Creating "Real" Spaces for Public Discourse: The Cupertino Community Project

Shawn Spano

Overview and Introduction
The Cupertino Project: Voices and Visions is a project designed to provide residents of Cupertino, CA opportunities to discuss important issues facing the community. It is an innovative experiment in public discourse in that it attempts to advance participatory forms of democracy, particularly at the grass-roots level involving face-to-face public deliberation. This is achieved by creating creating places in the community for citizens to express their views of the city, their visions of what kind of city Cupertino can be, and their plans for how to move forward into the next century. The overarching goal of the project is to increase citizen participation in public decision-making and to enlarge citizen influence in shaping the future direction of the community.

The Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) developed the Cupertino Project in coordination De Anza College and the City of Cupertino, most notably the Cupertino City Manager. Other city officials, including the Mayor and City Council, participated in various segments of the project. Recently, the PDC conducted extensive interviews with the Mayor and City Council to solicit their views on Phases I and II of the project and their ideas for moving into the next phase. Thus far PDC members have facilitated all group discussions, meetings, and interviews. As indicated later, we plan to train city officials and other Cupertino residents in our communication techniques as part of the next phase of the project.

The PDC itself is composed of communication professors from De Anza College (Kim Walters), San Jose State University (Shawn Spano), Loyola University Chicago (Barnett Pearce), University of New Mexico (Stephen Littlejohn), and Baylor University (Kevin Barge), and Dennison University (Victoria Chen). Other members include students from San Jose State University and the University of Southern California. We are a nonprofit organization. We have received two start-up grants from the Packard foundation and the Department of Administration and Justice. The group is currently seeking a large grant from the Packard foundation to fund continuation of the Cupertino Project.

The Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) is a somewhat unique group in that we attempt to bridge the scholarship of discovery or basic communication research with what Boyer (1981), in his report Scholarship Reconsidered, calls the "scholarship of application." Our way of applying scholarship is to join with others in public settings using what we know about communication to help bring about more productive and less polarized forms of public discourse. Using conventional research methods and the scholarship of discovery, we then inquire into these events and make assessments in order to enlarge our understandings of communication and public discourse.

Overview of Phase I
The PDC started work on the Cupertino Project in March 1996. The first phase of the project consisted of a series of ten focus group meetings involving close to 90 Cupertino residents. Each of the meetings lasted two hours and included a cross-section of residents, including business owners, retirees, high schools students, homemakers, teachers, law enforcement officers, and foreign-born citizens. Focus group members were contacted by the PDC from the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters list obtained through the city.

The focus group meetings were designed and facilitated so that participants were free to express their own views of the city in whatever way felt comfortable to them. For example, participants were encouraged to talk about what they liked about Cupertino and the kind of community they would like Cupertino to be, in addition to identifying issues that were of most concern to them personally and to the long-term health of community. The PDC group facilitators were careful not to impose an agenda on the group or introduce their own topics in the discussion. In addition, participants were assured anonymity in an attempt to help foster an open and honest communication climate.

When asked what they liked most about Cupertino, residents identified the following: the quality of the public schools, the active citizen participation in city government and community events, the small town atmosphere and friendly people, the open spaces and natural beauty of the area, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the residents, and the feeling of safety and general lack of crime. It was obvious from the group discussions that Cupertino has many strengths and that residents appreciate the many benefits the city has to offer.

Another theme emerging from the focus groups was the need to address common concerns and solve common issues. For example, the issue of cultural richness and ethnic diversity was talked about in every one of the focus group meetings. There was a clear sense among the group participants that the changing demographic face of Cupertino, especially in terms of the increasing number of new Asian residents, provides opportunities for cultural enrichment. Participants talked about the possibilities these changing demographics have for Cupertino and are looking for ways to bring these possibilities into the city and into their daily lives.

While focus group participants expressed the desire to move forward as a community in ways that capitalize on the current diversity within the city, they also expressed concern that the issue is not always being discussed publicly or dealt with in ways that are mutually beneficial. Our reading of the group discussion was that this concern has not turned to pessimism. In fact, there was wide agreement among the participants that Cupertino has both the resources and intellectual spirit to create a healthy climate for discussing this issue.

