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Deepening Democracy:
Awakening the Spirit of Our Shared Life Together

Rosa Zubizarreta
July 2003

[click on any heading]

(A) From “Inert Matter” to “Everything as Alive and Changing”
(B) From the “Separation of Mind and Body” to the “Integration of Mind and Heart”
(C) From “Leadership as Command and Control” to “Creative and Facilitative Leadership”
(D) From “Mechanistic Theories of Change” to “Working With Field Effects"

"We have frequently printed the word democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue.

It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted. It is, in some sort, younger brother of another great and often-used word, Nature, whose history also waits unwritten."

- Walt Whitman -

The idea of democracy in the western world has historically conveyed a broad sense of spirit and commitment and purpose, a heart-felt response to a sense that "something more" is possible. The word itself has stirred the imagination, communicating a sense of new developments in terms of our social organization. Whitman's quote about democracy still feels very relevant today, pointing us evocatively toward the future, to fuller expressions of our humanity that have yet to unfold.

At the same time, the future of democracy can easily appear quite bleak. Much has been written recently about "the demise of democracy." This is not limited to the enormous amounts of money and sophisticated marketing techniques involved in "selling the candidates."  It also includes the metastasis of "corporate  personhood" that dwarfs our ability to make a difference in the face of enormous concentrations of wealth and powerful special interests.

While there are many worthwhile efforts to address the problems we are facing, something seems to be missing in much of the conversation about democracy. There is often a disquieting sense that the problem goes much deeper than we may realize. Too many of us are not finding ourselves moved by well-intentioned efforts to "reform" our political landscape, much less by "politics as usual." There seems to be a much deeper hunger for meaning, a sense that our political and economic system needs to be renewed at a much more fundamental level than many suggested reforms might address. 

We know that "without a Vision, the People will perish." Yet in modern times our political system has become so disheartening to so many, that the very idea of democracy seems to have lost its power to inspire us. Our participation in the creative process of envisioning and actualizing our collective future has been reduced to selecting a candidate from a limited number of options, and our imaginations seem to have withered accordingly.

At the same time, we know that every challenge offers the gift of opportunity. If we wish to renew the radical and revolutionary sense of relevance that democracy once inspired in the hearts and minds of so many people, we may need to ask ourselves fundamental questions about what it means to be human. As we search for a way through our current political crisis, we may find ourselves questioning our understanding of the Universe and our role within it. Looking deeply at the challenges of the present moment may turn out to offer some insights into the next steps of our evolutionary unfolding.

As we set out to explore what it might mean to awaken the spirit of democracy, it can be helpful to begin by honoring the past. In doing so, we may discover seeds we want to bring forward, as well as greater insight into what we may want to change.

Bringing Forward the Seeds of the Past

One essential thread in the concept of democracy has been a radical faith in the ability of the "common person" to help shape the social world in which we live. Of course, once upon a time the "common person" meant a "common propertied white male person." Yet even so it was still a radical concept. In time, this faith in everyday, ordinary people been greatly expanded to become much more inclusive, at least in theory if not in practice.

Another key strand embedded in the idea of democracy has been the revolutionary premise that each person had the own ability to connect directly with the Divine. Again, the image of the "Divine" prevalent earlier may not be the image many of us share today.  Nonetheless, the notion of an unmediated personal connection to Spirit remains a revolutionary premise, one that is both problematic and full of promise.

These two strands are not unconnected. The "separation of Church and State" in the United States, designed to establish religious freedom for all, has helped to shape the two very distinct worlds of religion and of politics. Yet many of those who originally established that separation felt a deep personal connection between the world and Spirit.

The intention of the principle of separation of powers was not to disconnect the movement of Spirit from personal and community life. Instead, it was intended to protect and strengthen each person's ability to connect with Spirit, in the light of his or her own conscience. The necessary demarcation between Church and State has brought many benefits. Yet there seems to be a much wider thirst for meaning, for values, for a sense of the sacred in our shared life together, than is portrayed in mainstream consumer culture. The growth of materialism over the last few centuries may have obscured the common ground between our longing for spirituality and our longing for creating a better world.

