Arsalyn Youth Conference    

This year’s theme for Arsalyn’s annual youth conference, which took place in D.C. August 9-12, 2007, was “Bridging the Partisan Divide: Rediscovering Deliberation,” and NCDD was proud to play a major role at the event.

Arsalyn invited 150 young people ages 16-20 to the 2007 conference to learn the art of political deliberation. This event is part of a series of conferences geared toward helping young people – especially politically active youth – develop skills that will help them communicate effectively with those of opposing views or with more lukewarm potential allies without alienating them or poisoning the wells of deliberation and common action.

Arsalyn is a non-partisan program of Ludwick Family Foundation, which promotes youth civic and political engagement.

On the opening evening, following dinner and a keynote address by speechwriter John P. McConnell, NCDD member Susan Partnow ran a World Cafe to help the students meet each other and get them talking about the reasons the conference theme is important to them. Nusa Maal provided graphic recording services during the event, and Susan facilitated (with NCDD director Sandy Heierbacher and NCDD member Diane Miller helping out as needed). The photos on this page were all taken during the World Cafe.

The following afternoon (after a morning tour of the city and a keynote by William Powers, media critic for National Journal) Sandy Heierbacher introduced the four streams of dialogue and deliberation practice in a plenary session meant to prepare participants for the workshops they were selecting from that afternoon and the following afternoon.

We identified the four streams of D&D practice a couple of years ago to help people who are newer to D&D figure out which methods are most appropriate for their purpose, needs and resources.

Students would have the opportunity to choose four of the six workshops, since they were each repeated four times. The workshops NCDD coordinated were:

  • Susan Partnow’s workshop on the Conversation Cafe method (Exploration stream)
  • Christina Kelleher and Chris Wagner’s workshop on Sustained Dialogue and the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network (Conflict Transformation stream)
  • Diane Miller’s workshop on National Issues Forums (Decision-Making stream)
  • John Landesman and colleagues’ workshop on Study Circles (Collaborative Action stream)

The other two workshops introduced the students not to processes but to two great programs that utilize dialogue and deliberation – (and their cool new Democracy 2.0 campaign) and Reuniting America.

Before the workshops on the second full day of the conference, students heard from Texas Representative Martin Frost (D). On the third and final day of the event, the students participated in a 2.5-hour presentation on negative campaigning. I missed this presentation, but I believe David Mark and Darius Udrys co-led this segment. David Mark is a senior editor at The Politico and author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning (2006). Darius Udrys, program manager at the Los Angeles-based Center for Civic Education, is a journalist and civic educator with over a decade of experience promoting informed democratic citizenship in the U.S. and abroad.

After this segment, NCDD’s director, Sandy Heierbacher, led a two-hour segment that had the students working in small groups to figure out which leading dialogue and deliberation efforts seemed to best suit various case studies. We started out in the ballroom, where everyone received a copy of NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework as well as one of eight short cases. The streams framework consists of two legal-size charts. The first chart (a one-page document) categorizes the D&D field into four streams based on intention or purpose (Exploration, Conflict Transformation, Decision Making, and Collaborative Action), and show which of the most well-known methods have proven themselves effective in which streams. The second chart (a 3-page document) outlines about 20 dialogue and deliberation methods, and includes details such as size of the group and how participants are selected.

The framework depicted in the two charts is designed to help those who are new to D&D navigate the range of options that are available to them and make design choices that are appropriate for their circumstance and resources. The charts aren’t about “picking and choosing” a single method; they provide people with a clear way to think through what their purpose is for doing this work, what they hope to achieve, and who should participate in the process – and determine the types of approaches that best meet those parameters so they can learn more about those methods.

After Sandy introduced the charts in the plenary session, Sandy, Susan Partnow, Diane Miller and Charles Knickerbocker each took a quarter of the 150 students to a different room and we had the students in each of our rooms break up into groups of 4 or 5 to work on their cases (each group tackled one case). One person from each of the groups in our rooms reported out about what their case was and which D&D methods their group felt seemed like they would be most effective for their case (and why). The students – who were extraordinarily bright – came up with a number of great multi-process combinations and identified a lot of the issues that seasoned practitioners would have identified.

We then all got back together in the ballroom and had one person report out in the front of the room for each of the eight cases. We should have videotaped this report-out, because the students were not only articulate and funny – but they all demonstrated just how much they had learned in the past few days about utilizing dialogue and deliberation to address complicated public conflicts and issues.

Sandy thanked the group and expressed her amazement at what the students had come up with – but it was time to move on to dinner and a culminating activity run by folks from the Study Circles Resource Center. This activity combined some principles from Study Circles’ Mix It Up dialogues with an action planning session. Using some of the facilitation skills they learned at the workshops, students at each table selected an issue they were interested in tackling (climate change, political polarization, domestic violence, immigration, etc.) and discussed what young people can do to begin addressing their issue collaboratively.

Although the action plans they came up with were hypothetical, the students were also asked to commit to at least one “personal action step” that they can take when they leave the conference. Spokespersons from many of the tables stood up and summarized the action plans their table developed. We uploaded the two-page handout for this activity to the NCDD website so you can see how this worked.

NCDD was privileged to have such a major role at the 2007 Arsalyn conference, and all of the NCDDers who had a role in the conference truly enjoyed our participation. NCDD hopes to be able to coordinate, hand-in-hand with some of our members, these kinds of programs at future events. As Diane Miller said in an email to the Arsalyn staff and other NCDDers involved, we really enjoyed being part of such a creative, lively conference and it was a treat to work with such cool young people!

You can learn more about the conference at

Here’s What Our First Commenter Had To Add…

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  1. Pingback added by Diane Miller Report from Arsalyn Conference for Youth « Texas Forums on September 8, 2007:

    […] tools for influencing political activism and civic discourse. Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, worked with Arsalyn staff to make D&D a central focus of the conference. In addition to the […]

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