Host A Conversation – Report Back In

Last week we held a training on how to host a “Conversation Cafe“.  This is a simple process for promoting civil dialogue with friends and neighbors.  What is dialogue?  It’s different than many of the conversations we have. It is deeper than the polite discussion that avoids the hard topics. It is the opposite of debate.  Dialogue skills include asking open-ended questions and “listening to understand”.

One participant asked, how do you get started?  That can be as simple as setting a time and place and walking an invitation around your neighborhood. Then download and print the following “Conversation Cafe” cards. Once people arrive, welcome them, give them a card. When you are ready to start, first briefly review the values and process for the Conversation Cafe, and invite comments on the topic at hand.  This can be as simple as saying “we are talking about community, let us know what matters most to you.”  Or you might start with a summary from one of our mini-guides.  Make sure you end on time so everyone can plan their day (although you can always invite those who want to to  continue the conversation following the fourth round in the process for as long as you are willing to host!)

On nice feature of the Conversation Cafe process is that the host is able to share his or her own thoughts as the conversation unfolds. If you are the host though, try not to be the first to speak to the topic! Instead you might try using your turn to summarize the range of thoughts offered in each round and provide an invitation into the next.  Take the lead in avoiding right/wrong debate-oriented statements.  From time to time you may need to offer a gentle reminder that in a dialogue everyone is welcome and you are listening to understand.  You may also need to remind those who are anxious to talk that in the first two rounds, and in the last round,  everyone talks once before anyone talks twice! You can read more about hosting Conversation Cafes in this guide.

Whether you host a Conversation Cafe or host another more informal discussion, remember to report in.  We will weave together the conversations you have at our third Tuesday Community Commons.  Note that the next Community Commons is scheduled for February 21 from 7 to 9 pm.

You don’t have to wait until the next Community Commons for community dialogue though!  The “Wake-Up” campaign at Battle High School will host a Neighbor2Neighbor dialogue on February 7.  Doors open at 4:30, and the program starts right at 5.  Come out and support the youth who are planning and leading this event!

What:  Neighbor2Neighbor Dialogue at Battle High School
When: February 7, 4:30 to 7 pm
Where:  Battle High School Performing Arts Center

Many Conversations, One Community! Join Us, January 17 For The Next Community Commons

The idea that resonated most with those attending the December 20 (Third Tuesday) Community Commons, was bringing dialogue into the community – in homes, in service clubs, through the Neighbor2Neighbor platform, and through “intentional intersectionality” of diverse groups and individuals.

At our January 17 Community Commons, we will provide a free training on how to host a “Conversation Cafe” on your own.  This easy to use format helps to keep even difficult conversations civil, promotes listening and connection, and works well even when people don’t know each other before joining in the conversation.

At today’s Columbia Values Diversity celebration breakfast, keynote speaker Nonombi Naomi Tutu urged all to do more than celebrate diversity.  She urged all to actively work to “build a beloved community.”  We do that work when we connect, listen to one another, and talk together.

Three banners decorated the breakfast hall. As the program explained, these illustrated “a few ways inclusion can be fostered:  in our city’s infrastructure (Build banner), through activism (Inclusive banner), and in our daily lives and hobbies (Community banner).”  These three themes echo those in our community dialogue guide, “Are We An Us?” — collaboration (Citizen-centered planning), care (Addressing Inequities), and connection (Building Bridges).

Download a guide, start a conversation, build a beloved community, join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, January 17, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

What Could Help Us Move Forward?

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. – Abraham Lincoln

The City of Columbia has the following mission: “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.” To judge by comments made during our forums, the City is falling short of this mission, in part by not bringing citizens “the real facts” on difficult issues.

Participants raised a number of ways in which the current decision-making process is undermining trust, discouraging public engagement, and failing to move us forward. Consider the following comments at the November 15 Community Commons.

“Facts seem to be more and more elusive in the political arena.”

“Local control seems to be less and less. We need to engage more to ensure the people are aware and involved.”

“Feels like the car is being driven by someone other than us.”

“‘Bias’ in system is to keep people in their slumber.”

These can be added to comments from past forums :

“City asks citizens for input and then doesn’t do anything with it.”

“People want to be informed.”

Convey to the public the goals, the process, the outcomes.”

“Even when there is good information that contradicts the angry public conceptions on a topic, our council repeatedly fails to point out that information and argue against incorrect viewpoints.”

