A Space for Public Conversation: The Cupertino Community Project
Shawn Spano & Victoria Chen
The Cupertino Community Project is grounded in a vision of participatory democracy. We believe that participatory democracy is worth pursuing and we believe that it can be achieved by carefully attending to the patterns of communication people use to discuss public issues. Unfortunately, the patterns of communication in which issues are discussed do not normally bring about public support and social cohesion. Our experiences, like those of many others, is that public discourse is all too often characterized by confrontation and polarization. People speak as advocates on a given issue, usually to further some special interest, and oppose those who take a different position. Not only is it difficult for government officials and citizens to discuss public issues in this climate of confrontation, the outcomes and decisions rendered tend to be less than satisfactory. It is not surprising given this climate that many citizens simply avoid discussing public issues.
The lack of citizen engagement in public discourse has devastating effects on participatory democracy. Simply put, participatory democracy depends on citizens being directly involved in deciding what issues will be discussed, how they will be discussed, and what the outcomes will be. When citizens do not participate, participatory democracy cannot function.
For the past year and a half the Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) has been working on a community project in participatory democracy designed specifically to improve the quality of public discourse. What does quality public discourse look like? We believe that quality public discourse has the following six features:
1. Quality public discourse involves face-to-face, oral communication.
2. Quality public discourse promotes deliberation within a dialogic context.
3. Quality public discourse is systemic in that it seeks to make connections between various individuals and groups in a community.
4. Quality public discourse attends to moral conflict and cultural difference.
5. Quality public discourse is issue oriented.
6. Quality public discourse seeks transformation and change.
We now present a brief history of the Cupertino Project, followed by a brief analysis of the implications of this project on intercultural communication, a salient theme that emerged from our work with the Cupertino citizens.
Brief History of the Cupertino Project
When the rogue communication scholar group met last February at the WSCA conference we reported on Phases I and II of the Cupertino Community Project. Briefly, these phases involved focus group and dialogue group discussions among a cross-section of Cupertino residents. In Phase I, about 100 citizens participated in focus groups to talk about their concerns and visions for the community. Two issues emerged out of these discussion: cultural richness and community safety. Phase II proceeded with dialogue group discussions, intergenerational interviews, and a large Town Hall Meeting. Each of these activities focused on the issues of cultural richness and community safety.
Phase III of the Cupertino Project
Phase III of the Project started in December 1996 and ran through March 1997. There was a major break between Phases II and III of the project. The PDC had a fairly clear idea of what Phase II would look like when we finished Phase I. Some activities emerged in process, such as the intergenerational interviews, but the dialogue groups and large public meeting were planned from the beginning of the phase. By contrast, we did not have a similar vision for Phase III. In fact, when we concluded the Town Hall Meeting in November 1996 we immediately began preparing for a workshop presentation the following Thursday at the Speech Communication Association Convention in San Diego, CA. We were jubilant about facilitating our first public meeting and satisfied with how it went, to be sure. But mostly we were tired and wore out. Cupertino City Manager, Don Brown, attended one of our two post-Town Hall evaluation meetings along with other public administrators, educational administrators, teachers, and communication practitioners. At the end of the meeting Don Brown asked us, "What's next?" We did not have a ready-made answer so we began talking about plans for the next phase. We felt that it was important to continue working on the project sooner rather than later in order to capitalize on the momentum from the Town Hall Meeting.
What emerged was an open-ended process that consisted initially of obtaining buy in from Cupertino City Council members and inviting them to help define what the next steps should be. From the perspective of the PDC, we felt that it was important at this juncture to invite the City Council to become more involved in the project. By design, the Council had remained relatively silent during Phases I and II. The idea here was for the Council to assume a listener position while residents expressed their concerns, visions, and action plans. By and large, the Council did an admirable job in the listener role.
This communication flow where average citizens speak and elected officials listen reverses the typical direction of most public discourse. This reversed flow was intentional on our part; it served to highlight our sensitivities to the power dynamics that normally exist between city leaders and average citizens. Within the political structure of Cupertino City government, the Council holds a different position from residents and other non-elected city employees. For example, when the five Council Members meet all together in the same place it is officially, recognized as a public meeting. Working with the metaphor that the Cupertino Project is a conversation, we defined the initial stage of Phase III as one in which the City Council would take their turn in the ongoing.
The first activity of Phase III, designed to give the City Council a voice in the project, involved interviewing the five Cupertino City Council members. A senior member of the PDC conducted individual interviews with each of the Council members about three weeks after the Town Hall Meeting. The interviews focused on the cultural richness and community safety issues. The interviews were confidential and were not be to be used in any public document or meeting. The goal here was to prompt Council members to speak as candidly as possible. Immediately following each of the interviews the PDC member summarized the interview in writing and returned the summary to the individual Council members for corrections. A copy of each of the final, corrected summaries were then distributed to all the Council members.
