Eric B. Kennedy
On September 15th, 2012, I found myself at an impressively diverse table. Gathered around me were a church’s facilities manager, a student, a data analyst, an American Indian, and a university staffer. Their task over the day ahead – important, if daunting – was to share a citizen voice on biodiversity. Mine was to observe the deliberative process with an eye towards the collaboration, social dynamics, and struggles unfolding around me.
As I’ve reflected on the experiences since then, many memories remain. I was deeply encouraged, for instance, by the degree to which the participants engaged with each other, new ideas, and challenging questions. Their commitment to collaborating and hearing each others’ voices was admirable, and despite the occasional impassioned interruption, the group managed to deliberate relatively equally and effectively. As the group built trust and comfort with each other, it was particularly special to hear the conversation turn towards more personal stories of childhoods spent in the wilderness, and even to significant individual aspirations of giving back and taking responsibility locally and globally.
These successes were encouraging, but also captured my interest enough to wonder how these sorts of deliberative processes could be improved in future iterations. To what degree, for instance, was the group self-selecting towards those with strong interests in biodiversity? What real-time resources could be made available to participants to assist in answering the many pressing questions that arose during discussions?
Amid these memories and questions, however, something else stands out most strongly one month later. On September 15th, something special happened. Gathered around tables, the tone of conversation shifted fundamentally from the partisan and polarized politics so common elsewhere.
Something different happened. Listening happened. Long-term dreaming happened. Problem solving happened. Genuine conversation happened.
Incredible things happen when polarized politics become participatory. No matter what comes to pass with the decisions, voting, and recommendations made that day, I hope that one month later – and well into the future – those involved remember the kind of collaborations and conversations that can occur when you connect with the diverse community around you.
Eric is a PhD student at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University, and a graduate in Knowledge Integration from the University of Waterloo. He’s interested in trust, expertise, and collaboration, and is eager to re-imagine political systems as participatory and positive spaces. You can get in touch with him at ericbkennedy.ca.