Vice President for Public Engagement
Director, Yankelovich Center for Public Judgment
How we learned to talk about race in the 1990s
In tracing the evolution of public engagement, one important turning point was the series of race-related civil disturbances that exploded in major American cities in the mid-1990s. The turmoil surrounding Rodney King, and then O.J. Simpson, revealed a yawning chasm between the racial perceptions of whites and people of color. The sudden sense that we were divided as a nation, and the violent results of that division, spurred a wide array of local leaders to make race relations an immediate priority. Elected officials across the country realized that, while they might address racism and race relations through their work in areas like economic development or housing discrimination, they also had to deal directly with the race-related perceptions, biases and beliefs of their constituents. This kind of public outreach had rarely been done before; most communities lacked venues for people of diverse backgrounds to talk to each other about race or any other issue. Many different kinds of local leaders began looking for ways to involve people in productive discussions on race. They hoped that these efforts could help to overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices. A wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens in forums, trainings, workshops and small-group dialogues. Human relations commissioners, YWCA directors, heads of interfaith groups, elected officials, and other leaders began creating opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to talk about race. These projects mushroomed virtually overnight, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens in forums, trainings, workshops, and small-group discussions. By the end of 2002, large-scale intergroup dialogue programs had been initiated in 266 communities in 46 states. As these organizers experimented with different kinds of meeting formats and recruitment methods, they discovered tactics that were also being pioneered in ﬁelds like education, planning, and crime prevention. Like most of these public issues, race affects people at a personal, emotional level. To allow participants to share their experiences in a productive way, local organizers gravitated toward strategies that emphasized small-group discussions, either on their own or as breakout groups within larger forums or workshops. Organizers either realized from the beginning, or learned by trial and error, that these small-group sessions would function more effectively if they included four main components:
1- Having an impartial facilitator was critical. Many organizers felt that if the facilitators tried to “educate” the participants or direct the group toward a particular conclusion, the dialogue would backﬁre. They found that facilitators could be successful if they remained impartial: giving everyone a chance to speak, helping the group manage the allotted time, helping the group use discussion materials, and trying to manage conﬂicts within the group.
2- Allowing groups to set their own ground rules was important. When the participants in a small group set their own norms for the discussion, they were more likely to abide by the rules, and the sessions tended to be more civil and productive. Participants typically proposed rules about not interrupting others, maintaining conﬁdentiality, and keeping an open mind.
3- People valued the opportunity to compare personal experiences. Encouraging participants to talk about their cultural backgrounds and experiences with racism turned out to be a critical way to begin the discussions. It defused some of the tension, allowed participants to get to know each other better, and helped people see how our policy opinions are often based on our personal experiences. This initial conversation also established a level of trust within the group.
4- Using a written guide to help structure the sessions proved beneficial. Groups tended to be more effective when they followed a guide that provided discussion questions, background information on the issue, and suggestions for managing the sessions. Some of the guides also presented viewpoints that mirrored the main arguments being made about race; these views were intended to present a sampling of the ideological spectrum, so that participants could analyze different ideas and options and relate them to their own experiences. These guides were sometimes written by local organizers but more frequently supplied by national organizations specializing in race dialogues or public deliberation.
None of these techniques for successful small-group discussions were entirely new. They had been used, in one combination or another, by dialogue efforts and organizations well before the 1990s; in fact, they can be traced back to the civil rights movement ﬁfty years ago, the Chautauqua adult education methodology of a century ago, and other precedents in other eras. And just as some organizers were employing these techniques to address race, other leaders were using them on other issues. But the dynamics of race as an issue, along with the sheer scale of public engagement on race in the 1990s, meant that these tactics were reinforced and disseminated more than ever before; they set the template for public engagement at the beginning of the 21st Century.
