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    Creating Spaces for Public Conversation: The Public Dialogue Consortium and the Cupertino Project

    Michael Leitao

     The quality of conversation in the public domain can be greatly improved, especially when important issues are involved. In most communities, public conversation looks more like debate than conversation. We, as a society, have become so adjusted to the debate model of public discourse that, at times, even hostile argument is more the norm than productive dialogue. By engaging in a plan of action research and systemic practices, the Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) will create the "space" for community dialogue to occur in the City of Cupertino California. It is hoped that this dialogue will become the catalyst for positive change in this community.

    Conversation, in this case, is the dialogue between the people who make up the community of Cupertino. Over the years public dialogue, that is dialogue about the issues facing a community, has become strained in several ways. Pearce and Littlejohn list the most cited strains as:

    The hegemony of experts and the increasing gap between the experts and the electorate.

    Public apathy and the triumph of advertising over deliberation as the preferred genre of campaigning.

    The structure and function of the media and its appetite for the short, shallow, sordid, and sensational.

    Incommensurate demands between capitalism, democratic processes, the commodization of politicians, political principles, and the arenas for public discourse.

    The transformation of the public into consumers resulting from politics becoming a subset of marketing.

    The de-evolution of the polity into multiple special interest groups, lobbyists, and PACs as the primary rhetors in public discourse.

    Greed, arrogance, and immorality of politicians (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997) .

    As a result, public conversation, in its most common form, has been described as "reciprocated diatribe" (Freeman, Littlejohn & Pearce, 1992) . This diatribe is a reflection on the dominant discourse, or "the most generally available and accepted way of discussing the issue in a public context" (Becker, Chasin, Chasin, Herzig & Roth, 1993 p.2) . Most often, the dominant discourse influences the way these issues are talked about. "On a subject that has been hotly polarized for a long time, the dominant discourse often takes a special form. It delineates the issue in a win-lose bi-polar way; it draws a line between two simple answers to a complex dilemma and induces people to take a stand on one side of that line or the other" (Becker et al., 1993 p.2) . This reduction to simple terms and polarization allows contingencies to create the appearance a common stand and show a unified front. It does this, however, at the cost of complexity and deep understanding of the issues. This process reduces the discourse to a level which is more like debate than dialogue in that it suppresses doubts, inner value conflicts, morally complicated personal experiences and differences between the thoughts of allies on the same side of the polarization for the sake of achieving a front which appears unified, strong and certain (Becker et al 1993).

    These polarized "debates" allow the issues to be pre-framed before conversation between people even starts. Because of this pre-framing, many voices which should be heard, in a given conversation, are suppressed.

    Polarized public debates exact costs not only from those who directly participate in them, but also those who do not. Those who are conflicted or uncertain may come to believe that their views are unwelcome in public discussions. Those who are aware of discordance between some of their personal beliefs and the political position espoused by "like-minded" others may choose to place themselves safely on the sidelines. They worry that if they speak about their reluctance to become politically active on one side of the battle line they will be viewed as soft, muddled, unprincipled, or even as traitors. They may stop conversing even with themselves, assuming that there is no societal validation for their views or the experiences that have shaped their views, then their views and experiences must be worthless, dangerous, or aberrant. The political process is deprived of their voices and their ideas and democracy suffers. (Becker et al., 1993 p. 3)

    In dialogue, persons speak as individuals not as representatives of a particular side of a debate. Dialogue then involves the exchange of personal perspectives, stories, beliefs, and experiences. "It is when people speak and listen openly and respectfully" (Becker et al., 1993 p. 3) . Through the use of action research, it is our goal to create the opportunity or "space" for dialogue in the City of Cupertino.

    Action Research

    Action research is more of a genre than a specific methodology. While it is not limited to research which is community based, most applications of participant action research do take place in the community. By broad definition, "Research can be visualized as nothing more than a natural extension of the activities in which we engage every day of our lives" (Stringer, 1996 p. 5) . Action research is different from traditional research in that it looks to create change as well as knowledge. "Community-based action research seeks to change the social and personal dynamics of the research situation so that it is noncompetitive and non exploitative and enhances the lives of all who participate" (Stringer, 1996 p. 19) . By doing so, it is the aim of action research to allow the voices which are normally marginalized in a polarized debate to be heard and join in the dialogue and increase the quality of the democratic process.

