The Story of the National Conferences on Dialogue & Deliberation    

NCDD conferences provide people who are committed to helping dialogue and deliberation flourish in the world with the opportunity to increase their skills and knowledge in these processes, share their own learnings and innovations with others, and develop supportive, collaborative relationships with their peers. Perhaps most importantly, NCDD conferences leave participants feeling more motivated, energized, supported and prepared to do this vital work.

Although our approaches, philosophies, venues, and purposes for doing this work can be very different, we all share a common vision: a future in which all kinds of people–regardless of income, position, background or education–are able to engage regularly in lively, thoughtful, and challenging discussions about what matters to them, in ways that have a positive impact on their lives and their world.

Making this vision a reality is no easy feat. To truly make the impact we believe we can and should have on the world, we must work together rather than just working simultaneously, and we must build on each other’s knowledge and expertise rather than starting from scratch in our own silos. THIS is the reason we hold biennial National Conferences on Dialogue & Deliberation.

NCDD conferences are chock-full of opportunities for participants to network with colleagues, experience different group methods first-hand, share learnings, hear from leaders in the field, and explore key issues facing our field. Some people have told us that they’ve never attended better conferences.

NCDD gatherings are not your run-of-the-mill conferences. Instead of parading endless speakers in front of you in the hope that you will absorb some of their knowledge, we acknowledge and tap into every participant’s expertise and unique perspectives, and ask participants to play an active role in shaping the future of this burgeoning field.

NCDD conferences are highly participatory. We use the plenary sessions (where we’re all in one large room) as an opportunity to not only showcase innovative large-group dialogue and deliberation techniques – often blending methods to better meet the group’s needs, but also to utilize the wisdom in the room to tackle challenges facing this emerging field. Our concurrent workshops, led by key leaders and innovators in the field, offer participants a smorgasbord of experiences designed to build skills, increase knowledge, broaden awareness and build relationships. And the arts always play an innovative, prominent role in our conferences (see how).

Our attendees value our willingness to experiment with new things, to involve everyone willing to volunteer some of their time in the planning process, and to respond to conference participants’ needs as they arise.

The first National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation was held in Alexandria, Virginia at the Radisson Hotel Old Town in October 2002, and the second took place in Denver, Colorado at Regis University in October 2004. Our third conference was held in San Francisco in August 2006 at the Parc 55 hotel, and the fourth NCDD conference is coming up in Austin, Texas, October 3-5, 2008.

The first National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation was held in Alexandria, Virginia at the Radisson Hotel Old Town in October 2002, and the second took place in Denver, Colorado at Regis University in October 2004. Our third conference was held in San Francisco in August 2006 at the Parc 55 hotel.

What follows is the story of the first two conferences; how they came to be, and what we learned from doing them.

The 2002 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation marked the first attempt to bring together practitioners, scholars, activists, and artists from across the entire spectrum of dialogue and deliberation practice. Before the 2002 conference, deliberative democracy pioneers had been brought together, organization development practitioners had been convened, and events had brought together those who practice specific D&D methods like Study Circles and World Caf̩ Рbut there had not yet been an attempt to convene all of these groups and others who practice, study, and promote dialogue and deliberation.

Around the time of NCDD’s first conference, people and groups committed to finding new and better ways to give people a voice in decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution were beginning to sense a shift. Some felt a field was developing, and others called it a movement. Only one thing was certain: whatever “it” was, it was disconnected and disorganized. The field / movement / community of practice was emerging from the grassroots, and each disconnected network had developed their own language for their work, looked to their own thought leaders for direction and inspiration, had their own ways of connecting with their colleagues, and were familiar with their specific set of resources and tools.

As a result, a group organizing community-wide Study Circles in Ohio could 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 could not provide older dialogue programs in Boston with needed ideas of how to engage more of the public in their process. An excellent dialogue and deliberation training program in Austin would be offered without even the practitioners in that state finding out about it in time to register. And the success and impact of a range of new online techniques remained unknown to the vast majority of organizers of community discussions across the country.