In the last few decades, the resurgence of "engaged spirituality" has signaled the wide-spread hunger for a greater connection between the worlds of Spirit and politics. The common ground between these two can be understood as the immense possibility and potential at the heart of each human being. Spirituality is one way to honor "that of God" within each human being; our desire for social justice, another. In fact, many of the movements toward social justice in the 19th century were initially inspired by the desire to allow full expression to the spiritual nature of our collective humanity, what Hegel termed our "species being." This movement toward honoring the unity of the human family is echoed throughout youth culture today, for example in the Rastafarian expression, "One Love."

The desire for wholeness in human beings, along many dimensions of experience, seems to be quite strong. For example, the fundamentalist movements around the world today that threaten to blur the distinction between Church and State are justifiably raising widespread concern among many. Yet they too can be understood as an attempt to honor the importance of Spirit, and to not allow Spirit to be excised from our collective life. As Michael Lerner points out in The Politics of Meaning, the most effective response to fundamentalism may not be to oppose it. Instead, in an aikido-like motion, we might seek to acknowledge and address the underlying needs it is attempting to fulfill.

In addition to engaged spirituality, another recent development of the last few decades has been the rediscovery of the indigenous contribution to democracy in the United States. Democracy in the Americas was influenced by ancient indigenous traditions developed over hundreds of thousands of years, in which egalitarianism and direct communication with Spirit were long-standing practices.  Given our species' long evolutionary history as hunters-and-gatherers, these forms of traditional knowledge may well be "encoded in our bones," more directly accessible to all of us than we have been taught to believe.

At the same time, we also want to learn from the mistakes of the past. Given the current state of the world, we might do well to exercise great care with regard to the "angry tempests" that Whitman mentions. The violence that accompanied the re-emergence of democracy in Europe reminds us of how fanaticism can distort any ideals. It can also serve as a grim caution that the process is as important as any "end product" we might envision. In turn, the last few centuries of successful experiments with non-violent social change may serve us in good stead, as we explore how deepening democracy can help us navigate our way safely toward a world beyond violence and war.

Present Needs and Growing Edges

One way to frame the central inquiry of this paper might be:

How can we find ways to engage the minds and hearts of all of us, inviting excitement, passion and aliveness into the work of consciously shaping our collective future?

Those of us drawn to the emerging field of practice being mapped by the Collective Wisdom Initiative have been exploring the synergy and flow that can arise in groups as a result of a creative engagement with our diversity. We have been touched by the spirit that can emerge when a space is held for everyone's fullness to be offered as a contribution to the larger whole. We sense a larger social value in the powerful and moving experience that is often described as a group becoming "collectively wise." As Tom Callanan states in Centered on the Edge, in describing an instance of this kind: "Everyone had something to offer. Our diversity wasn't just tolerated, or even honored--it was essential."

This exploration of the rich value of diversity and its connection to wholeness has significant implications for the subject of how we might "deepen democracy." In the words of Alan Briskin, "Democracy is a promise that the excluded voices are needed to form a greater whole." This leads us to another key question:

What might the experience and practice of collective wisdom, of a creative engagement with diversity, imply for the renewal of our democratic process?

One of the main challenges we face in the United States is bridging the growing divisions that have been manifesting in the political realm. I am referring here to what are often referred to as the "culture wars." We may well question who stands to benefit from these domestic "wars," since we know all too well that "divide and conquer" is one of the oldest strategies for consolidating power. At the same time, there is a high cost attached to this strategy: the spread of polarization in society prevents us from effectively addressing the systemic problems we are facing.

This growing polarization also causes a great deal of personal pain. As Carol Frenier says,

"It's painful to me how much rancor there is on both sides, how hard it is for people to listen to one another, instead of caricaturing each other…. there is such a tendency to make every person who holds the opposite point of view, wrong. What can we do, so that we can begin to become more human to one another? What would it mean for those who hold different perspectives, to be able to 'witness' each other's perspectives in much greater depth? And what needs to be 'tweaked' in our democratic systems, that would allow for more awareness of the crucial role of 'witnessing'?"

Carol's husband, Bob, has this to say about the role that an overly narrow understanding of spirit can play in exacerbating our political differences:

"What could connect us, is realizing that God has more than one trick up His sleeve… that He has more than one way of communicating with people. If we were to realize that the other folks are probably having a very similar ecstatic experience to the one I am having, even thought they are using a very different language to describe it, then we might become more interested in talking and sharing than in fighting with one another…"

In order to be effective, any approach we take to deepening our democracy will have to address the need to bridge and heal the internal divisions we are experiencing in our country. Therefore, a third key questions we might ask ourselves is:

How might we most effectively come together across our many differences, inviting our full engagement in the work of shaping a common future?