    Action research has its roots in participative inquiry (Reason, 1994). Participative inquiry is a response to the lack of satisfaction experienced by researchers when traditional scientific methodology had been used to study communities. Early works in participative inquiry called into question the very logic of scientific methods. "This logic is based on two principles of Aristotelean [sic] logic- the law of Contradiction, which states that no proposition can be both true and false at the same time; and the Law of the Excluded Middle- which holds that every proposition is either true or false" (Rowan & Reason, 1981 p. 114). The problems of using this logic are apparent if we look at community as being socially constructed. At that point, we must ask whose truth are we to examine, that of the people in the community, or that of the researcher.

    Early researchers in participatory methods viewed traditional logic as alienating because it treated people as "fragments". It put people into the role of research subjects and then restricted the range of behavior to be counted. This was seen as alienating because it was regarded as using a person for someone else's ends; that a person's actions no longer belong to that individual but to the researcher and the researcher's ends (Rowan & Reason, 1981) .

    Participative inquiry falls into three basic categories: Co-operative Inquiry, Participatory Action Research, and Action Science/ Action Inquiry (Reason, 1994) . According to Reason (1994), Co-operative inquiry is based in humanistic psychology's assumptions that persons are self-determining beings with intentions and purposes, and intelligent choices cause behavior. "One can do research on persons in the full and proper sense of the term only if one addresses them as self-determining, which means that what they do and what they experience as part of the research must be to some significant degree determined by them" (Reason, 1994 p. 326) .

    Participatory Action research emphasizes the political aspects of knowledge production (Reason, 1994) . This approach assumes an oppression. ". . . [S]ocietal groups have conflicting interests, and focuses on empowering oppressed groups to transform social structures into more equitable societies" (Simonson & Bushaw, 1994 p. 29) . Petras & Porpora, (1993) identify three components of this approach: "1) a commitment to the needs and interests of the community; 2) a direct engagement with the community so as to permit its problems and goals to be defined in it's own voice; 3) a moral commitment to the transformation of social, political, and economic injustices directly afflicting the community studied" (p. 108).

    People engaging in this methodology often assume a radical posture and align themselves with activist groups in a given community. Researchers often will privilege the voices of activist groups in the belief that they are working in concert against the oppressors. "Activist organizations will articulate the interests of disadvantaged groups more effectively than elite groups of academics and policy makers, on the average" (Cancian, 1993 p. 104) . Often researchers who embrace this methodology not only see themselves as activists working in opposition to the power structure in the community, but they also see themselves as working in opposition to academia (Cancian, 1993) . This perspective is probably the most widely practiced participative research approach (Reason, 1994) .

    The third category is Action Science/ Research. "Central to the action science perspective is the identification of the theories that actors use to guide their behavior; the claim is that it is possible to identify such theories and in broad terms predict their consequences" (Reason, 1994 p. 330) . The idea here is to engage the researchers' actions with others' actions in a self reflective way so that all involved become more aware of their behavior and the underlying theories behind this behavior (Reason 1994). In this way, we can impose a more traditional scientific framework of explanation, and prediction. The researchers in this category are interested in the science of the action itself.

    The Public Dialogue Consortium

    The action research approach we use does not fit easily into the above categories. It borrows from all three, as our approach shares the core epistemology which emphasizes experiential knowing, however we differ in a number of ways as well.

    Our methodology differs from co-operative inquiry in that we do not isolate areas to be researched, with the community, and move forward from a scientific perspective in preset stages. Instead, we allow the members of the community to set all priorities and we move forward from there. It differs from participatory action research in that we do not necessarily assume an oppression or hegemony is in place other than (possibly) the privileging of voice. Nor do we privilege the framing of issues from the "oppressed" (Freire, 1970) or any other perspective. We differ from action/ science inquiry in that we are less interested in the science of action then we are in creating the space for formerly unheard voices to be heard in true dialogue.

    The action research methods that we use are firmly grounded in social constructionism (Chen & Pearce, 1995; Cobb, 1994; Fruggeri, 1992; Pearce, 1995) . We view communication as not being a part of our world but as the construction of that world. In other words, we see the human experience as living in a world made up of communication. "This perspective leads us to look for the ways in which our worlds are built in social life and to seek forms of social life in which better worlds might be created" (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997 p. x) . This is our impetus for the application of action research.

