The Making of a Public

By: Craig Paterson

We all have a place and a role in the ‘public.’ This appreciation of an all-inclusive participation in a shared, human environment goes back at least to the Greeks as they pondered their common good and civic purpose. The Greeks had already recognized that an awareness of a ‘public’ as an entity in its own right…larger and more significant than just the accumulation of disparate individuals. Those of us who seek to hear the voice of the ‘public’ today are challenged with all the classical barriers to public conversation AND some modern barriers that are presenting themselves for the first time in human history.

The ‘public’ exists and functions without our awareness…it doesn’t need anyone’s permission to be powerful. But…our awareness and appreciation of the ‘public’ CAN have some significant benefits…as we solve problems together, as we organize together to maximize our effective use of resources, and as we build great communities together. We have learned through the years, however, that this ‘public’ awareness doesn’t happen by itself…it requires its own careful attention.

Several years ago, we identified ‘public-making’ as one of the most critical roles in any deliberative project…large or small. And lately…the need for intentional and effective methods in gathering people into deliberative settings has been the theme of many blog posts and articles throughout the dialogue and deliberation community. Just for your information, here is the link to the matrix our California NIF Network is using…as an expansion from the original work on deliberative roles of a Kettering Foundation workshop:

Deliberative Roles for Community Teams matrix

Building on this basic understanding of ‘public-making’ then, we can begin to identify some key variables in this practice. Some communities have ‘public-makers’ who seem to be completely natural in the role without any prompting or teaching…it’s in their genes! Other communities have people who can become effective ‘public-makers’ with some encouragement and practice. A wide range of variables can be considered, tried and evaluated through time, creating a continuous, upward-spiral in learning and doing. Here are some thoughts from last May on several of these variables:

Deliberative Barriers and Opportunities blog post…May 28, 2011

We need more practitioners in ‘public-making’…and this can be accomplished when we have more methods that are easily understood and small-group oriented. Let me introduce you to a new option that I believe has great promise.

The ‘Living Room Conversations’ project was initiated about a year ago with pilot sites in 5 states…California, Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Washington. The co-creators of this project…Joan Blades and Amanda Roman…started with the belief that “civil discourse in the United States can be respectful, constructive, collaborative, solution focused and conducive to empowering healthy communities.” From that point, they created a basic conversation format to be used in comfortable settings…where several individuals specifically invited neighbors and friends who more-than-likely had some differing viewpoints on a public dilemma. They are now in their second round of conversations…and they are ready to learn with and from others who are interested in holding ‘Living Room Conversations.’ This appears to be a promising opportunity to learn about and to actually do ‘public-making’…with the potential of these efforts feeding into more focused deliberation with neighbors and friends who are newly comfortable in fulfilling, civil discourse. Here is the link to their website…with my highest recommendation:

Living Room Conversations project website

So…we know we need more effective ways of learning from the ‘public’…but we’re still pondering about what already works well, and what we could do to make our learning even better. Our modern dilemmas are vexing…a new set of challenges testing our understanding, our governance and our resources. We all know that it’s ineffective to rely on announcements, advertisements and broadcast media as our only means of doing ‘public-making.’ We CAN build great communities together…one conversation at a time.

This post first appeared at Deliberative IDEAS.