Much of my own inspiration for this paper has come from the work I have done with my mentor, friend, and colleague, Tom Atlee, a committed explorer, theoretician, and chronicler in the area of co-intelligence . I have had the great privilege of collaborating with him on his book, The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All, which maps out a whole universe of experimentation that a number of people have been carrying out in the arena of new forms of democratic engagement and participation.

Many of these explorers might not describe their own work as "spiritual." Yet we might consider the work of reconciliation and creating greater shared understanding within the larger human family as essentially spiritual work, regardless of the outer form it may take. As such, the pioneering efforts of these various projects may serve as helpful stepping-stones as we search for ways to awaken the spirit of democracy.

This emergent movement of dialogue, deliberation, and democracy includes such initiatives as the Public Conversations Project, referenced elsewhere on this site, that has been bringing together pro-life and pro-choice leaders and supporting them to engage in respectful dialogue across difference. It also includes the work of the National Issues Forum, which supports local discussion forums on critical issues, and the work of the Study Circles Resource Center, which produces materials to support local groups deliberating about public issues.

This movement also includes the spread of new forms for addressing controversial public issues. For example, in Consensus Councils,  public issues are addressed through stakeholder dialogues, where representatives of different interests who have a stake in the issue are brought together to engage in a mediated negotiation process. Other forms of group process useful for addressing public issues include such tools as Future Search Conferences and Open Space Technology. These latter processes are not based on negotiation, emphasizing instead creativity and relationship-building.

In his book, Tom Atlee focuses specifically on one particular social innovation that has enormous potential for our social evolution. He has coined the term "citizen deliberative councils" to describe a number of similar efforts that all share certain common features. In a later section of this paper, I will describe one of these councils -- a significant experiment that took place in Canada -- as a touchstone for us to think about how the spirit of "collective wisdom" might inform our efforts to deepen democratic practice. In turn, this experiment (and others like it) may offer us greater insight into our "social potential" as a species.

Yet before describing the actual experience of the council, I would like to spend some time exploring the larger "spirit of the times," described by Joanna Macy as "the Great Turning". A fuller understanding of the world views that are currently emerging may serve to guide our way, allowing our initial experiments with "deepening democracy" to evolve in directions that invite greater excitement, passion and aliveness.

Threads in the "Emerging Story"

Let us continue, then, to stir our imaginations by asking ourselves a few more questions:

What is our sense of the emerging "spirit of our times"? And how might our connection with that spirit inform our efforts to deepen our democracy ?

What world views do our current forms of democratic process embody? And, how might these forms change, if they were to embody the new world views that are emerging?

How might the process of "awakening the spirit of democracy" serve as a pathway for fulfilling our collective "social potential"?

As we explore some perspectives on "the story of our times," we might remember that theory can be viewed as a useful story we tell ourselves, a map that allows us to better navigate our passage. In addition, the ideas and stories living in the "invisible realms" may shape, inform, and organize the "visible realms" in ways beyond our current understanding.

A) From "Inert Matter" to  "Everything as Alive and Changing"

Many years ago, I attended a political theory class at Oberlin taught by Harlan Wilson, a wonderfully dialogic professor whose quiet and shy demeanor belied his legendary status among students. He inspired the love of theory in some (and great trepidation and fear in others!) by his intense and serious passion for his subject.  I still remember a lecture on democracy and consensus, where he offered a provocative mention of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. This mathematical proposition states that, if we start with a given number of different positions, it is impossible to come up with single "solution" that will satisfy them all. "But… but.. that assumes that there is no change, that people walk out with the same 'position' with which they walked in…" I blurted out. Smiling and twinkling in response, Professor Wilson replied, "That's exactly right!"

Billiard balls in space, discrete, self-contained entities playing a zero-sum game, with change seen as the exception rather than the norm, constitute one way of looking at the world. How might our notions of democracy, and our ways of practicing it, shift if we saw ourselves as becoming continuously transformed through the process of deep encounter with the fullness of one another? What forms might we create to hold and honor and sustain that process?