How we learned to move from talk to action, on race and other issues
There was another key realization that emerged from this work: holding a few small-group dialogues would not be enough. In order to make sufﬁcient progress on any of these issues, it was clear that large numbers of people, and many different kinds of people, had to be participating in the discussions. The best way to ﬁght racism, boost volunteerism, or develop trust between citizens and government was to involve a critical mass of citizens in the effort. Local organizers also learned that no single group or organization would be able to recruit the large numbers and different kinds of people that would make the project credible. Outreach through the media or by public ofﬁcials would help to legitimize the effort, but citizens would be much more likely to participate if they were approached by someone they already knew. The only way to accomplish this kind of large-scale, one-on-one recruitment was to reach out to all kinds of community organizations—businesses, churches, neighborhood associations, clubs, and other kinds of groups—and ask the leaders of those organizations to recruit their own members. Together with the small-group discussion techniques, these recruitment tactics became key ingredients of public engagement. Organizations with missions that focused explicitly on race, such as the National Conference for Community and Justice, the YWCA of the USA, and state and national associations of human rights workers, began to popularize and promote these strategies, as did civic groups like the Study Circles Resource Center (since renamed Everyday Democracy), the National League of Cities, the League of Women Voters, America Speaks, Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Civic League. These recruitment tactics seemed to demonstrate an old and recurring phenomenon: if you want to mobilize citizens, you have to make them feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. Asking people to join a fascinating small-group dialogue usually isn’t enough to tempt them. To persuade them to spend some of their free time this way, organizers had to show citizens that high-proﬁle leaders had “bought in” to the idea, that many different organizations were involved, and that taking part would give them a real opportunity to effect change. Citizens needed to know that their small-group discussion would be one of many—one small part of a community capable of solving its problems.
Just as they learned how to recruit large numbers of people and involve them in productive meetings, local leaders also learned how to help those citizens achieve tangible changes in their communities. For some organizers working on issues of race, action planning didn’t seem important at ﬁrst; some of them saw racism as mainly an interpersonal challenge, and they felt that creating civil, educational discussions would be sufficient. But in the small-group sessions, it became clear that talk was not enough. Participants wanted to see changes happen, and they didn’t always expect – or trust – government to put their ideas into practice. To help people move from dialogue to action, some organizers began holding large-group events for all the participants after the small-group sessions had ended. They used names like “action forum” to describe these meetings, which were designed to categorize and prioritize the enormous variety of ideas that emerged in the small-group meetings, match promising ideas with sets of people willing to work on them, and highlight action efforts that were already underway. The forums followed different formats in different places: in some communities they looked like volunteer fairs, while in others they resembled old-fashioned political conventions, but most of them succeeded in attracting public ofﬁcials and other decision-makers and giving participants a chance to connect with other problem-solving allies. At some of these concluding forums, local leaders launched new task forces or committees to take on action ideas that were popular in the small-group discussions. Many of these new citizen groups foundered once the enthusiasm of the forum had worn off and the group members had begun to feel isolated and powerless again, but organizers realized that they could overcome some of these challenges. In some cases, they recruited people with professional expertise and authority to assist the groups (for example, police ofﬁcers for a task force devoted to crime prevention). In others, they worked to get media coverage of the task forces. Other, more basic techniques were also successful, such as simply checking in with task force leaders periodically, or holding a subsequent forum several months later at which task forces reported on their progress. One particularly successful task force emerged from a civic experiment on issues of race in Fort Myers in 1997. Over 600 people were involved in the project. In the small-group dialogues, participants had talked about the fact that one low-income neighborhood had no grocery store, forcing residents to shop for food at convenience stores. A task force set up at the action forum began working with the city, the county, a local supermarket chain, and a minority business development organization to explore the idea of a new grocery store. The task force members, several of whom had business expertise, conducted a market survey and drafted a ﬁnancing plan. They found that the city and the minority business development group were arguing about how to spend their Community Development Block Grant funds. The task force helped to settle the dispute and promote the shopping center idea as a way to provide job opportunities and basic services for low-income citizens. Two years later, the Dunbar Shopping Center was built. As these programs proliferated, local leaders realized the importance of involving rank-and-ﬁle public employees in the small-group discussions. When teachers, police ofﬁcers, social workers, or city planners were in the room, the solution ideas developed by the group were usually more informed and more inﬂuential. Action efforts were more likely to succeed because they were backed by stronger citizen-government relationships.
