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November 30, 2004

Chapter 16. 6.4 Billion Points of Light

Chapter 16. 6.4 Billion Points of Light, by Roger Wood.

Posted by Jon Lebkowsky at November 30, 2004 1:59 PM


During our virtual discussion on August 20, 2007 with Roger Wood about his chapter, the topic of bridge-building and listening to all voices came up. Landon Shultz was inspired to write this to the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation discussion list and I offer it here for consideration:

From Landon:

Dear Friends,

It is noteworthy that our present conversation was generated by Steve Mantz’ email on 8/9/07, after the bridge collapse. Could there be a more perfect metaphor than bridgebuilding for the work we do as the NCDD community?

Let’s consider the following scenario:Somewhere in America, sitting on both sides of a mighty river, there is a metropolis called Thunder City. For reasons yet to be specified, our beloved Federal Government decides to build a new Interstate Highway Bridge across the river. The Government hires a General Contractor with a proven record of completing projects on time, under budget, and in compliance with environmental guidelines. This General Contractor, recognizing that the new Bridge will impact persons from multiple constituencies, convenes a series of Town Hall Meetings, hoping to create productive community involvement. The Bridge Project impacts many constituencies (groups of persons who share common interests) who are in the path of construction, but in this scenario we focus on only two groups: a large group of mostly Hispanic workers at a clothing factory, and a small group of elderly Black folks who live in an old, run-down neighborhood on the southeast side of the river. At the first Town Hall, attended by over 100 concerned citizens, many Hispanic workers are present, ably represented by an attorney from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). The Black folks are represented by a single elderly lady named Ida Mae, who has come because her great-grandson, who has just been deployed to Iraq, had learned about the meeting, and had told her that she needed to go.

At the meeting, everyone divides into groups of about a dozen folks each. At this point, our scenario breaks into two variations, variations which illustrate the difference between consensus planning and dialogue planning.

The First Variation moves immediately into a well-designed process for identifying major concerns shared by significant numbers of persons. The facilitators in each group are well-prepared, presenting relevant information clearly and succinctly, and asking well-designed questions which elicit free expression of ideas from nearly everyone present. The concerns of the Hispanic workers, which center around their loss of employment, are addressed by developing a plan to relocate the factory, including a commitment by the City Administration to ensure that adequate public transportation will be provided, so that workers can commute from their existing communities to the new location. By the time the meeting is over, all expressed priorities have been addressed, and a consensus is reached that the project should move ahead as planned. Everyone leaves the meeting with a feeling that good work has been done. Everyone except Ida Mae.

Ida Mae goes home feeling that there was never a space for her to speak, that there was never a time when she could raise her voice. In the months to come, she hears of more Town Hall Meetings, but she makes no effort to attend, believing that it would do no good. The project rolls along, and one day Ida Mae receives an Eviction Notice, informing her that the Government is exercising its right of Eminent Domain, and that she will need to move, because her land is needed for an important construction project.

As it happens, Ida Mae’s great-grandson James is home on leave on the day when the Eviction Notice arrives, and he is not pleased. He is not risking his life every day in the name of Freedom so that elderly Black people can be pushed aside in the name of progress. James calls a high school teammate who is a lawyer, and who is well-connected politically. As they talk, James learns of the accommodations provided for the Hispanic workers, and he begins to suspect that Ida Mae and her neighbors are being mistreated because they are Black. In reality, race has nothing to do with the decisions being made, but as soon as this issue raises its ugly head, the local media get wind of it, and they know that nothing pumps up ratings for the Evening News like a good story of Racial Discrimination. Suddenly there are picket lines being organized, lawsuits being filed, and the whole project comes to a crashing halt. In media interviews, the General Contractor and the Federal Government lament the fact that even though they did everything they could to be inclusive, it is never possible to include everyone in a planning process, and the will of the majority obviously needs to override the concerns of a small number of elderly Black people living in a few ramshackle old buildings. Our First Variation has now come to a stalemate, so let’s go back and think through a Second Variation.