One hint of what is possible may be gleaned from looking at the evolution of the conflict resolution field. We can appreciate the movement, in the last forty years, from the early attempts to grope toward a new way of being with conflict to the current leading-edge developments in the field. Some readers may be familiar with the book The Intimate Enemy: How to Fight Fair in Love and Marriage, which was apparently quite a best-seller in its own time. Reading it now, I sense the struggle of new ideas to express themselves through old and ill-fitting language, before the concept of "win-win" emerged into our shared consciousness.  In the time since this book was written, there has been enormous development within the "conflict resolution" paradigm, which has provided us with a whole new universe of language and tools in order to recognize and "deal with" conflict.

And now, within the last decade, we have seen the emergence of "conflict transformation".This movement invites us to honor conflict more fully as opportunity for creativity and growth. Shifting figure and ground, its practice invites us to focus, not on the struggle to obtain a particular outcome, but instead on the opportunity that we have to be re-created and transformed in the process.

At the same time, these practices that are new to us, are also part of ancient traditions. For example, the Hawaiian indigenous people have an established practice of hoo p'ono p'ono. In this community reconciliation practice, the deep listening presence of a respected elder allows all participants to "overhear" one another, in a manner analogous to the "third party listening" practiced by today's family therapists. Similar traditions among aboriginal peoples have inspired the work that is being done today within the Restorative Justice movement, where victims and offenders gather in a larger council circle to seek restitution and reconciliation. Bringing together a diversity of perspectives into what we might recognize as "sacred space," each participant is offered the respect of deep and heartfelt listening.

I invite us to consider how these practices might be integrated more deeply into our current political system. How might ancient and emergent understandings regarding reconciliation and conflict transformation inform more deeply the renewal of our democratic practice?

The Canadian experiment to be described later on in this paper offers one response, yet we might find many other possibilities if we take these questions to heart.

B) From the "Separation of Mind and Body" to the "Integration of Mind and Heart"

The opportunity for transformation through conflict occurs at all levels.  It can be a transformation of mind as well as of heart, and may indeed occur most effectively in circumstances where both mind and heart are included and honored. Yet in modern culture, these two poles have become split, no longer holding a larger "creative tension" between them. Whenever such "splits" happen, each end of the polarity becomes separated from the other, losing its vital essence and becoming a twisted image, a distorted caricature of its healthy self.

The schism of mind without heart, and heart without mind, manifests in numerous ways. For example, we have on the one hand, the "dry content," the continued pretense of "objectivity," a materialistic world view that dominates a public life devoid of heart and spirit. And on the other, we have the full-blown emotional manipulation with which candidates are "marketed" to the voting public, and the fear, scapegoating, and fabrication of "enemies" used to fuel domestic and international conflicts.

There is always a "third way," of course. In the philosophical realm, there have been many efforts to help find a way beyond the polarization and dualism of "subjective" and "objective." Some of this work includes Michael Polanyi's  Personal Knowledge, Lakoff and Johnson's exploration of the philosophical implications of the metaphorical nature of language in Metaphors We Live By, Eugene Gendlin's work in A Process Model, and Charlene Spretnak's work on re-visioning post-modernism in States of Grace. These are only the models with which I have had some passing acquaintance, and I am sure that there are many others as well.

Yet how might we embody these theories in practice? In order to heal the manifestations of this schism in the outer world, we may need to begin by healing that schism as it manifests in our own conversations with one another. The women's movement has been one pioneering effort in this regard, with the exploration of "the personal is political." As valuable as that exploration has been in its own right, it also points the way toward a larger spirit of dialogue that can be applied to every aspect of our shared life.

I am speaking of dialogue here in a very generic sense, not as identified within any particular tradition. In fact, one of my favorite quotes with regard to dialogue is from Juanita Brown, of World Café renown, who gifts us with the following image:

"When I thought of Dialogue in this larger sense, I had the image of the open central courtyard in an old-fashioned, Latin American home… you could enter the central courtyard by going around and through any of the multiple arched entryways that surrounded this open, flower-filled space in the middle of the house… For me, Dialogue is like entering this central courtyard in the spacious home of our common human experience. There are many doorways to this central courtyard, just as there are many points of entry to the experience of Dialogue. Indigenous councils, salons, study circles, women's circles, farm worker house meetings, wisdom circles, non-traditional diplomatic efforts and other conversational modalities from many cultures and historical periods had both contributed to and drawn from the generative space that we were calling Dialogue." (2001, p.82)

As we reclaim the contributions of women to the lineage of generative dialogue, we can call in the spirit of Mary Parker Follett, visionary activist, thinker, and writer. At the turn of the last century, she began to delineate the vast implications for our social life of the new sciences then being discovered, implications to which we are only now beginning to awaken. Her 1918 book The New State, recently reprinted thanks to the efforts of Matthew Shapiro and available in its entirety on-line, bears enormous relevance for our time.