Another issue that emerged from the focus group meetings was community safety. While participants mostly felt that Cupertino was a safe place to live they also expressed the need to maintain current levels of safety. This issue played itself out in at least two ways. First, participants felt that law enforcement must be diligent in stopping crime from moving into the city from neighboring communities. This was viewed as especially important because of the threat to public school students and the potential for gang activity. The second way the community safety issue was discussed was in terms of traffic congestion and transportation safety.

The PDC assessed the themes and issues emerging from the focus group meetings and developed a plan to continue public discussion of the cultural richness and community safety issues. The goal in continuing the project was to broaden the number of participants and to increase the opportunities for discussion. At the same time, we sought to focus discussion more specifically on peoples' visions for cultural richness and community safety and their plans for turning their visions into specific plans and policies.

Overview of Phase II
Phase II of the Cupertino Project started in September 1996 and progressed along two parallel tracks. The first track consisted of training over a 100 students from the two local high schools, Monta Vista and Cupertino High, to conduct intergenerational, community interviews on cultural richness and community safety. Members of the PDC conducted three separate training sessions with students. Each session began with a brief overview of an interviewing technique called "appreciative inquiry," or AI. Briefly, AI encourages respondents to talk about what they value in a given situation. It attempts to frame a situation around what is positive and possible rather than defining it as a problem in need of a solution.

After learning about AI, students were then given a semi-structured interview protocol consisting of the following questions: What does cultural richness/community safety mean to you? Could you tell me about a positive experience you have had with cultural richness/community safety? What can the Cupertino community do to help make positive experiences happen in the future? A series of mock interviews were staged so that students could practice their skills before actually conducting interviews with community residents.

The second track of Phase II consisted of eight dialogue group meetings involving 40 Cupertino residents. Similar to the focus groups, participants were contacted by PDC members from the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters list. A cross-section of residents participated in the dialogue groups, including some people who participated in the focus groups. Each dialogue group meeting lasted approximately four hours. PDC members facilitated the meetings using a semi-structured interview protocol similar to the one used by the high school students for the community interviews. In addition to AI, the PDC facilitators utilized "circular questioning," "harvesting," and other communication techniques that we have developed for use in public situations involving discussion of important social issues.

The dialogue group meetings were divided into two parts, corresponding to the two topics of interest: cultural richness and community safety. Participants first discussed their meanings for the term "cultural richness" and their visions for how Cupertino can best take advantage of cultural richness in the future. Next, participants were asked to develop a series of action plans for how to turn their visions into reality. This same interview protocol was then used in the second half of the meeting where discussion focused on the community safety issue.

In compiling a summary of the eight dialogue group discussions, we found that cultural richness is talked about in terms of finding the right balance between one's own personal and cultural identity and developing appropriate sensitivity to other cultures. The groups discussed the need for shared values that create a sense of community and commonality. They also talked about how to accomplish this without denying a person's cultural heritage. As one group participant put it, "we want diversity and common ground, and both can be achieved."

In terms of specific action plans, group participants believed that cultural richness could be realized if people demonstrated a commitment and willingness to make it happen. Some of the more common suggestions offered by the groups were community celebrations, educational opportunities (seminars, workshops) that provide cultural knowledge and awareness, institutional activities at the public schools that promote and reward cultural richness, cultural activities that involve children and senior citizens, a fact sheet, pamphlet, and/or multicultural calendar containing relevant cultural and demographic information, and a welcome booklet or a newcomer club to help people who move into Cupertino learn about the community.

The community safety issue, on the other hand, was envisioned by group participants in terms of "mutual support," where residents work together to help make Cupertino a safe place to live. This sort of community solidarity leads to what can be described as "emotional safety." In addition, community safety was also talked about in terms of "physical safety," or the freedom to move about the city without the threat of violence. There was also discussion of "transportation safety" involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists safely coordinating access to public roadways. Finally, community safety was envisioned when law enforcement are "present" and "visible" in the city and where the composition of law enforcement officials reflects the ethnicity of the city.