The list of 7 priorities for 2017, recently released by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also raised concerns with our current system. The final priority listed was “Encourage the city council to abide by the voters’ will on ballot measures and vote to respect those outcomes.” One of the projects referenced was the stalled transmission line.

Participants also identified a number of ways that current processes could be improved. This included new approaches to how issues are discussed, better education on decision-making systems, and improved follow-through on decisions made. Each of these is discussed further below.

  • Adopt new approaches to how issues are discussed: 

Ideas generated under this category included the following:

+Promote better understanding by better separation of the facts, the interests involved, and the trade-offs among options.

Participants during the November 15 Community Commons discussed past posts on the transmission line  that were titled “Information and Misinformation.” Some stated that “everyone is selective about what facts they choose.” Others stated that engineering and certain other types of information  reflected realities that cannot safely be minimized or ignored. As the group observed, part of what drives the selective use of certain data is different interests -particularly conflicts between the interests of those who might be directly affected by the installation of new infrastructure, and longer term community interests in “the common good” associated with things like adequate electricity, sewer capacity, and roads.

When arguing over ” the facts”, we can lose sight of the real issues like: Do we want the lights to go out? Who will be accountable if they do? What are the risks (unintended potential consequences) of acting or not acting and are we willing to live with them? How, if at all, might we compensate those who take losses because of a broader public good?

Under this option, when discussing or making decisions, council members would be encouraged to unpack and separately address the information they are relying on and why (or additional information being sought and why); the long-term and short-term interests involved and how they are being weighted, the interactions and intersections between issues (e.g., economic development or housing values and new infrastructure), and the values or principles being used to guide decisions. This approach could help citizens better evaluate the available information, and the consistency of decisions being made.

+ Provide “deeper dives” on key issues and information, and earlier outreach to those who would be directly affected by new infrastructure.

Here again, referencing the transmission line, participants pointed out that no-one likes surprises and surprise was one element in the opposition that developed during the public hearings on pole placement.  One participant provided a resource on “geographic democracy” as evidence that new approaches are needed as the population changes.

+ City Council statements to be made on issues before public comment. Citizens would be better able to make good use of their limited time for public comment at council meetings if City Council members would first discuss their current thinking on an issue.

+ Use more citizen friendly scheduling: A consistent suggestion has been to hold more meetings for public comment, to hold them during days and early evening to accommodate different schedules, to align those with when public transit is running, and to publicize meetings and other opportunities for public comment in multiple ways that are likely to engage the public.

  • Provide better education on systems

The process for making decisions is frequently unclear to citizens, and information is difficult to access. Suggestions here included:

+ Use info-graphics: Developing clear, accessible, and easy to read “info-graphics” explaining key systems.

+Use technology to summarize and inform: Make better use of technology, including providing short video summaries and updates on key issues or a weekly 20 minute television program with updates on key issues.

+ Teach while entertaining: Create a humorous show like “The Office” that helps highlight how city government systems work.

  • Implement new processes to improve follow-up and follow-through

A number of suggestions were made to improve the way we make long term decisions. These included:

+ Create, disseminate, and archive summary reports on key decisions. Create an “executive summary” type decision report form.  Information to be provided might include purpose, information sources, interests and trade-offs, key assumptions, and the decision made. This document would then be available for review throughout the life of a project and contain links to key documents like Council minutes or staff reports. Updates could be created as information is updated or circumstances change, and kept along with the original report.

+Raise the threshold for re-opening key decisions previously made. Establish a set of findings the Council needs to make before pausing/ending a project that has been funded and voted on by the public. Also the Council might be required to  establish a clear date for when the issue would next be considered or provide a viable alternative to meet an existing need before it votes to “pause” or cancel such a project.

+Use Dashboards . For key projects and goals, regular, easy to understand progress reports, such as visual public dashboard, could be used so that citizens can easily track progress and cost.

+Use iterative planning on key issues. This could work in tandem with the report on decisions made and dashboards. It would require that goals for projects be defined in advance and evaluated at defined stages. Data, including public comment, would be gathered in each of the fields as the process of implementation unfolds. At defined points, and particularly at project end, the Council would invite review and capture lessons learned for improving and refining its processes.

.      .       .

 One participant at the November 15 Community Commons observed,

“Changing from feeling like a small town to a large city is a rough transition for anywhere.”

and

“Something about a small community model that is very attractive, authentic. Everybody plugged into everything all the time.”

