About Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD's Director

Photo of Sandy.

All of the ?building online community? books tell me that a website should tell stories; should provide people with a sense of history about how things came to be. NCDD's history can be found on another page, but I thought I'd also let people know how I came to be doing this work, and why. After all, my story merges with NCDD's story along the way.

I hope you enjoy my story! I'm also including a short bio below for those of you who just want the nitty-gritty.



Bio for Sandy Heierbacher

Sandy Heierbacher is the Co-Founder and Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), which brings together people and groups who actively practice, promote and study inclusive, high quality conversations. She has served as the Director of NCDD?s 2002, 2004, and 2006 national conferences, working in collaboration both times with dozens of people from across the spectrum of dialogic and deliberative practice to create unique, engaging events. NCDD has become a vibrant network of nearly 600 organizations and individuals who, collectively, regularly engage and mobilize millions of Americans around today's critical issues, and NCDD?s resource-rich website, at www.thataway.org, is a popular hub for dialogue & deliberation leaders.

In addition to her work with NCDD, Sandy has consulted for such organizations as the Corporation for National Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kettering Foundation in the areas of intergroup dialogue, public participation and deliberative democracy. Sandy also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Issues Forums Institute, the Steering Committee of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the Advisory Board of the Public Conversations Project, the Advisory Group for the Democracy Lab of the Pennsylvania Center for Civic Life, the Advisory Board of the September Project and the Practitioner Board of Editors for the Journal for Public Deliberation.

Sandy Heierbacher's "Story"

I first heard about dialogue in 1997, in a Conflict Transformation class taught by my mentor Paula Green at the School for International Training, where I was pursuing my Master's degree in Intercultural Management.

At my undergraduate school, the prestigious Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, I had been involved in numerous extracurricular activities ? many of them activism-oriented. Among other things (Earth Day, Student Government, community service), I had devoted much time and effort to understanding and improving race relations on campus. When I learned about intergroup dialogue at graduate school, I realized that this was the missing ingredient in my earlier activism work.

Picture of Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke.

Sandy Heierbacher and her husband Andy Fluke - the heart and muscle behind NCDD and www.thataway.org.

I was hooked immediately, and began learning all I could about interracial dialogue in particular. The Master's program at the School for International Training consisted of a nine-month on-campus phase, followed by an experiential component and the completion of a thesis. I decided that for my off-campus phase ? and possibly for my future career - I wanted to merge the two things I was now most passionate about: community service (I had served as an AmeriCorps member for two years, coordinating Kutztown University's Volunteer Center) and intergroup dialogue.

I began the Dialogue to Action Initiative during this off-campus phase in 1998, when I was awarded a fellowship with the Corporation for National Service. For the fellowship, I provided leaders in the national service field (AmeriCorps, VISTA, etc.) with the information they need to involve their participants in intergroup dialogues on race and racism.

Dialogue to Action Logo.

I developed a printed dialogue guide and a website for the project, with the help of my wonderful artist husband, Andy Fluke (actually, we were not yet married at that time; we finally tied the knot in 2000). The website for the project later provided www.thataway.org with its Organize a Dialogue section and part of its Resources section.

Before beginning the fellowship with CNS, I had worked as a short-term Research Consultant for the Center for Living Democracy (with Jonathan Hutson and Frances Moore Lappe), developing and administering a national phone survey of 75 facilitators and organizers of intergroup dialogues on race. I was thrilled to have this opportunity to talk with so many dialogue leaders and learn about their programs first hand. The phone interviews tended to be at least 45 minutes long (people in our field DO know how to talk!), and helped me to gain some of my first connections in the dialogue community.

While gathering information on the needs and strategies of U.S. dialogue groups during these phone interviews, I became concerned about a problem I heard described to me again and again. Although most dialogue groups seemed to naturally want to take action in their communities after engaging in dialogue, many groups failed to do so effectively. One after another, my interviewees explained that because of this failure to transition from dialogue to action, many people - especially People of Color - were leaving dialogue groups feeling dissatisfied despite the fact that the dialogue experience had been personally rewarding to them.

I decided to research this problem for my Master's thesis. In an attempt to answer the question ?How can dialogue groups be more effective at transitioning from talk to community action?? I interviewed leaders of dialogue programs, examined materials in the related fields of conflict resolution, community building, and social change, and examined existing dialogue materials and resources.

Working closely with my amazing advisor and mentor, Paula Green of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, I was able to identify nine broad strategies that are useful in organizing dialogues that have a greater capacity for inciting effective community action. After converting the text into more web-friendly structure and language, I added my research results to the Dialogue to Action Initiative resources at www.thataway.org.

A picture of Sandy's cat - just for fun.

Sandy's cat, Calamity Jane. (It is Sandy's page, after all!)