Mary Parker Follett understood the potential of dialogue and group process to create a larger whole within which both the individual and the collective are experienced as interdependent and in synergy, rather than opposed to one another. She wrote:

"The great cosmic force in the womb of humanity is latent in the group as its creative energy; that it may appear the individual must do his duty every moment. We do not get the whole power of the group unless every individual is given full value.  It is the creative spontaneity of each which makes life march on irresistibly to the purposes of the whole. Our social and political organization must be such that this group life is possible." (1918)

The work of Benjamin Barber, founder of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, is also highly relevant to bringing mind and heart together as we co-create our collective lives. In Strong Democracy (1984, pp. 173-198), Barber explores the full range of functions that our public conversations might serve in a participatory democracy, pointing out by contrast how limited our current conversation has become. His model offers nine functions he sees as vital elements of our democratic interchange:

1)      the articulation of interests; bargaining and exchange;

2)      persuasion;

3)      a pervasive, ongoing and inclusive process of agenda-setting, or determining the conversations that need to happen;

4)      exploring mutuality;

5)      affiliation and affection;

6)      maintaining autonomy;

7)      witness and self-expression;

8)      reformulation and reconceptualization; and

9)      community-building as the co-creation of public interests, common goals, and active citizens.

Of these nine vital functions, Barber sees our current liberal democracy as only acknowledging the first two.  What happens when our common language is impoverished in this way? How might we learn to engage in dialogue that invites the fullness of who we are as human beings? And how might we bring these kinds of dialogue to our political conversations?

To explore these questions, it may help to begin our experience in smaller groups. Let us set aside temporarily the stage of national and global politics (we shall be returning there promptly.)  What has been our experience with groups, in our local communities or workplaces?

Unfortunately, most of us know too well the kinds of "politics" that can arise whenever a group of us gathers together to address a practical end. At the same time, challenge always contains a seed of opportunity. How might we learn to utilize the everyday conflict that manifests among us as an opportunity for growth and transformation?  And what kinds of conversations might allow us to bring mind and heart together in these everyday meetings, that we might effectively accomplish whatever useful purpose we might have in mind?

As human beings, we are amazing and wonderful creatures. Any time we come together, whether for the purpose of creating something practical, or for celebrating and deepening our connections, has the potential of being a deeply joyous occasion. Yet how often do we realize that potential?

Too often, we settle for believing that what needs to be accomplished, can only be achieved through compartmentalization, through the separation of mind and heart. Yet it is this very separation that drains our spirits, deadening our aliveness. How can we ever create the change that we want to see in the world, if the "meetings" that we hold are ones that we dread to attend? How often do we "meet," without in fact "meeting" one another, mind to mind and heart to heart?

The good news is that indeed, another way is possible. Indigenous people around the world know that when we meet with one another to address issues of shared concern, our gathering together is just as sacred as when we are meeting for any other ritual purpose. For the last three hundred years, Quakers "meetings for worship for business" have manifested the same understanding of the sacredness of our work together.

Along similar lines, the Orthodox Christian church, before the modifications introduced by Roman Catholicism, was not directed by a single leader. Instead, decisions were made by a collective gathering of elders. The ability to reach consensus was taken as a concrete sign that the "Spirit of God" had descended among them.

And in modern times, within the secular realm that many consider the "belly of the Beast," the leading edge of the corporate world has been learning to recognize the value of fully engaging people's hearts and minds and spirits. Visionary companies have invested significant amounts of resources and time in exploring how to evoke flow, synergy, and shared commitment. Various group processes have been developed that foster shared vision and values, teamwork, collaboration, and the creative utilization of diversity.

What essential understandings about human beings are embodied in these practices -- indigenous traditions, Christian consensus practices, modern tools for group collaboration developed within the business world? And how might we draw from all of these streams of knowledge to re-invent our democratic systems?