Action plans generated by the dialogue groups for community safety included community or neighborhood policing. This type of activity was seen by participants as a way for law enforcement and citizens to develop friendly and trustful relationships with one another. Group participants spoke favorably of the Neighborhood Watch Program and encouraged their continuation and expansion. Another action plan included the development of educational presentations by law enforcement so that citizens could learn about burglar proofing their homes and preparing for natural disasters like earthquakes. Participants also discussed the need for a "hot line" which would enable people to contact law enforcement about issues or problems that threaten the safety of the community.

To summarize, the work done on the project up to this point was carefully orchestrated to provide sites for residents in the community to talk "appreciatively" and in "safe contexts" about issues facing the city, particularly in terms of cultural richness and community safety. As a result of these meetings and interviews, a cross-section of Cupertino residents successfully identified important civic issues, discussed their visions for the future of the community, and developed an initial series of action plans for attaining their visions.

The culmination of Phase II of the Cupertino Project was a Town Hall Meeting held on November 20, 1996 at the Quinlan Community Center in Cupertino. Approximately 150 residents participated in the 2 and 1/2 hour meeting. This provided the PDC and the community with an opportunity to talk about issues in a large public forum, as opposed to the small group contexts we had previously worked with. The Town Hall Meeting served at least two important purposes. First, it served as an information gathering session for all city residents to learn about the project and the work that had already been accomplished. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the meeting was designed as an invitation for other community members to join the conversation and help deliberate the future direction of the city.

The room where the Town Hall Meeting was held was equipped with five overhead projectors at the front, a podium in one corner, and a raised stage in the center. Residents sat at one of ten round tables, each with eight seats. The meeting itself was divided into three segments. In the first segment, members of the PDC introduced the Cupertino Project and overviewed the events that would take place during the course of the meeting. This was followed by introductions among the participants seated at the tables. Participants were also asked to assign roles (discussion leader, reporter, time-keeper) to those seated at each table.

The second segment of the meeting began with a round-table discussion of the high school students on their experiences doing the community interviews. This was followed with reports by dialogue group representatives on the results of their group meetings. Results from the dialogue groups were also posted on the overhead projectors at the front of the room. Participants seated at the tables were then asked to discuss among themselves "what they liked" and "what concerned them" about the information they heard. The results of these deliberations were written down and collected by members of the PDC, who sifted through the information and complied a summary chart. The Mayor and City Council concluded the segment by each responding to the visions and action plans that were discussed.

The final segment of the meeting was designed to encourage participants to consider the next steps that should be taken to further the project. We began with an overview of the table deliberations from segment two. This was accomplished by posting the summary chart on the overhead projectors and having a PDC member summarize the various visions and action plans generated by the groups. Participants discussed the options at their tables, and were then given a sheet indicating which action plan they would like to be involved in and how others interested in the plan might contact them. Don Brown, the Cupertino City Manager, was then asked to provide closing comments.

The PDC arranged to have a group of outside consultants observe, critique and respond to the Town Hall Meeting. Consultants were hired based on their familiarity with the project and/or the work of the PDC, as well as their ability to render critical evaluations from multiple perspectives. The consultant group included city officials, academics, communication researchers and teachers, and administrators. The consultants provided candid and constructive criticism to the PDC in two face-to-face meetings following the Town Hall event. We found many of the consultants' comments to be very useful and have already incorporated some of what we learned into the next phase of the project.

Two particular criticisms stood out to us, in part because they were consistently identified by the consultants as well as some of the Cupertino residents who participated in the Town Hall Meeting. The first criticism was that the meeting did not address some of the underlying feelings of frustration, hostility, and conflict that lie below the surface of the cultural richness issue. Another criticism concerned the outcome of the meeting and the sense that a specific action plan did not emerge with a clear consensus and commitment from the group.

The PDC is sensitive to these objections. We would like to emphasize, however, the importance of viewing the town hall meeting as creating a public climate in which people feel "safe" to discuss socially sensitive issues like cultural richness. In order to avoid the familiar polarized nature of public conflict, we are convinced that conditions must be altered for more healthy forms of communication to emerge. We are further convinced that this process takes time and should not be rushed. In regards to the second criticism, we view the town hall meeting as "beginning" the hard work of doing public deliberation. We think it is critical to engage maximum participation in the deliberative process before coming to closure on any given action or policy plan.