In our Second Variation, the facilitators at the Town Hall Meetings begin with exercises designed to generate a sense of social connection among everyone present in the room. Ida Mae makes personal contact with 3 younger persons who seem very friendly, and who make her feel welcome. As the Town Hall progresses to the stage of identifying priorities, one of these young persons notices Ida Mae has not said anything, and asks if she has any concerns. Ida Mae responds that she wonders what will happen to herself and many other elderly people in her neighborhood as the bridge is being built. No adequate answer can be immediately provided, but several persons agree to form a Task Force and address Ida Mae’s concerns. In the ensuing months, this Task Force, which incorporates local religious leaders and community activists, works out an agreement by which everyone in Ida Mae’s neighborhood is given the opportunity to move into a new retirement facility being constructed on nearby government land from a former Air Force Base. With involvement of the Task Force, the retirement facility is built as part of a community project which also provides day-care (partly staffed by on-site retirees), job training, and youth sports activities. Local employment goes up, the land is well-used, and Ida Mae’s quiet voice has been heard in ways she never anticipated.

In the First Variation, the failure to hear the voice of one elderly woman leads to a stalemate that greatly increases the overall time and cost for the project. In the Second Variation, the commitment to hear the voices of even those persons who seem weak and insignificant generates a creative problem solution that reaches far beyond the initial area of concern. That’s the difference between consensus based decision making and dialogue based decision making. Consensus based decision making is a big step forward from the monolithic, authoritarian decision making of our colonial past, but in the 21st Century we need to go further. In 21st Century America—a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural democracy—we need to practice dialogue based decision making.

The consensus approach seems to start with the assumption that we can’t possibly hear everyone’s voice, so let’s do the best we can to include the voices of everyone who is influential and articulate. The dialogue approach starts with the assumption that we can at least make an effort to hear everyone’s voice, and realizes that sometimes what starts out as a whisper can end up being heard as thunder. It seems to me that our job as dialogue facilitators in the 21st Century is to ensure that the voices of those persons who have traditionally been disenfranchised are given as much honor and respect as the voices of those who are powerful and influential. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Landon Shultz,
Bluebonnet Hills Christian Church,
Austin, Texas

Posted by: Taylor at August 22, 2007 12:56 PM

Landon offered this follow up to his comment above:

1) It is not enough to care about only the voices in our society which are powerful and articulate. If we are to live up to our promise as an American Democracy, then we have to care about even those voices which seem weak and powerless. We must show respect to persons whose voices have previously not been heard in our society. (AKA, “disenfranchised”)
2) By using dialogue processes that are both socially and intellectually inclusive, we can encounter even complex, seemingly impossible problems and resolve those problems successfully. When concerned, dedicated, and well-trained persons work together in communities where true dialogue is alive, miracles can happen. In the Thunder City scenario, a community which hears the voice of a single elderly woman becomes organized to produce a creative solution. When a creative solution to a complex social problem shows itself to be both workable and sustainable, then that qualifies as a miracle. Looking at our society today, I would say that we need some miracles. Once again, please feel free to correct me, if you feel I am mistaken about this.
3) In a complex, chaotic environment, a single voice can develop harmonic reverberations that impact the whole system. Something like this may have happened in the Minnesota bridge collapse, where the jackhammer being operated by the repair crew on the bridge reverberated with the pulses of the freight train passing underneath the bridge, and set up a rhythm that propagated along the existing cracks in the structure. On the other hand, a single voice can develop harmonic reverberations that can organize previously untapped creative potential in the system. In the Thunder City scenario, failing to hear Ida Mae’s voice led to system failure, but choosing to hear her voice led to a creative solution. If we are going to generate “workable and sustainable solutions” to the problems which confront our world in the 21st Century, then we need to learn how we can tap into, and effectively organize, previously untapped creative potential.
4) Navigating a complex, chaotic environment requires both logic and intuition. If we rely too much on logic to resolve the complexities by identifying major issues, then we may fail to notice apparently insignificant factors which signal the presence of powerful energy sources.

Posted by: Taylor at August 24, 2007 7:30 AM

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» extreme democracy indeed from meta-roj blog
in case anyone wondered what i was up to this past spring, you can now see my contribution to extreme democracy (chapter 16). 6.4 billion points of light [pdf]. and if anyone's interested, i am making a push on my... [Read More]

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I can't believe I've missed this book for this long. Its edited by Mitch Ratcliffe and Jon Lebkowsky

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» Re: here's the thing from tribe.net: www.extremedemocracy.com
Err, try http://www.extremedemocracy.com Sorry 'bout that. Tim [Read More]

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