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August 21, 2009

A Civil Civic Discourse - Good Design or Just a Fluke?

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                     Relation is the essence of everything. Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Last week US Representative Joe Sestak held a townhall forum on health care at a faith-based organization, Broad Street Ministry (BSM), in Philadelphia.  The front-page article in The Philadelphia Inquirer the following morning described the event as "overwhelmingly civil".  

The evening went so smoothly in fact that some thought the forum had been in the planning stages for several weeks, or that opponents to the Democratic plan were purposefully kept out of the gathering.  Neither assertion is true.  I work at BSM several days a week.  I was there from the beginning of the planning process until the end of the actual forum (Sestak stayed on afterwards to meet with a small remnant of the more than 1000 people who showed up that evening).  And while there were any number of reasons that the townhall was a civil one, not the least of these was the fact that a very welcoming and grateful tone was set from the outset, and was carried through to the end.


The idea to have the forum stemmed from a conversation Representative Sestak had with Bill Golderer, BSM's convening minister, last Sunday - a mere three days before the forum took place.  Those of us on the staff heard about it on the following afternoon, and so we had just two days to prepare for the event.  At the initial planning meeting we decided to focus on two distinct yet related themes - hospitality and cordiality.  We began to think of it as a sort of wedding ceremony where people did not know each other very well, but were coming together to be part of a larger civic ritual.  

With that metaphor in mind we decided that some of us would act as greeters and ushers to make everyone - regardless political position - feel welcomed.  Also, several of the ushers would act as microphone holders who would move about the room and go to the people with questions, rather than have people stand in line.  We also experienced a blinding flash of the obvious when we considered that very likely the more strident and firmly entrenched members of the community on either side of the issue would be lining up outside at least at least an hour before the doors opened.  Finally, we knew that the church building itself - built in 1900 - would be oppressively hot, and we needed to be sure that our guests were as comfortable as possible.  So we planned with these three ideas in mind.

The first thing we did to address these issues was to go outside and greet all the people who were in line early -about 300 or so initially.  Several of us introduced ourselves, telling them that we were from Broad Street Ministry.  We then asked them their names and conversed briefly with each of them either individually, or in small clusters.  Before moving on to the next group in line we mentioned that no signs or placards were allowed in the church sanctuary.  Remarkably, out of the several hundred people we spoke to only two asked us why they could not bring their signs in.  Our response that it was at the direction of the church's convening minister seemed to suffice.

We then identified anyone with special needs, older folks with canes and so forth.  We invited them into the dining room below the sanctuary to wait until the doors opened. Of course we did this without regard to any position the individuals may have taken on the health care issue.  As it happened, though, several of these people were very much on the conservative side of the issue, and did not expect this level of hospitality from a progressive, "Black Panther Church" (as Broad Street Ministry was described in several right-wing blogs - copy of tweet HERE).

Once the doors were opened those waiting in line were invited to join other members of the community at the weekly dinner that happens each Wednesday evening.  A few of them did when they were assured that space at the forum would be reserved for them.  Those who chose to go immediately up into the sanctuary were again greeted by ushers at the doors and given some materials to read about the townhall forum and about the organization hosting it.

Another important question that we worked with in the few planning meetings we had focused on the experience the guests would have while waiting (for at least an hour or more) for the actual forum to begin.  We knew that the room would be warm initially and then become very hot over the course of the evening.  We also knew that people with different political viewpoints would cluster together, and yet be rubbing elbows with others from opposing camps.  The consensus in our planning group was to have music during that waiting time.  There was some disagreement, however, about the need for live music or recorded music.  Fortunately (I believe), we eventually settled on the need for live music.  The music director of an affiliated church kindly agreed with very little advanced notice - actually only a few hours - to offer a solo piano mini-concert.  He is an exceptionally gifted musician, and the impact his music had on the tone and energy in the room was immediate and positive. 

When the actual townhall began, Bill Golderer, the convening minister at BSM, offered the guests a brief description and orientation of the room where they were situated.  He directed them to look at the art installations on the ceiling above them, acknowledged one of the artists who created them and explained the meaning and significance of having art in our everyday environment.  Only after that did he introduce the congressman.

