By: Samantha Ball
How do you get a room full of people to truly engage with the complex topics of access to childcare and early childhood education, juvenile justice reform and the education system, and maternal mental health support and services? Based on my experience at the YWCA’s Utah Women’s Policy Conference, the deliberative community engagement model is great option.
In August, over 100 people gathered at the Thomas Monson Center’s Town Hall to learn about issues affecting women in Utah. The YWCA used a deliberative community engagement approach offered by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute to help attendees learn and think about the well-being of women in Utah, and the complexity of addressing three priority issue areas – access to childcare and early childhood education, juvenile justice reform and the education system, and maternal mental health support and services. Using deliberative community engagement means bringing people with a wide variety of perspectives together, providing them with a foundation of high quality information, and allowing them to share perspectives and work collaboratively to find productive ways forward.
Since one of the cornerstones of deliberative community engagement is providing a foundation of high quality information, the abundance of research and experience shared at the conference was vital to success. The conference began with Chandra Childers – senior research scientist at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) – outlining their latest report on the well-being of women in Utah, including findings showing that Utah women continue to have a 70% ratio of women’s to men’s earnings (compared to 80% nationally) and are less likely to be working in managerial/professional occupations than their counterparts nationally (37.5% compared to 41.6%).
Once the IWPR report provided the big picture, the real work for conference attendees was to consider the different concerns and actions steps associated with YWCA’s three priority issue areas. The day of the conference, all of the attendees learned about the deliberative community engagement model. Perhaps most importantly, they learned that most of the issues they would be discussing are considered “wicked” problems – problems where no complete solution exists, where potential reforms have trade offs, and where moving forward requires a wide array of people from different sectors to work together and adapt to change.
In addition to high quality information, deliberative engagement follows ground rules such as: “listen to each other,” “encourage everyone to participate,” “maintain an open and respectful atmosphere,” “don’t have one or two individuals dominate,” “focus on the options,” and “consider options fairly.” Although at first glance these rules may seem like common courtesy, that’s not the way policy discussions usually look.
Policy “discussions” often look more like a line of people on opposing sides of an issue waiting to (loudly) share their perspective and point out the flaws in their opponent’s perspective. The focus of the exchange isn’t learning from each other and considering all options fairly, it is winning the argument. Part of the problem is the structure of our political system and part of the problem is how our brains work. It turns out that human beings are not hardwired to consider options fairly. For efficiency purposes, our brains do not treat all new information equally. Instead, our brains willingly accept information that confirms our existing inclination and try to find fault with information that contradicts our inclination. In order to consider all options fairly, deliberative engagement participants have to override this natural tendency.
Deliberative engagement works best when diverse members of the community are represented in the discussion. This allows people to learn from others who have different knowledge and experiences, providing an opportunity for common ground. Not everyone was represented at the conference (for example, in discussing childcare, single parents with multiple jobs and small business childcare providers were needed), so facilitators encouraged their tables to consider who might be missing. What would their missing perspective be? What would they value and how would it differ from what had been talked about?
When the tables reported out their most interesting findings, I was pleased to hear the variety of insights. In today’s partisan world, it was heartening to witness groups of people challenging and learning from each other. Deliberation took attendees beyond learning about important topics and allowed them to exchange experiences and insights. I admire the YWCA for taking this approach to engaging people with policy issues. If we could bring this approach to more people, more diverse groups, and more topics, the public square would be a much more constructive place.
Samantha Ball is a research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.