Greater transparency, improving the ways we communicate, and greater accountability and follow-through can help plug more people in, and create a more authentic sense that we are connected together as one community.

Come share your ideas and insights on  December 20.

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Building Bridges: What Ideas Will We Commit To?

Determine that the thing can and shall be done and then we shall find the way.”
– Abraham Lincoln

At our December 20 forum we will be looking at what can we do and how we might do it. Whether something is done will depend on what participants are willing to commit to doing.

Since our very first forums, participants have identified loss of a sense of community as a key issue for Columbia.  Building bridges between groups has been a key theme for how we might move forward. The “Are We An Us?” dialogue guide that emerged from our first round of conversations summarized that theme this way:

Rapid growth and increasing diversity have made it harder for us to know our neighbors and communicate about the things that matter.  We need to be intentional about providing spaces and places for people to interact with those anything they don’t know.  The sense of community will naturally grow as people connect.

Several ideas have been generated and can be grouped into 4 categories: celebrations, intentional dialogue, personal invitation, and connecting through media. Below we summarize ideas that have been shared in each of these categories.

Celebrations.  Art, music, and food all bring people together.  This has been observed at several sessions, including our November 15 community commons.  Various ideas have been suggested for community events that could be affordable and of interest to many.  These have included

  • a “Columbia Small World cup” soccer tournament;
  • a series of concerts featuring local talent and picnics hosted by various neighborhood associations and open to the entire community;
  • a “Trib Fest” featuring a range of local artists downtown or in Douglass Park;
  • an International Fair.

Any event requires focus, partners, funding and planning.  Is there an event you want to help develop? If so who can partner, and how might we reach out?  Bring your thoughts on December 20!

Intentional Dialogue. Those attending the Community Commons have suggested “taking this out in the community”.  Places suggested included Battle High, the Chamber, St. Luke’s church and neighborhood associations.  A dialogue will be hosted at Battle High School by the student-run Wake Up! Campaign on February 7.  The Tribune has offered a Neighbor2Neighbor guide for hosting dialogues, although few have occurred (why?).  At our January 17 Community Commons, we will host a training on the “Conversation Cafe” format which will help you take this dialogue on community into the community – – at block parties, dinner parties, or coffee shops, and report back in. Come on December 20 and share your ideas and connections as we talk further about how to build more intentional dialogue.

Invitations.  Participants have noted that although Columbia has various celebrations, including the “Columbia Celebrates Diversity” celebration, often those attending stay in their small groups and there is no planned follow-up. As one participant observed, after such events “people go back to their respective enclaves, which most are already in during [the event].” Can we commit to personally inviting someone from a different “enclave” to such an event (and sitting with them)? to our service clubs? to our places of worship? to a dialogue?

Connecting Through Media. One great thing about these forums has been the range of ages that shows up (participants have ranged from teens to 80+).  And it is clear that we have people who like their news in print and those who rely on electronic forms of communications.  The range of platforms participants are using to communicate include Twitter, Facebook, blogs, other forms of social media, news feeds, in person and of course print. How do we best share the topics we are discussing and combine these various platforms into one overall community conversation?  We look forward to hearing your ideas on December 20!

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Continue The Conversation – December 20!

We had energized conversations at our November 15 Community Commons.   You can read the notes taken during those conversations here.  These conversations will continue as we focus on how to move forward with specific actions during our 4th Community Commons,  December 20, 2016 from 7 to 9 pm at the offices of the Tribune.

The conversations on November 15 centered around two themes, Building Bridges and Citizen Centered Planning.  The group discussing how to build bridges among Columbia’s diverse groups reviewed progress made on ideas shared in prior conversations that related to how media coverage of minority communities might be improved. Student reporters, assisted by community mentors will soon be contributing stories to the Tribune. Other comments emphasized that although there is an interest in building bridges, there has to be a plan for doing so.  In December we will focus on how to follow-through with several ideas that have come up relating to fostering intentional gatherings of diverse people.  Those ideas will be listed for ease of review in the next post.

The group focusing on Citizen Centered Planning continued to address the themes of accountability and communication.  Several additional ideas for improving our processes for planning, maintaining, and building needed infrastructure were raised and will also be summarized in a future post. A group member who was new to the Community Commons commented that he was fascinated by the idea that we could have “a civil conversation on a difficult topic.”  It is those civil conversations between citizens that will help us move forward!