In his cover letter to Council members, the PDC member who conducted the interviews offered the following three observations, each of which is expressed through appreciative language. First, he noted how impressed he was "by the seriousness of purpose" and fund of knowledge that each of the Council members bring to their work. Second, he noted that there were significant differences among the council concerning their views of cultural richness and community safety. These differences offer a rich array of possibilities for you to explore and develop. Third, he expressed curiosity about the relationship between each of the Council's views and the views of residents who participated in Phases I and II of the project. "There are some issues about which you have quite different opinions; some issues which the community seems to feel are more crucial than you do; and some which you nominate as more important than do members of the community."
The interviews served a number of important functions in the Cupertino Project. First, they provided the first opportunity for the Council to talk directly and candidly about cultural richness and community safety. second, they provided an initial indication of how the views of the Council members, both individually and collectively, coordinated with each other and with the citizen participants in Phases I and II. Third, they provided a springboard for the second major activity in this phase of the project. The second activity of Phase III consisted of a day-long City Council Team Building and Issue Formation meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to assist the Council in formulating a response to the community and what they heard citizens saying in Phases I and II of the project. The PDC developed the agenda for the meeting and facilitated the discussion. As part of our facilitation, the PDC also assumed the role of the community. This involved summarizing to the Council what was said in the focus groups, dialogue groups, and intergenerational interviews, and in some cases actually speaking for a particular individual or group in the community.
The meeting started with an activity called the Time Line. The five Council members were paired off, with Don Brown serving as the sixth member. Each dyad spent some time identifying the significant events that shaped the community9s understanding of cultural richness. Each dyad then wrote/drew out their cultural richness timeline on a large piece ofbutcher paper taped the wall. Dyads were encouraged to use a variety of different colored markers. They were also encouraged to use words as well as images, figures, pictures, etc.
Group discussion focused on cultural richness as a series of unfolding events. This led the group to consider the next steps in this sequence and how these steps would further shape cultural richness in the community. Out of this discussion the Council generated nine action plans. Members were careful to note that these were not official recommendations since they had not gone through a formal hearing process and vote. The action plans include:
1. Training sessions used to get input into the next steps of the project.
2. Build off the Fourth of July celebration, include a more explicit cultural richness component.
3. Have a community-wide garage sale, might tie into a neighborhood block party program.
4. Have a welcome wagon committee/program/materials, make it available to businesses.
5. Develop an emergency preparedness program.
6. Build off the Chamber of Commerce9s Summer Arts and Wine Festival.
7. Create a Cupertino Community Leadership Council to serve as an advisory group and to train future City leaders, might involve two or three tracks with students, adults, etc.
8. Develop a neighborhood safety fair, perhaps sponsored by the Public Safety Commission.
9. Increase public safety information about community safety.
The action plans generated by the Council were found to have the following characteristics. They involved all groups within the community; they were based in both bottom-up and top-down processes; they focused on local organizations and activities, some of which were already in place; and they were consistent with, and in some cases identical to, the plans offered by residents. In fact, there was not one Council plan that was not mentioned either directly or indirectly in the dialogue groups or Town Hall Meeting.
The last part of the meeting was spent planning for a team-building and training meeting, the third activity in Phase III of the project. The PDC talked with the Council about the proposed goals and outcomes of the meeting, who should attend the meeting and how they would be contacted, and what role the Council wanted to play at the meeting.
The third activity in Phase III was the Community Leadership Team Building and Training Meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to train community leaders in public dialogue skills. Over 150 people were identified by the Council and sent invitations through the City Manager's office. More than 100 attended. The meeting was a two-day event, beginning on Friday afternoon and continuing Saturday morning until mid-afternoon. Similar to the Town Hall Meeting, participants were seated about eight to table. These tables served as the work units. Unlike the Town Hall Meeting, we had a PDC facilitator at each table.
The welcome and introduction segment utilized the conversation metaphor to describe the project, and included a review of each of the previous turns in the project/conversation. The next activity consisted of what we call a 3mess mapping exercise.2 This exercise is designed to emphasize the complexity surrounding the cultural richness issue. The next activity consisted of a conflict and dialogue exercise. Participants learned about different patterns of conflict (avoidance, competition, accommodation, and dialogue) and two PDC members performed a scripted demonstration of each of the conflict patterns.