    Our view of dialogue is consistent with that of Becker, et. al. and finds its roots in the philosophy of Martin Buber. We view dialogue as a ". . . [T]ransactional process concerned with the development of self, the knowing of other, and the formation of human relationships, and contrasted with a monological representation that conceived of communication as a linear, transmission-focused process, the aim of which was largely control" (Cissna & Anderson, 1994 p.11) .

    In creating dialogue, we share the use of systemic practices and skills. These include circular questioning and reflective listening. Circular questioning is a technique of discovery grounded in the Wittgensteinian notion of grammar. It stresses the "gentle art of reframing" (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974) . Circular questioning is also grounded in CMM theory (Cronen, 1995; Cronen, Pearce & Harris, 1979; Pearce & Cronen, 1980) . Circular questioning is systemic as it '. . .[S]tresses connecting the person addressed to others in the system" (Cronen, 1990 p. 1) .

    Reflective listening is a technique which grew from work in family therapy (Anderson, 1992) . "The reflecting-team mode offers the various persons present the possibility to shift back and forth between listening and talking about the same issues. These two different positions in relation to the same issues seem to provide two different perspectives, and these two perspectives of the same will most probably create new perspectives" (Anderson, 1992 p. 62) . We have adapted this notion of "reflecting team" into a more dialogic model, much the way it has been adapted in Narration Therapy (Sax, 1997) .

    The PDC plans on including members from all levels of the community, high school to city government, as well as across age, ethnicity, and neighborhood demographics, in these ongoing dialogues about change in the City of Cupertino. It is our hope that these dialogues will allow new voices to be heard, and in turn, these new voices will influence the way decisions are made at every level in the city, from private conversation all the way to city government and official policy. Although these conversations are sparked by influence from the PDC, they are constructed and owned by the members of the community. As this type of dialogue becomes more common in this city, it is our fondest hope that the role of the PDC reaches a complete state of obsolescence.

    The Cupertino Project

    A Brief History

    Work on the first phase of the Cupertino Project began in the City of Cupertino in March of 1996. Since then the PDC has moved forward through several phases and continues to plan more work with the residents of this community. The premier phase of the project included a series of focus groups involving a sample of residents of Cupertino selected randomly from the voter registration records. This random sample yielded ten focus groups averaging nine participants each from various ethnic, professional, and educational backgrounds. Participants included workers from the high technology industry, which is predominant in the region, as well as small business owners, retirees, homemakers, law enforcement officers, and high school students. The focus groups were designed to allow the participants to express their own views of their city, in their own terms, and in ways that were comfortable for each individual. The PDC members leading the focus groups were particularly careful not to set an agenda for the meeting or impose views or opinions on the groups. The residents participating in the focus groups were able to quickly identify several strengths in Cupertino when asked what they most liked about their city. Among these responses were: The cultural and ethnic diversity, the quality of the public schools, and the opportunity to participate in city government.

    The focus group discussions were particularly helpful for the voicing of the concerns people have in their community. Two concerns were particularly salient: Cultural Richness, and Community Safety. "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" (Spano, 1997) . The second concern was the issue of public safety. While the focus group participants did view Cupertino as a generally safe community with comparatively low crime, there was quite a bit of concern in the focus groups for law enforcement being able to continue to stave off gang activity from neighboring communities. Safety again was a main concern in regard to the growth in the community and related problems of traffic and congestion.

    At the focus groups, the overall feeling from the PDC members was that the concerns were not being talked about in an atmosphere of pessimism.. The talks reflected a reserved optimism that the city has ". . .both the recourses and intellectual spirit to create a healthy climate for discussing this issue" (Spano, 1997) .

    At the culmination of the focus groups the PDC and the participants decided to increase the number of participants and increase the number of opportunities to engage in public dialogue particularly on the themes of cultural richness and community safety. Therefore, these were the goals going into phase two of the project.

    The second phase of the project consisted of two separate but parallel tracks. One track was the training of over 100 high school students in the skills of appreciative inquiry (AI). Appreciative inquiry is a method that encourages a positive frame in the interviewing process. "It attempts to frame a situation around what is positive and possible rather than defining it as a problem in need of a solution" (Spano, 1997) . After training and practice in this methodology, students were given interview questions to help guide them through the AI process in interviewing the persons in the community on the subjects of cultural richness and community safety.

