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Trying Out Citizen Discussions

There are 3 focal areas for our activities in the Summer Institute: 1) learning the discussion process, 2) connecting this process to the classroom, and 3) connecting this process to discussions beyond the classroom walls in “citizen discussions.” In this entry I’ll talk more about our “Small Group Citizen Discussions,” the 3rd and final focal area for the Summer Institute.

All of our discussions are “citizen discussions” in some broad sense. We tend to use this designation as a short-hand way to indicate the small-scale discussions we have with a small group of people after a Sanctuary Project is completed (to reorient yourself to what we do, you might look back at this entry). Our Sanctuary Projects engage small groups of citizens in sustained discussions on a particular topic for a year or so. These culminate in a “citizen discussion report” that describes 4 or more (often more like 7) policy possibilities, broad approaches our society might take to deal with some aspect of the area of concern. We then use that report to stimulate exploratory discussions by a new small group of citizens. You might think of this as expanding ripples in a pond: we’d like to set these ideas in motion to see what others think about them and to see what new ideas might be discovered in the process. We’re not trying to sell anyone on these ideas and reach consensus. We want to enable new discoveries and open up discussion, not shut it down or narrow it.

At the close of the Summer Institute we’ll have a demonstration discussion to show you what these Small Group Citizen Discussion are like. We’ll teach you how to facilitate these in your own communities. In terms of topics, we have citizen discussion reports exploring public policies for: Genetic Technologies, Depression, Privacy, Science, Rewarding Work, Property, Regulation, and Civic Discourse. This fall we plan to add one on Retirement Security. Within a year we’ll have reports on The Future of Civil Rights, Democracy Promotion, Global Security, and Shaping Where We Live. Who knows, we may even be able to shape a report out of your Summer Institute discussions on Intellectual Property!

There are a number of reasons we’d like to involve you in this. Here are a couple of broad points. First, we think it can be a really powerful way to make connections between your academic life and the life of the surrounding community. You may find there are ways to involve some of your students in these discussions, further expanding the interactivity between your classroom and the community. You might also find it to be empowering to have reflective discussions with other adults outside of an academic context. ┬áSecond, we think its a valuable way to enhance your interactivity with us. By conducting citizen discussions on one or more of our projects, you’ll get a better sense of what we’re up to. You’ll gain a better sense of the kind of thinking that goes on in our projects. This in turn might open up some possibilities for expanding collaboration with us. There might even be a time when you’d like to conduct a project of your own with support from us (say, during a sabbatical).

Part of the thrust of our Summer Institute is fostering a community of fellow thinkers who are interested in the kind of work we’re doing. So involving you in our Small Group Citizen Discussions is way to involve you more fully in what we do, so we can learn with and from you. As an organization, we’re always interested in collaboratively exploring and developing possibilities to do what we do. We’re interested in working together to generate new insights and new possibilities. Remember, we’re interested in the approach of creative agreement. We’re interested in saying “yes–and.” We’re interested in developing conversation partners who can respond, “yes–and.”

–Jeff Prudhomme