C) From "Leadership as Command and Control" to "Creative and Facilitative Leadership"

If we wish to be effective in bringing about change, one of the key issues we must come to terms with is leadership. Unfortunately, we know all too well the problems that can ensue from the misuse of leadership. While there have certainly been a few "benevolent dictators" and "wise kings" in the history of our species, we have more often experienced the abuse of power, and it has left its mark on our collective psyche.

One of the "scars" has been a shift of the pendulum, toward what Ken Wilber denotes as the shadow side of the "green meme." This can show up as the desire to simply do away with leadership altogether, to deny any value to its role and function. Especially among those of us who are working toward change, there can often be a distrust of any kind of leadership.

At the same time, we know that we must not "throw out the baby with the bathwater." We need positive leadership of all kinds, beginning with the "creative leadership" that inspires us to offer the seed of a compelling vision to the larger whole. These visions can serve as "organizing principles" that draw others in to work collaboratively on a common project for the benefit of all.

Once a group has converged around a particular vision, "facilitative leadership" is needed to ensure that every voice is heard, in a way that is not simply a cacophony of voices. We need to offer simple structures that encourage the growth and engagement of all participants, so that each person's creativity can serve to benefit the whole. In this manner, we create the conditions where a vision can live, grow, and be shared.

As Peter Senge writes:

"A shared vision is not an idea. It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people's hearts, a force of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further -- if it is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person -- then it is no longer an abstraction. It is palpable. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision."  (1990, p.206)

In spiritual terms, Ven. Dhyani Ywahoo describes the role of power as:

"to manifest your dreams in harmony with sacred truth. We call upon the light of clear vision to perceive the pattern of right action and our individual purpose in life. Upon realizing one's life purpose, one then magnetizes that vision so that it may actualize for the benefit of family, clan, nation, planet, for all beings. "

We need facilitative leadership to encourage others' growth as visionary leaders. Whenever we expand our horizons, we realize there is no scarcity of opportunities for initiative in the world. Instead of struggling to compete over what may appear as scarce resources within a given situation, we see that in the larger picture, there is ample room for everyone's creative leadership.

As leaders, we also need to support the development of everyone's facilitative leadership. We need as many people as possible to be skilled and effective at holding a space of deep listening for a group. In this way, we can take turns doing the work of nurturing and supporting collaboration, encouraging group wisdom to flourish everywhere.

Group facilitation is more of an art than a science. At the same time, it is a much more complicated task when we are "swimming upstream," operating from within a control orientation, than when we are truly supporting the process of self-organization. The framework within which we operate, and which in turn shapes our understanding of our role, makes a tremendous difference in our experience.

An analogy from the arena of personal development may be helpful here. Readers familiar with peer-based processes such as Focusing Partnerships know that it is quite possible for laypeople to learn to very effectively "hold space" for one another. A basic framework and some simple guidelines allow us to support each other's growth without the need for elaborate diagnoses or interventions. Of course, Focusing can be highly useful within a professional context as well; yet the point is that we can all become skilled at supporting one another in our individual unfolding. 

Similarly, powerful transformational approaches to "holding space" for a group, such as Dynamic Facilitation, can be quite easily learned by anyone, although they may take a lifetime to master. These kinds of practices allow us to effectively evoke the emergence of collective intelligence within a group, through  simple practices such as deep listening, active reflection, and supporting all sides.

As we explore how to develop our collective capacity to co-create the world we want to live in, we might ask ourselves how to draw upon existing models of visionary and facilitative leadership to leverage this work. In turn, we might consider how the new forms of democratic practice we design, can serve to encourage the widespread development of visionary and facilitative leadership among the population at large.

D) From "Mechanistic Theories of Change" to "Working With Field Effects"

From a Newtonian perspective, our assumptions about how change happens involve a fairly direct sequence of "cause and effect." Translated to the political realm, this might imply seeking to create change by drafting new legislation, lobbying representatives, supporting particular candidates, etc. While all of these actions can be very important, they do not address all of the ways in which change can come about.

