Dialogue is a process which enables people from all walks of life to talk deeply and personally about some of the major issues and realities that divide them. Dialogues are powerful, transformational experiences that often lead to both personal and collaborative action.
Why dialogue and deliberation? Dialogue is often deliberative, involving the weighing of various options and the consideration of different viewpoints for the purpose of reaching agreement on action steps or policy decisions. A growing body of theoretical, experimental and evaluative work around deliberative dialogue is raising the visibility of this promising new field.
People are leading dialogues across the country in schools, in churches, in workplaces, and in virtually every other venue imaginable. They are encouraging people to engage in dialogue about issues ranging from race relations in their communities and violence in their schools to how to handle the buildup of nuclear waste or the rapid rate of development in their region. People are organizing dialogues in order to resolve conflicts, to increase citizen participation in governmental decisions, to educate, to help people build self-awareness, to improve communication skills, to strengthen teams or build coalitions, to stimulate innovation and to foster effective community change.
Deliberative approaches to dialogue are being applied with increasing frequency in communities, across regions and at the national level. Some of these approaches are designed to bring citizens and government decision-makers together as joint problem solvers. Techniques range from intimate, small-group dialogues to large, town meeting-like forums involving hundreds-if not thousands-of participants. Evolving communication technologies are sometimes integrated into these experiments to overcome traditional barriers of scale, geography and time.
If you know where to look, you can find references to dialogue everywhere in our society today. The problem is that most people do not know where to look. Policymakers, who are increasingly interested in helping their constituents share viewpoints, develop clarity and make recommendations about important policy, don't know where to find out more about dialogue and deliberation. Educators who want their students to understand and transform conflicts aren't sure where to look for the resources they need. Even dialogue and deliberation practitioners themselves aren't clear on where they can find needed information, resources and advice within an evolving field.
Dialogue and deliberation organizers and facilitators are generally unaware of the many high-quality, low-cost resources that could help them become more effective in their work. They don't know who they can contact for help with specific problems they are facing, or where they can go for training or events that can help them build their skills.
There is a bewildering array of overlapping terms and concepts being used by practitioners and scholars in our field. Even leaders in the dialogue community tend to be unaware of all of the various aliases that the dialogue process adopts in different venues, in different parts of the country and across the globe. It is difficult for dialogue practitioners to understand how their work relates to the practices of public participation, civic engagement, alternative dispute resolution, conflict resolution, organizational development, deliberative democracy, organizational development, consensus building, community building, and so many other practices.
The opportunities for U.S. dialogue and deliberation leaders to get together with other leaders in the field are rare, and the opportunities that do exist always leave out significant portions of the dialogue community. As a result, the group which is organizing community-wide Study Circles in Ohio does not benefit from the years of experience of the Jewish-Palestinian living room dialogue leaders in San Francisco. The success of one-time dialogues in bookstores and coffee shops in Seattle does not give older dialogue programs in Boston needed ideas of how to engage more of the public in their process. An excellent dialogue training program in Akron is run without even the dialogue practitioners in that state finding out about it in time to register. And the success and impact of a range of new deliberative online dialogues remains unknown to the vast majority of organizers of community discussions across the country.
This kind of disconnect is understandable given the tremendous grassroots growth of dialogic processes in the past decade alone. But for the process to be refined and the practice to continue to be developed, dialogue practitioners and theorists need to establish ways to stay connected with one another. Means of sharing strategies, asking questions and getting the right people to answer them, getting the word out about events and training opportunities, evaluating programs, developing professional standards and reaching agreement on basic terms and definitions in the field - the development of all of these things is essential to the growth of the field and the future of the dialogue process.
A group of dialogue leaders who are concerned about the disconnect within the dialogue and deliberation community began working together in the summer of 2001 to organize a national event which would bring practitioners together across the myriad methods, applications and venues in which dialogue is practiced. We were awarded funding for the event by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in May 2002, and plan to hold the event October 4-6.
It is our hope that the conference will help define, strengthen and shape the future of the dialogue process by giving leaders and future leaders in the field a venue in which to develop sustainable ways to communicate with one another, share resources and strategies, and increase the visibility and effectiveness of the practice.
The Conference will be a highly participatory, high-energy event which brings dialogue and deliberation practitioners together for the first time across models, topics, regions, applications and philosophies for a unique learning, networking and planning experience. The Conference will be designed to provide the opportunity for new task forces, networks and committees to form for purposes designated by the participants.
The Conference will include experiential workshops, networking sessions, opportunities to experience and observe a variety of dialogic and deliberative models, an exhibition of resources and materials, prominent speakers and a community dialogue-style action forum. Participants will each receive binders which will include information about a number of effective dialogue models (descriptions and organizational contact information), a list of key resources for dialogue practitioners, definitions of key terms, participant contact information, an agenda and other logistical information.
Participants will have the opportunity to learn about what's new in the field (new strategies, methods, research, etc.), to increase their skills in organizing dialogues and in helping their dialogue groups take effective community action, to find out how to handle specific problems and challenges they routinely face, and to share their own knowledge and experience with their colleagues.
A report will be produced which will focus on the issues, resources and innovations gleaned from the conference (key questions and challenges for the field; new approaches, strategies, resources and projects of interest to practitioners; information on various dialogue models and tools), new collaborations, projects and networks created at the conference, an evaluation of the event, and plans and ideas for future events.
The National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation has the potential, in the long run, to make the dialogue community vastly more effective. Dialogue and deliberation practitioners can be made more knowledgeable and more skilled, and can be given more and better access to the resources and individuals who can help them in their work. The dialogue community can be made more cohesive, with less confusion and isolation.
An accurate understanding and knowledge of dialogue and deliberation can be made more widespread, with more people having an understanding of what these processes are and why they're effective, how to organize a dialogue, and how to obtain or train a facilitator. If our efforts are successful, communities, schools, government agencies and others will be better able to foster collaborative solutions to difficult problems - not only because information about the dialogue process will have been made more accessible, but because the practice will have been strengthened and improved.