Challenging assumptions about race
As these processes proliferated during the 1990s and early 2000s, they seemed to be challenging three basic assumptions about race:
1- The participants in these processes were questioning the notion that racism is just an easily identifiable, individual sin – that we are all either racists or non-racists. When people take a closer look, they usually begin to see racism as a blurry spectrum, a series of individual and institutional biases that get progressively more inaccurate and damaging. Rodney King’s question, “Can’t we all just get along?,” was a basic plea for tolerance, but once citizens begin to talk about race, they usually go much farther than that, addressing complex issues of institutional racism as well as simpler forms of prejudice.
2- Participants were examining the belief that we should learn to tolerate, compensate for, and eventually ignore the cultural differences between us. Citizens cherish their cultures and traditions, and want to hold on to them. As they begin to recognize just how diverse their communities are, they often acknowledge that these differences will probably always affect how people interact with each other. Diversity is both a strength and a challenge: sometimes you celebrate diversity, sometimes you have to deal with it, but the challenge is how to do those things effectively, not how you can make differences disappear.
3- People were testing the assumption that a “level playing field,” where every individual has a uniform opportunity at happiness and success, is the best outcome we can hope for. In its place, their actions seem to suggest a field where the players are equal but different, and the focus is on helping them work together.
As communities delved deeper into issues of race, and began to make some progress, their motivations for addressing cultural difference were transformed. Initially, race was a mandate for dialogue and personal growth: the first impulse behind these efforts may have been to inoculate people against racism, so they could be purged of bias once and for all. But as people began to realize the complexity of the issues, and the increasing diversity of their communities, they began to see this as valuable, ongoing work. Instead of settling for a level playing field, where everyone would be treated uniformly by teachers, judges, principals, and police, communities began trying to build arenas where the players acknowledged differences openly, cooperated continually, and recognized each other as equals. In so doing, citizens and local leaders began to see race as a mandate for democratic governance. “There is a kind of natural progression here,” says Roger Stancil, city manager of Fayetteville, North Carolina. “When you get different kinds of people talking to each other, they figure out they have interests in common and they start to act on them. They realize that they won’t always agree, but they want to help each other anyway, and they begin to see how important it is that everyone is at the table.”
Changing the table?
But while the efforts to engage citizens on race may have brought more people to the table, they may not have changed the table itself. That is, the tactics of successful small-group processes, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that crime watch groups and neighborhood associations operate. Those productive engagement tactics are still used, perhaps more than ever, but they occur almost entirely within the context of temporary projects that focus on a crisis or controversial policy decision. In her essay, “Participatory Democracy Revisited,” Carole Pateman argues that most examples of public participation today “leave intact the conventional institutional structures and political meaning of ‘democracy.’” They do not, in her words, “democratize democracy.” In the absence of these more systemic changes, for most American cities the benefits of public engagement on race may have been meaningful but temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, the evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities. As we consider how we might move forward, in the United States and in other countries, we should bear in mind the natural link between engagement and race, as well as the unfinished business of engagement on race. In order to bring people together on all kinds of issues, you have to acknowledge the differences between people, affirm that all cultures and groups are valued, and give people a sense that their past experiences with discrimination and bias will be rectified, or at least not repeated. In turn, it is difficult to make progress on issues of race without bringing a diverse array of people to the table. The two enterprises, improving engagement and increasing intercultural understanding, complement and probably require one another. Meanwhile, people trying to engage citizens, on race or any other issue, should be thinking about the long term and not just the decision or crisis of the moment. How should be people be engaged in public decision-making and problem-solving, in both official and informal settings? How should citizens and public servants interact, on a daily basis? How might those interactions reduce discrimination, celebrate diversity, and correct inequalities? What kind of democracy do we want?