Using deliberative forums to dismantle and shift old paradigms


“We believe that politics as usual isn’t working. We’re politically divided but we don’t talk to people in our own communities,” said Etana Jacobi.

Jacobi knows about communities: she works as a program associate at the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forum Institute in Dayton, Ohio, two national organizations investing time and resources into community members who value deliberative conversation.

The National Issues Forum Institute (NIFI) offers resources and tools for people to become forum moderators and host deliberative conversations in their communities on important issues. NIFI offered a moderator training recently in Dayton and I participated in the training with about 20 people from the region.

Not only are politics as usual not working, but I strongly believe that the old paradigms of systems are breaking down all around us. In these times of uncertainty and change, we don’t want to just survive—we want to thrive. In order to thrive we must invest ourselves in having meaningful conversations around shared concerns in order to help people build their communities up.

A NIFI deliberative forum is not a debate. Instead, Bill Muse, the president of NIFI, said the deliberative process is a way for communities to find common ground.

“You’ve got to find the place you can stand together,” said Muse during the facilitator training.

NIFI is a non-partisan, non-profit network of people who want to come together to talk about issues in a different way. I value this approach to issues because there’s no single solution to any issue. It takes perspectives with as much breadth just as it takes work with as much depth.

NIFI’s definition of deliberation is “the process of carefully weighing various approaches to a situation, examining the attractions and trade-offs of each approach, and determining what people are willing to give up in order to get what they want.”

Jacobi said this work helps communities to build consensus around important issues and understand how all people fit into the picture.

Each NIFI deliberative forum focuses on a topic that is a public issue people value. Examples of issues include safety and justice, poverty, hunger, death, obesity, and climate change. There’s no one solution to these issues but I think we will see a change in culture when communities stand together around important issues instead of dividing into polarized sides.

When we get to the root of our issues, we all want the same things: safe, healthy, progressive and economically sustainable communities that give citizens an attainable means of gainful living. We also want people who are nearing the end of their lives to feel supported and comfortable. If Number 45’s budget objective is to end the Meals on Wheels program for senior citizens, then we can’t sit by and allow our most vulnerable citizens to starve in a slow, painful death. We have to agree on a new way of doing things, build a new system and create a localized frontier of food stability for our senior citizens.

We have to look closely at this issue and all of our issues. That doesn’t mean standing at the edge of the problem and looking in. That doesn’t mean shouting across the room, taking up sides in an online thread, or pretending like there’s not a problem when people are hurting. That means diving in without reservations and learning how to swim in the problems in order to find meaning and understanding. It means sitting down in a circle with people and listening to what others have to say.

We have to first be able to admit that we have a problem. Then we look at where we stand and we consider the options and perspectives that play into the issue. This means lifting marginalized voices to be heard and considered, as well, and it most certainly means shifting our swagger to re-build the old paradigms of society just as soon as they dismantle.

What works and what does not work? Charles Darwin did not say that it was the survival of the fittest that matters the most in evolution. He said that those most adaptable to change are the fittest for survival.

Do not fear the things you do not yet know. Consider instead that you may not know anything about the things that you fear.

By Ashley Bunton

Staff Columnist

Contact Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton or by email [email protected]

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