During this time, I had also set up a listserv for dialogue leaders. The Center for Living Democracy's DialogOn listserv had been shut down (despite many rich discussions led by Moderator Jonathan Hutson), and I wanted to see these discussions continue. Most of the former DialogOn subscribers joined the new Dialogue Leaders list, which was designed to be a networking and information-sharing forum. The listerv, which merged with NCDD's main discussion list in early 2005, was a practical, informative resource open to those using any model, application or philosophy of dialogue.

After three years of researching the dialogue process and movement - for the Center for Living Democracy, for my CNS fellowship, for a consultancy with the Village Foundation (with Paul Martin DuBois) and for my thesis, as well as participating in dialogue facilitation training (with the Public Conversations Project) and mediation training (with the Mediation and Training Collaborative of Greenfield, Mass.) and running some local dialogues, I felt that I had developed a pretty good sense of the dialogue community as a whole.

Even though my sense of the dialogue community was far from complete at this point [deliberation, for one thing, hadn't yet entered the picture prominently], one thing I knew for sure was that there was no one-stop location on the internet for news and information about what was happening in the world of dialogue. Although there was a lot of great information about dialogue available on the net, finding what you needed was far from easy (or fast). Over the past several years, however, I had developed many close contacts with 'movers and shakers' in the dialogue community, and had become somewhat 'in the loop' for new resources, upcoming events and other dialogue-related news. I was also aware of many different networks and websites online where one could find new information of interest to dialogue practitioners.

Photo of Andy Fluke.

Andy Fluke, www.thataway.org's web guru from the very beginning.

At this point, I had grown to care deeply about the dialogue community and its potential impact on communities across the country ? indeed, across the globe. This passion, combined with my innate obsession with efficiency plus my desire for people to actually use my thesis results, led me to create the ?Dialogue Community? section at www.thataway.org. (With, of course, the invaluable help of my wonderful designer husband, Andy.)

The Dialogue Community section was developed to provide a central location on the web for people to find out what's going on throughout the dialogue community - new dialogue guides and facilitation resources, upcoming conferences and trainings related to dialogue, new books, new research, etc. I updated the Community section faithfully every couple of weeks, and quickly found myself being relied on by hundreds of dialogue leaders to keep them ?in the loop? and to provide them with a way of sharing news about their work with their peers.

Unfortunately for me, much of this work was completely independent ? and completely unpaid. In between consultancies, and while working on my thesis, I worked a number of odd jobs to make ends meet. I did a lot of clerical work, worked as a Paraprofessional in a third grade class (not as fun as it sounds), and worked as a ?runner? at a bread company (definitely not as fun as it sounds). In fact, I sometimes wondered if I'd have to abandon my dreams and look for a completely different line of work.

It was during this difficult time in the summer of 2001 that I managed to scrape together enough funds to get myself to a conference in DC focused on Connecting Communities for Reconciliation and Justice. This Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) conference was to have a strong focus on dialogue, and I was looking forward to meeting more of my colleagues in the dialogue community.

The conference was an interesting one, but too focused on speakers and panel discussions for my taste. In fact, it was during one of the panels that the idea for a national dialogue conference was born ? not in the ballroom, but in the lobby outside. Cricket White (of Hope in the Cities) was standing in the lobby, grabbing people who were known for their work with dialogue and getting them excited about a new project. ?Wouldn't it be great,? she said, ?if we all got together to actually experience each other's models and meet others who do this work??

Some people were more excited about this new project than others, but several of us were excited enough to begin acting on the idea immediately upon returning home. I created a listserv at Yahoo! Groups so that we could continue talking about the conference idea, and discussion began immediately. We wrote to each other excitedly about planning an event which would bring dialogue practitioners together to learn about each other's dialogue models and strategies and to address the disconnect and lack of infrastructure that exists in the dialogue community.

2002 conference logo.

We reached out to others in our networks, and our numbers quickly increased. It soon became evident that although everyone on the listserv was committed to organizing a gathering of dialogue leaders, each person had different ideas, needs and a unique vision for the event.

I made a suggestion that, in order to create some clarity about what ways dialogue practitioners could really benefit from such an event - and whether or not there was demand for an event like this, we should design a needs assessment and invite dialogue facilitators, organizers, researchers, students and activists to complete an online survey. The group agreed, and the survey we designed was posted at www.thataway.org and publicized through our networks.

115 people from throughout the dialogue community completed the survey. The results, which were posted online and emailed widely, were both interesting and informative, and confirmed that dialogue practitioners have a strong need ? and many great ideas ? for a dialogue conference.

After we analyzed the survey results, we wondered how our group would be able to pull off a conference for 200+ people with our limited resources. We knew we would have to look for funding options, but each of us was busy with our own work.