There are other ways of envisioning how change may happen. For example, the image of a seed crystal conveys a sense of how a small alignment on a "micro" level, can catalyze a wider change in the larger solution. Likewise, a sense that another kind of change is possible is evoked when we consider the imaginal cells within a caterpillar, cells that hold within them the encoded information for the butterfly that has yet to emerge. These metaphors lead us to consider the following questions:

How might we benefit as a society when a microcosm of people, reflecting the diversity of the larger whole, is brought together intentionally for the purpose of the common good?

What might such a group accomplish, if it had the opportunity and support to explore with mind and heart, how to relate creatively to the diversity that is present within it?

How might the story of such a microcosm, or "seed crystal," influence the larger social field?

The Canadian Experiment:
Seeking Wholeness Through Creative Engagement with Diversity

Now, with all of these various questions in mind, let us explore the experiment that took place in Canada. As Tom Atlee writes,

"In June 1991, a dozen Canadians met in a resort near Toronto in search of a shared future for their deeply divided country, torn by the question of Quebec separatism among many other issues. These people were not politicians, academics, or a revolutionary cabal. In fact, a more diverse group of Canadians would be hard to find: They had been scientifically selected for their differences, differences that reflected the very divisions in their nation. Within hours of meeting, they were immersed in arguments. And yet, two days later, they had all signed a detailed, visionary agreement charting a course to greater mutual understanding by all Canadians, and were hugging each other goodbye."

At first glance, this story might seem too good to be true. For most of us, our predominant experience of groups has been very painful and/or frustrating.  As a result, we often have a very limited sense of the potential and wisdom of ordinary people working together. Also, in many of our collective experiences, conflict is either suppressed or else allowed to emerge in destructive ways. Therefore, we often have little faith in the possibility of finding ways to tap the enormous creative potential of conflict.

In this particular case, this group of people had a significant amount of support. The gathering was sponsored and hosted by Maclean's, the Canadian equivalent of our Time or Newsweek.  According to Maclean's, this group was "initially united only by the depth of their different convictions." In order to assist the group in this process, Maclean's hired a team led by Roger Fisher, the author of Getting to Yes and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Through a passionate, often emotional process of surfacing differences, building relationship, and discovering common ground, this group of highly diverse people ended up arriving at a shared understanding of what was needed to ensure their country's well-being.

Much of the social impact of this experience resulted from what took place afterward. The process was described at length in a special issue of Maclean's, entitled The People's Verdict, that devoted 39 pages to chronicling this highly significant event. The article conveyed the ups-and-downs of the communication breakdowns and breakthroughs that took place, as well as the budding friendships that ensued as a result. Their coverage also included a four-page document of policy recommendations on which the group had reached agreement.

We may never be able to measure the effect that this widely-publicized "human interest" story of reconciliation had upon the larger fabric of Canadian society. Yet I have no doubt that indeed it had an effect, and a significant one at that. Nine years later, Tom Atlee hired a journalist to do some follow up research on this story. As he conducted his interviews, the journalist found that everyone involved in the original event, from the film crew to the staff writers at Maclean's, still held powerful memories of it as a life-changing experience.

Tom offers the Canadian experiment as an example of the principle that, "when the human dimension is addressed well, when people really hear each other and learn about each other's histories, lives, concerns, and needs, all the other questions 'will be far easier to resolve.' It is this attention to the wholeness of human experience that allows us to engage deeply with diversity and reach creative consensus without compromise."

This may be one of the more dramatic stories in this vein, since it took place on a national level and addressed some very highly charged issues. Yet many other stories could be told of experiences along similar lines, from a Citizen's Jury in Australia designing recommendations to address a local stormwater problem, to Danish consensus conferences recommending public policy with regard to biotechnology. Here in the United States, Ned Crosby of the Jefferson Center has been organizing Citizen Juries for the last thirty years, where small, randomly-selected groups gather to address specific policy issues on behalf of the larger community.

In all of these cases, there is a similar basic principle in operation. A "microcosm" of the larger whole is drawn together, in a way that reflects the diversity present in the larger field. This "microcosm" is supported to engage constructively with the diversity it embodies. Finally, the result of that process is offered back to the larger whole.

Currently, there are a number of proposals for how such an approach could be used to reform and improve our current democratic process. For example, in the book By Popular Demand, John Gastil explores how such groups could be used to reform the electoral system, bringing in greater accountability and feedback loops. And the National Initiative for Democracy includes "Deliberative Committees" in their design in order to provide checks and balances within a national ballot initiative process.