After some brief initial comments Congressman Sestak opened the floor to questions.  One of the first questioners was an opponent to the House's proposed legislation.  Before the individual had finished his question several people rose up in unison and shouted, "Let him speak. Let him speak."  The only problem was that no one was interfering at this point.  Also interestingly, no one responded to those chants.  Within just a few seconds it became clear to everyone in the room that the only obstacle in the questioner's way were those people insisting that the question be allowed.  The chanters rather sheepishly sat down, and were not heard from for the rest of the long evening.

For the next three and a half hours the congressman fielded every type of question from many different viewpoints and constituencies with only one or two slightly testy interactions.  And even those were far from acrimonious.

 

So what happened?

While it is important to note that any number of correlations does not a causality make, intangible factors can impact the tone and tenor of political discourse.  Also worth noting is that at least two-thirds of those attending were in general support of the Democratic plan, so the opposition, while substantial, did not reach the critical mass it may have in other venues.  Additionally (and rather wisely, imho), Mr Sestak spoke from a stage about three feet above the audience.  Perhaps not the most democratic and egalitarian postures to take, it was effective in muting some of the strident opposition, and made some of the visuals less dramatic.  There were no scenes of a crowd of placard-waving opponents surrounding and shouting down the speaker.  Finally, Mr Sestak took much of the stridency out of the opposition by assuring everyone that he would stay until every question had been asked, and anyone who wanted to voice their opposition would be given an opportunity to speak.

 

That said, let's review some of those intangibles that may have also contributed to a rather civil civic discourse.

One: Connection before content -- make personal contact before establishing ground rules.

We so often miss this rather obvious point.  We all want to be seen and heard at various time in our lives.  By taking the time to express sincere gratitude, by being cordial and hospitable, we invite the best to emerge from each other.

Two: Be cordial throughout the event -- a rigorously fair and neutral host can also be a pleasant one.

From the outset we made it a point to identify ourselves as being from Broad Street Ministry and not from the congressman's office (or anyone else's for that matter).  This served also to remind those attending that they were guests in someone else's home, and were encouraged to act accordingly.  Having beautiful artwork in the environment helped as well.

Three: Be in control of the process at all times -- create the widest possible field and then hold the boundaries.

Several of the ushers were charged with holding microphones.  We stressed to them the importance of not letting go of the mics.  Had they done so, then if someone went on a rant, or spoke inappropriately, our only recourse would have been to cut the audio.  That would have likely led to an allegation of censorship.  As it happened, the only limits set concerning what people could say were: no profanity, and no remarks threatening violence.

Four: Encourage people to listen -- by creating an atmosphere where listening is rewarded.

Since we had people moving through the audience with microphones, rather than having microphones stationed on stands throughout the room, we repeatedly (and gently) asked members of the audience not to line up to ask questions.  After a time they realized that what we had said was in fact true - that waiting in a line did not increase the likelihood that they would have access to the microphone any sooner - they actually sat down and listened to the conversation.  This had the added benefit of allowing others in the audience behind them to see more clearly what was happening.

Five: Continue of connect with the guests throughout the evening -- it ain't over until it's over.

At various times during the event we, as hosts, interacted with the guests, especially if they appeared to have any particular needs.  This also served to remind those in attendance that, although this was neutral ground, it was not a no-man's land where anything goes either.  When we ended the formal townhall at about 10:15 PM, a number of those in the audience stayed around for a brief time to help clean up and rearrange the chairs for an event already planned for the next morning.  Another indication that we had succeeded in our attempt to create and sustain a civil space.

A final remark.  A few days after the townhall I was in a meeting with a professor from Penn who had attended the event.  He said to me that, after participating in so many of these types of gatherings, he no longer expects to learn anything.  For him they have become a form of political theater.  "This one was an exception", he said.  Further remarking, "I actually learned some things about the health care issue... I didn't expect that."

Music to my ears.