It was at this time that I received a call from Roger Bernier at the Center for Disease Control's National Immunization Program. He had explored my website and was calling for advice on how to initiate a new public involvement program at the CDC. I referred him to some prominent dialogue organizations and sent him the contact information for several leaders in the field, but I also coolly mentioned that I do consultancy work. Roger then hired me on as a consultant for his project, and I spent the next several months doing research for him about best practices for deliberative pubic involvement in federal agencies.

While I was working with the CDC, David Schoem of the University of Michigan mentioned our efforts informally to Terry Amsler of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. I received a shocking call from Terry soon after that, and we were encouraged to get the ball rolling on a grant proposal. We got the good news from Hewlett on May 23, 2002. We were going to organize the first-ever National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation!

As soon as we heard the news, we moved into high gear. We had already found a great location and had agreed on October 4-6 as the dates for the event, but that left us with only about four months to organize a national conference! I immediately sent out an announcement to about 2500 contacts throughout the dialogue community, hoping to not only encourage people to plan to attend, but also to join our Organizing Team and our Coalition.

A snapshot of 2002 conference volunteers.

Libby Traubman, Susan Levine and Attica Scott preparing for the 2002 conference.

Within a couple of days, we had received over 400 email messages from dialogue leaders who wanted to express their excitement about the event. Many of these leaders accepted our invitation to join the conference Organizing Team or have their organization become a part of the Coalition for a National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation.

With a large organizing team of 60 incredible people who had faith that we could pull this off in four months ? not to mention six phenomenal committee chairs ? we were able to put together an event that included 56 top-notch workshops that exposed dialogue practitioners to a plethora of dialogue techniques and tools, and three plenary sessions that took conference participants through a dialogic and deliberative process to help them determine what actions we should take as a group to move our field forward.

It was a wonderful event. In retrospect, there are many things that I would have done differently as conference Director. But anyone who was there will tell you that the atmosphere at that event was extremely positive and just charged with energy. The overwhelming attitude of participants was one of gratitude for the opportunity to be together with fellow D&D practitioners and excitement about what they could learn at the conference and share with others, and what we could begin doing together to strengthen our field.

NCDD Logo.

After a much-needed break, I began working to give the conference legs. The Coalition of organizations that endorsed the conference agreed to become the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and many of the Organizing Team members and conference participants signed on as members of the Coalition as well.

The rest is history, as they say. The Hewlett Foundation continued to support our work, and other Foundations (the Whitman Institute, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Kettering Foundation) have thankfully followed suit. We have grown from 50 members to nearly 600 members in a few short years, and we have become known as THE organization that is working to strengthen and unite the dialogue & deliberation community. Our website has become a popular hub for practitioners and scholars in this emerging field, and houses by far the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection of resources, news, events and opportunities related to dialogue and deliberation.

Another picture of Sandy and Andy.

Sandy and Andy - again.

NCDD dedicated much of its time in 2003 and 2004 to helping to develop and strengthen major dialogue and deliberation efforts that address the extreme political polarization in our country ? efforts like Let?s Talk America, The September Project and the Both/And Project. NCDD now keeps in touch monthly with nearly 10,000 people who are involved in dialogue and deliberation, and our communication and networking efforts have helped to spread the word about and increase the effectiveness of numerous innovative programs.

In 2004, much of our energy was focused on planning the second National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, which took place in Denver, Colorado in October of last year. Attended by 305 leaders and newcomers in this nascent field, the 2004 conference was planned as collaboratively as the first conference, with nearly 60 people working together on the planning team to design a unique, worthwhile event. Through the conference and other activities, NCDD strives to help scholars and practitioners jointly address some of the key issues facing the field.

The young people who attended the 2004 conference are spearheading a network for new practitioners and a mentorship program. They also hope to develop an internship clearinghouse which will help match new practitioners to established organizations and practitioners who can use their help. Many who attended the 2004 conference are also interested in seeing NCDD develop regional networks of dialogue and deliberation leaders.

We were also incredibly proud to help an independent group in Canada plan the first Canadian Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation (C2D2), which took place in Ottawa in October 2005, and was modeled after NCDD?s conferences. And we are doing what we can to support an African Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation that was launched by conference participants at C2D2.

NCDD is now planning our third National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, which will take place in San Francisco in August 2006. And we are developing our first strategic plan, designing a mentorship program, exploring how best to encourage regional D&D networks to develop, producing a Beginner's Toolkit to D&D, reworking our extensive resources section, and more!

So that's the (very) long version of how I came to be NCDD's Director. My days are busier than ever, and my ?to do list? never seems to get any smaller, but I know that I am extremely lucky to be doing the work that I love, and working with so many extraordinary people.


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