Participants were then led in an exercise where they role-played the patterns. We began the Saturday morning session with a presentation of Council's action plans. Participants at the tables then discussed the plans and how they coordinated with their own plans and the plans that had been generated in Phases I and II. A PDC member led a harvesting session with the large group. Discussion focused on: What have we learned? What values have surfaced? What new action plans are necessary? What issues still divide the community? A unique exercise in dot voting ensued as participants rank ordered their preferred action plans.
A new configuration of eight groups met for the afternoon session. These groups were organized around the top eight action plans to receive votes. Each group was encouraged to pool resources (thus the team building part of the meeting) and begin deciding the next steps that would need to be taken to bring action plan to fruition. The Training and Team Building Meeting concluded Phase III of the Cupertino Project.
Preparing for Phase IV
At the time of this writing the PDC is preparing to move into Phase IV of the project. One of the primary goals of this phase is to train residents to use our methods and techniques so that they are able to facilitate quality public discourse without the help of the PDC. This will allow the project to become self-sustaining and the forms of public communication we are advocating to become institutionalized in the community. It is important to recognize that the range of influence that our methods might have on public discourse throughout the community is severely limited when restricted to a small group of so called experts like the PDC. The creation of additional sites for effective public communication is dependent on having a larger number of people who will go forward in creating such places. Enlarging the circle of participants who are willing and able to engage in conversational forms of public communication is vital to the long-term success of the project. The PDC is thus committed to training a wider array of people in the community in our communication methods as one of the main goals in Phase IV. While teaching others in new forms of communication was an implicit component in the first three phases, it was carried out primarily through modeling the kinds of actions we sought to teach. The goal for Phase IV is to include an explicit training orientation to complement the more subtle forms of modeling we have previously performed.
Phase IV is being developed with the following outcomes in mind. One outcome is a Community Leadership Training Program consisting of a cross-section of Cupertino citizens who will learn the dialogue and deliberation skills practiced by the PDC. A second outcomes consists of Community-led Public Discussions including dialogue groups, study circles, and town hall meetings. While similar to previous communication activities, the difference here is that the discussions will be facilitated by citizens and not the PDC. A third outcome is the development of a Citizens Advisory Group who will work with the PDC throughout the year as apprentices and continue to teach and train others in the community. A final outcome for Phase IV of the project is the development and assessment of a training package. These materials will be disseminated to other communities who want to initiate projects on their own.
Implications on Intercultural Communication
A salient theme that emerged out of Cupertino citizens' various discussions was cultural richness. In this project we provide an alternative model to the traditional approach to study and improve intercultural communication. Our approach encourages a process-oriented and context-sensitive kind of praxis. We encourage participants to tell their own stories and to construct their own meanings on community issues that intrigue or concern them. Instead of training participants on so-called intercultural skills, general traits, attitudes, or behaviors of certain cultural group, or on how to act and what to say upon meeting someone from a different culture, we begin with a useful and critical understanding of how communication works. We do not teach specific prescribed behaviors upon an intercultural encounter; instead, we practice systemic inquiry to foreground open dialogue and public conversation so that participants' cultural stories can be explored, heard, shared, and understood. This way new possibilities and relations in intercultural communication can emerge and be cocreated through conversation and action.
A systemic approach allows us to focus on improving the process of engaging in intercultural communication rather than on the product of what an intercultural episode should look like. Our assumption is that culture and communication are both fluid. In our teaching we do not impose a "fixed" idea of what counts as good intercultural communication or a prescribed behavioral repertoire for individuals to participate in intercultural communication. It is more effective to teach people a broad conceptual framework, to give them a tool and a rich language that they can use to explore and engage with each other's cultural experiences and perspectives in a variety of contexts.
The specific techniques that we use include circular questioning and appreciative inquiry. Through our questioning, we invite the participants a) to be curious and appreciative of one another's cultural stories; b) to examine the grammar of their own and others' cultural stories and practices; c) to see the interconnections between their own cultural experiences and others' as well as between their own actions and others in the community; d) to see the real value of cultural diversity in a new way; e) to co-construct creative ways to manage and enjoy cultural richness in their community; and f) to move the community forward with joint visions of the future.
The Cupertino project exemplifies one way to provide a public forum to discuss difficult issues. It celebrates a participatory and communal practice with a clear assumption that everyone's thoughts and actions matter in improving the quality of public discourse. In every phase of this project, we ask reflexive questions and encourage the citizens to see the interconnections of their ideas and actions. Adopting a future-oriented mode of intervention, we are able to direct their planning by focusing on the shared communal visions and future possibilities instead of on individual's or a particular group's "faults" when conflict arises. We look forward to developing Phase IV and continue to promote participatory democracy.