledge what Colorado communication researchers Martin Carcasson and Leah Sprain call "competing positive values" — an understanding that there are many difficult community situations where "multiple legitimate values point reasonable people in conflicting directions."

One possible solution to our dilemma is a process known as "deliberative democracy," where decisions are reached through the authentic engagement of the community, respectful inclusion of multiple perspectives and consensus building.

Researchers James Fishkin and Robert Luskin identified five core concepts for what deliberative democracy should be:

• Informed: Arguments should be supported by reasonably accurate factual claims.

• Balanced: Arguments should be met by contrary arguments.

• Conscientious: The participants should be willing to talk and listen with civility and respect.

• Substantive: Arguments should be considered sincerely on their merits, not on how they are made or who is making them.

• Comprehensive: All points of view held by significant portions of the population should receive attention.

This kind of intentional and deliberate communication and decision-making is certainly not without its downsides. It moves our form of democracy closer to the direct model (i.e., we are engaged in decisions directly), rather than the representative model (i.e., we elect others to represent us in making decisions). These processes can be time-consuming, contentious and are certainly inefficient compared to more top-down approaches.

However, given the state in which we currently find ourselves, I'd argue this kind of direct engagement is exactly the kind of work we need to be doing — speaking our truths, but also hearing one another.

Sir Winston Churchill said, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

Indeed.