Overview of Phase III
Phase III of the Cupertino Project is currently underway. Beginning in December, PDC members interviewed the Mayor and each of the City Council to help gauge their responses to the first two phases of the project and to begin charting out a specific plan for the third phase. Our goal at this point was to frame the City Council's response to the residents so that it creates a pattern of communication consistent with participatory democracy. Our hope is to develop a plan that will enhance the creation of different forms of public discourse, while inviting all segments of the community to participate in making decisions and choosing among various courses of action.

To this end, the PDC has proposed a Phase III plan which consists of three interrelated aspects. First, we propose training city officials and community residents to practice our communication methods. This move toward decentralization will ultimately create more opportunities in the community for people to discuss cultural richness, community safety, and other social issues. More specifically, on January 25, the City Council will meet with the PDC for a "Team-Building" day. During this day, the PDC will conduct a training for the City Council in ways of facilitating public dialogue; will work with the Council in responding in a dialogic manner to the voices of the community; and will work with the Council in planning for a training session to be held in February.

In late February, between 50 and 100 civic leaders will be personally invited by members of the City Council to participate in a two-day training session. The specific agenda of this session will be developed by the PDC and the Council at the January 25 meeting, but its general purposes are clear. They include: 1) explaining to the leaders of the community the communication principles that lie behind the project; 2) inviting them to join the project by facilitating the development of better patterns of communication throughout the community; and 3) inviting the leaders of the community to join the Council in thinking through its proposed response to the community's voices gathered in Phases I and II.

The second aspect of Phase III calls for creating different types of public forums for discussion of social issues. We are aware of the criticisms levied by the consultants and other community members concerning the format of the Town Hall Meeting and the inability of this type of forum to address underlying conflicts and achieve consensus on a specific action plan. While it is important to note that these were not the intended purposes of the Town Hall Meeting, we plan on exploring other types of meetings that would, in fact, fact achieve different goals. For example, one possibility is to facilitate a meeting that follows the model used by the National Issues Forum. A small number of fully articulated action plans would be compiled in advance and participants at the meeting would deliberate and select one particular plan from the list.

Another type of public meeting offered by the PDC is Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope sessions are designed specifically for intervention purposes dealing with contentious social issues involving disputants who are "stuck" in patterns of unhealthy conflict. The goal of a Kaleidoscope session is to transform the polarized patterns of communication surrounding a given issue. A local issue concerning environmental pollution surfaced during the town hall meeting. It is our sense that the issue has all the characteristics of a polarized public conflict, leading us to believe that the disputants in the conflict can benefit from the kind of Kaleidoscope intervention that we offer.

The third and final aspect of Phase III involves scholarly research. From its inception, the PDC has focused on the practical issues of improving the quality of "real" public discourse. At the same time, we have attempted to solve these practical problems by incorporating theoretical and methodological practices derived from a social constructionist communication perspective. As a result, we have always traversed the two worlds of scholarship and application, believing that both can be enriched by the other. I suppose that this way of working is sufficient to characterize us as "Rogue Scholars."

In any case, we are proposing two lines of research coming out of the Cupertino Project. First, we plan on doing "network analysis" of the community to find out not only what is being talked about by various segments of the community, but how the topics of these conversations are being discussed.

The second avenue for scholarly research includes the use of thematic discourse analysis. For example, I am currently using narrative themes from Phases I and II of the project as a basis for investigating the discourse of the Town Hall Meeting. One such theme constructed around cultural richness is the way in which it is viewed as an "undiscussible" issue. How did this theme shape the discourse of the Town Hall Meeting? In what ways did this story constrain the discussion of cultural richness? What actions, practices, or episodes, if any, disrupted the assumptions of the theme?

The answers to these and other questions will help to advance our understandings of how the cultural richness issue was being constructed through processes of public discourse during the Cupertino Town Hall Meeting. In keeping with the "practical theory" orientation of the PDC, this research will also help us to improve our abilities to facilitate public discourse in ways that best achieve the benefits of participatory democracy.