What were some take-aways from both conversations as expressed by the group?  These might be summarized as follows:  Listening is key, talk leads to action, and we will need ongoing engagement, creativity and follow-through to make change.

Working together, we can make a difference.

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Stories of Homelessness

You still have time to see “Street Stories – Glimpses of Homelessness“, which opened tonight and will be performed again tomorrow November 19 at 7 pm and Sunday November 1at 3 pm. This  series of short plays interspersed with music, shares stories from our community and was written, produced, and is acted by community members to raise funds for Turning Point, a day shelter, and Room at the Inn, an overnight shelter run by area churches during the winter months. It’s also an effort to build bridges of empathy and compassion between the community and some of its most ignored and neglected members. Turn out for a good cause, and learn more about the struggles of those who are homeless and how you can help.

Street stories – Glimpses of Homelessness
Where:  First Christian Church, 10th and Walnut, Downtown
When:  Saturday November 19 at 7 pm and Sunday November 20 at 3 pm
Tickets available at the door, $10

Information, Misinformation, Statesmen and Politicians

How ironic to read that the 5th Ward councilperson recently objected to pausing the design phase for a new sewer line  on the grounds that project costs would continue increasing if action were not taken soon. Ironic because the same councilperson actively supported  “pausing” construction on the new electric substation and transmission line earlier this year.  (See council minutes from January 19 ). Unlike the sewer line, whose projected costs have rapidly increased, the transmission line project was, at the time it was paused, on time and within the allocated money for the transmission and substation budget that had been presented to voters. The concern of project costs increasing was not in evidence when the council voted to pause the transmission line, and has not been much in evidence since as the project remains stalled.

Those participating in our “Community Commons” dialogue on “citizen centered planning” have been asking what citizens can do to help our leaders make better and more predictable decisions about our public infrastructure. Part of this discussion has focused on the difference between leaders who are “public servants” or “statesmen”, and those who are merely politicians. Differences identified included:

  • focusing on the common good v. catering to special interests or the loudest voices,

  • being a good steward of our public resources v. following the political winds,

  • being transparent v. “trying to control the message”, and

  • staying true to a vision and core values v. changing with the polls.

The council’s actions with regard to the transmission line have been a frequent reference point during these discussions.  The decision to pause the transmission line (which was first approved in 2013) was made as public meetings were being held on pole placement and design, in response to public opposition engendered by those meetings, and without input from the citizen led Water & Light Advisory board. Shortly thereafter, the 4th Ward council person suggested that maybe conservation could solve the the transmission issues (Note: as explained here, it won’t). In May 2016 the newly elected mayor supported the ongoing delay and suggested that a new “Option E”, might be possible based on his conversations with another electric provider.  Neither has updated the public on the feasibility of these alternatives, nor provided a timeline for their evaluation, nor provided estimates of the  costs associated with ongoing delay.  A letter sent by the Water & Light advisory board to the City Council on September 18, 2016 providing an analysis of the public concerns  and reaffirming the advisory board’s support for Option A, appears to have been largely ignored.

The recently released 2016 “Citizen Handbook” – which is offered as the City’s “performance report” to its citizens, stated (p. 8) “Wherever you live, water, sewer, electric and stormwater systems should be safe and reliable.” What are we doing to ensure that that goal is met?  Who is responsible for the costs and risks of delay when a project is “paused”?  What information should be gathered before an “alternative” is put on the table for consideration? What information should be shared with the public and when? What circumstances justify reopening decisions already made?

On p. 31, of the Citizen Handbook this report is given with respect to our electric service:

“The tricky part of getting the electricity exactly when and where it is needed is very complicated. Over the years, Columbia electric ratepayers have invested in the infrastructure to build a system that has a reliability rating of 99.9876 percent. Although the electric load growth has dropped from a 2 percent increase to a 1.25 percent growth rate, it was identified in 2007 that an additional substation and transmission lines were needed in southern Columbia. After many public meetings, gathering feedback from residents in the area and the meetings with the City Council, a route for the new transmission lines was decided at a public hearing in 2013. Voters approved the funding for the project through using bond funds in 2015. In 2016, the City Council decided to reconsider the route. At the time this article was published, a solution to electric reliability and overloading issue had not been decided by the City Council.”

How do we want our key infrastructure decisions to be made? What would best serve the common good? What can we do to ensure good stewardship of our public resources?

Join us tomorrow at the Community Commons and share your ideas.

Community Commons
Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.