    The second track of phase two involved the creation of eight dialogue groups. These groups were similar to the original focus groups in that they consisted of a random sample of participants selected from the records of voting registration. Interestingly, some of the participants from the original focus groups were also included in the dialogue groups. The dialogue groups were different from the focus groups. They were four hours in length and dedicated to the two topics of concern identified in the focus groups. The first half was dedicated to discussion of cultural richness, and the second to community safety. In each of the topic areas, the participants were guided through the dialogue using the methods of AI, circular questioning, and harvesting among other methods developed by the PDC. The participants were asked to share their "visions" of each of these issues and asked to share "action plans" of how these visions could come to fruition.

    The visions and action plans were from all of the groups were gathered by the PDC and delivered to the Mayor, City Council, and the approximately 150 residents attending a Town Hall Meeting for the City of Cupertino. This meeting was used to present the ideas developed in phases one and two to the City Council, the Mayor, the press and the public at large. It also served two other very important functions. It created the opportunity for the high school students to present their findings, from their interviews, directly to the public along with the findings of the discussion groups. It also served as a starting point for the next phase of the project by allowing the community to discuss what has been accomplished so far, and how they would like to see the project proceed.

    The PDC had also hired a group of outside consultants to observe and critique the Town Hall meeting and the project thus far. This team of consultants came primarily from backgrounds of communication research and practice, and city administration. Two separate meetings were set up, one immediately following the Town Hall meeting, the other the following morning, to review the critiques of the consultants and field suggestions for methodological changes in future actions. Although there were several insightful responses from the consultant group, the consultants were by and large supportive of the PDC methodology and encouraged us to continue on with the project as envisioned.

    Phase three of the project consisted of three activities. The first activity was a series of interview of the five Cupertino City Council members by a senior member of the PDC. These were "private conversations"; the council members were asked to speak candidly about the issues facing the community. The senior member summarized the responses and supplied a copy of the summary to all members of the council. Three observations in the summary are salient. First, there is a "seriousness of purpose" all members bring to their work. Second, there were significant differences among the members regarding their views of cultural richness and community safety. Third, there are some issues the community feels are more crucial than does the City Council and vice-versa (Spano & Chen, 1997) .

    The second activity consisted of a day long team building and issue formation meeting for the city council. "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" (Spano & Chen, 1997) .

    The third activity in the third phase was a Community Leadership Team Building and Training Meeting. The office of City Manager and the City Council assisted the PDC in identifying more than 150 people in the city as Community Leaders. More than two thirds of those identified as leaders responded to the invitations sent by the Office of the City Manager and attended a two day training session. The purpose of this training session was to teach the Community Leaders the dialogue and deliberation skills practiced by the PDC as well as working in groups activities with the information gained through all previous activities of the Cupertino Project.

    The Next Phase

    The PDC is moving toward our own goal of planned obsolescence to the community. It is our ultimate hope that the residents will continue in this form of participative democracy without the need for assistance from the PDC. We realize that success of this type of program is dependent on the sharing of skills with as many persons in the community as we can possibly reach. To this end, Phase Four will be a continuation of much of what has already been done, but on a different scale. The primary goal of this next phase is to advance the skills of this methodology in the residents of this community to the point where they can facilitate the same quality dialogue without the help of the PDC.

    Another of our goals for the next phase is to enlargen the circle of those participating in the project. This will be accomplished by increasing the number of dialogue groups, study circles, and town meetings. While this is very much the methodology we have used in the past, these new actions will be facilitated by the members of the community and not the PDC. To this end, we are also looking forward to the implementation 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" (Spano & Chen, 1997) .

    Because of the success of this model in the community as a whole, we plan to use this same model of community involvement on a smaller scale and work with the two high schools in the city. We will train both faculty and the students alike in the dialogic methods of the PDC and encourage them to continue by teaching others in the schools and continuing in the years to come.

    The last goal of the next phase is the development and assessment of a training package. These packages will be disseminated to other communities and interested individuals who are looking to initiate similar projects in other cities and towns.

    Ethical Responsibilities

    By moving dialogue into the public realm we must make sure that we are creating a "space" that is safe for the expression visions, attitudes and beliefs. It is our belief that the methods and practices that we employ in the Cupertino City Project are consistent with this concern. Public dialogue is exactly that; it is public and not anonymous. We feel public dialogue, as practiced here, is the purest form of participatory democracy. All voices have a place to be heard; all voices are welcome.

    As is particularly salient in this project we are very cognizant of the implications on intercultural communication. We do, however, see what we do as an alternative to the more widely known models of intercultural communication. "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 [sic] through conversation and action" (Spano & Chen, 1997) .


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