This kind of disconnect was understandable given the tremendous grassroots growth in the use and development of dialogic and deliberative processes in the past decade alone. But for these processes to be refined and the practice to continue to be developed, we needed to establish ways to stay connected with one another. We needed to develop ways to share strategies and learnings, ask questions and get good answers quickly, get the word out about trainings and other opportunities, evaluate programs effectively, and develop common terminology for this work. We knew that all of these things were essential for the growth of the field and the future of these processes.

The 2002 conference was the first step. It was a highly participatory, high-energy event which brought dialogue and deliberation pioneers together across models, topics, regions, applications, and philosophies for a unique learning, networking, and planning experience. Dozens of top-notch workshops introduced conference participants to a plethora of dialogue methods, models, and tools. And three plenary sessions took participants through a dialogic and deliberative process-using a small group dialogue technique on the first day, AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting on the second, and a Study Circles-style action forum on the final day-to help them determine what actions we should take as a group to move our field forward. Participants developed a blueprint of action for strengthening this emerging field, and twelve groups formed to address specific needs that are vital to dialogue and deliberation practitioners and the greater D&D community:

  • Networking and Communications within the D&D Community
  • Research & Development
  • Mission and Vision
  • Connecting to the Arts
  • Creating a Toolbox for D&D Practitioners
  • Expanding Diversity and Connections
  • Marketing Dialogue to the Media and the Public
  • Integrating Dialogue Within Educational Environments
  • Meeting Practitioners’ Funding Needs
  • Convening and Coordinating Nationwide Dialogues
  • Involving International Practitioners and Issues
  • Networking and Collaboration Among Online D&D Practitioners

Because of the relationships participants developed and the learnings and resources shared, many participants left the conference feeling-for the first time-that they are part of an important, growing field of practice. After the 2002 conference concluded, the 50 organizations that had formed the Coalition for a National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation decided to continue working together to strengthen and unite the dialogue and deliberation community. They became the founding members of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). Download the 2002 conference report.

Between the 2002 and 2004 conferences, in large part due to NCDD’s communication strategies and resource-rich website but also due to the work of other organizations and networks, a recognizable “dialogue and deliberation community” began to develop. Sharing resources, news, and opportunities became the norm, and common terminology was informally developed so we could all “speak the same language.” The community’s biggest challenges became common knowledge, and people began talking about how we can address these challenges collectively and how else we can strengthen this field.

NCDD continues to address the disconnect in this emerging field through our activities and collaborative projects, and through the resources and opportunities we provide our members and others involved in dialogue and deliberation work.

Participants of the 2004 NCDD Conference were given the opportunity to get to know one another better and discuss D&D issues further at lunchtime Integration Groups. Photo by Layli Samimi-Moore.

The 2004 conference reflected this growth in our field of practice. Instead of asking participants to think about their needs as individuals, our needs as a field, and what we may be able to do together to meet those needs, we asked participants to consider some of the most pressing-and most complicated-issues this field is facing. In particular, participants examined questions like:

  • How can we make a greater collective impact on the challenging issues of our time?
  • How can we determine fairly which processes work best in specific circumstances?
  • Where are we going as a field or community of practice, and where should we be going?

We encouraged participants to grapple with these issues through large-group processes including World Café, a unique “Reflective Panel,” Open Space Technology, and Playback Theatre. We learned a great deal from the 2004 conference and the work that led up to it. We learned that there is a great need for local D&D gatherings and networking. We learned that many new people are entering this work and they need our help discovering how they fit into this nascent field of practice. We learned that NCDD and the D&D community as a whole need to learn how to address our own inclusion issues more openly and effectively. We learned that we need much more effective ways to bring these processes to decision-makers. (For more about our learnings and what NCDD is doing about it, see the 2004 Conference Report.)

And we learned many other things. Most importantly, we were left with these vital questions: How can we encourage, in our own field, honest analysis of one’s own and others’ work, genuine collaboration for the benefit of the community, and open access to knowledge and information? How can we set our egos aside and start working together to make a greater impact? The National Conferences on Dialogue & Deliberation are our opportunity, as a loose-knit community of practitioners, researchers, activists, artists, students, and others who are committed to giving people a voice and making sure that voice counts, to find ways to work together to increase both our individual and our collective impact.

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