Pomegranate Center

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Together We Know More

by Milenko Matanovič

November 25, 2015

Listening is a critical component of a strong democracy. Only by listening to each other can we create a sense of shared ownership, in turn building community, trust and safety. By listening we discover new things, and we start appreciating how useful different perspectives can be.

Today, more than ever, we need each other’s differences to unlock the wisdom that will help us address the pressing issues of our time. Solutions will not come from a singular perspective. When it comes to community, together we know more.

Without listening to one another, we isolate ourselves in silos of self-interest. Unfortunately, government-sponsored public processes often cater to this modality, supporting a default mode where each person focuses on his or her point of view and argues for it longer and louder. Many public meetings take the form of a hearing where community members read prepared statements opposing or supporting a proposal. I have found a growing resistance this kind of “community engagement process” because participants don’t believe their contributions will make a difference.

A staff member of a government agency recently told me that the input she receives from the community is generally not helpful, illustrating the intricate dance between government and community:

“My job is to collect all community ideas and make sure that we come up with a project that works. But instead I get a lot of agendas. People promote their specific views and are not concerned with how their views intersect and support the greater community. Everyone wants something, but the bigger community picture is lost along the way.”

The critical question, then, is how can community process be structured so that people listen to each other, and feel listened to?

For decades Pomegranate Center has been seeking to answer this question by trying to make community engagement more productive, creative and joyful. The result is that we have incorporated listening, and its action-oriented counterpart “collaboration,” into the center of our public engagement process.

Collaboration sounds simple, but it is surprisingly hard to accomplish. For successful community engagement, creating and holding the space for people to collaborate requires a carefully tuned project structure, significant preparation, and skillful facilitation. With the right approach, however, it is possible to craft a public process that re-ignites people’s ability to listen and collaborate, and by extension exercise a core democratic faculty. I’ve seen such successes in hundreds of community meetings that the Pomegranate Center has facilitated, and in the more than fifty public spaces we’ve helped communities create.

Along the way, after many bumps in the road, what we have discovered is simple: it takes everyone to be at their best to make community engagement successful. If we don’t put in this extra effort, the process is derailed and hijacked by a few. This work takes courage, because it requires generosity to hear and appreciate others’ equally important ideas. Without generosity collaboration is not possible.

The greatest benefit of this approach is the sense of ownership from all involved, resulting in pride that leads to stronger stewardship and sense of community. This is democracy in action – people speaking their views, listening to each other, and making decisions in the interest of entire community and future generations. The most satisfying part is that, when it all falls in place, participants experience civic joy. What a concept!