Within a more transformative framework, Jim Rough has been promoting and facilitating Wisdom Councils, a format where each year a group of citizens are selected at to create a "State of the Union" statement for their local community. Jim's proposed Citizen's Amendment would institute these annual Wisdom Councils at a national level, similar in some ways to the Canadian experiment but on an on-going basis. In addition to serving as a symbolic voice of "We the People", Wisdom Councils deepen public dialogue by inviting participants to share the story of their journey toward shared understanding.

One way in which these various models differ involves the kind of conversation that takes place within the councils. To the degree that we are engaging in a more creative and holistic approach to dialogue, we may be moving away from the more usual understanding of the term "deliberation." In response, Tom Atlee has recently created a broader category, "citizen reflective councils," to include a wider range of approaches to group conversation within the council format.

At the same time, all of these various processes share the same radical assumption: With some support, a diverse group of ordinary people can work together to engage constructively with their differences, in the service of the larger common good.  We know that a well-designed, randomly-selected poll can provide us with useful information about the current state of opinion of the larger whole. In a similar manner, a well-designed, randomly-selected council can provide us with useful information about the common ground we might discover, if we all had the opportunity to engage with one another in depth as part of the larger whole. 

Many of us have had a taste of something similar to a citizen deliberative council, albeit in a very limited fashion, through our public service as part of a jury. In fact, the widespread use of juries could be taken as evidence for the ability of diverse, ordinary people to arrive at shared understandings on behalf of the common good. Yet in our present system, juries are limited to coming up with a verdict in a situation of wrong-doing, rather than entrusted with designing creative solutions for the benefit of the larger society.

While some folks might feel uncomfortable with the idea of public policy being influenced by a small, randomly-selected group of people, it turns out that there are ancient Western roots to this practice. In Random Selection in Politics, Lyn Carson and Brian Martin describe how the Athenian city-state was administered by a number of councils selected by lottery from the larger population. These councils were only allowed to serve for a period of one year, in order to prevent corruption from taking root.

These experiences may lead us to consider the following questions:

What are the various situations in which we might benefit from the considered judgement of a citizen deliberative council -- a temporary microcosm of ordinary people whose diversity reflects the diversity of the larger whole?

What might be the impact on our society, if these kinds of facilitated conversations among a randomly-selected, temporary group of ordinary people became an established way of seeking creative solutions to public issues?

What might it take to institute regular, highly visible, and publicly-sanctioned citizen reflective councils, that would allow us to develop a collective sense of ourselves as an inclusive, self-aware "We the People"?

How might the creative journey of these councils be widely shared, in order to catalyze a wide-spread sense of possibility within the larger whole?

Signs of Hope

The story of the Canadian experiment, and the approach of "citizen deliberative councils" it embodies, is only one example of how we might respond to the various questions offered throughout this paper. My hope is that it may inspire others to want to learn more about, contribute to, and build upon existing efforts to apply the potential of group process to the deepening of our democratic practice. 

There are many signs in our society that support a sense of hope and movement along the lines described in this paper. In addition to our hunger for community on a local level, there is a deep sense of the need for shared solutions to the global crises we are facing. Recognizing our interdependence and our need for co-existence, the Dalai Lama has called for a "culture of dialogue and non-violence." New organizations such as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation signal the growth of this larger movement.

As mentioned earlier, there is an emerging understanding of conflict as an opportunity for human development. There is also a dawning realization that the process of "creating enemies" is itself the problem. Many of us have developed some degree of psychological and spiritual awareness of the value of re-integrating the "shadow aspects" that can be so easily projected onto others. 

All of these factors can support us as we begin to apply the tools of deep listening and facilitated group process to the work of co-creating our common future. And, as we create opportunities to encounter one another in the fullness of our diversity, we often find ourselves transformed.

Part of this transformation involves the opportunity to re-think everything we thought we knew. As Karl Mannheim maintained,

"[It is not] to be regarded as intellectual incompetence on our part when an extraordinary broadening of perspective necessitates a thoroughgoing revision of our fundamental conceptions… [It is] only when we are thoroughly aware of the limited scope of every point of view are we on the road to the sought-for comprehension of the whole. " (1936, p.105)

Of course, as we engage in real encounter with one another, we are not only arriving at a greater "comprehension of the whole." We are in fact taking part in the process of "becoming more whole." In the words of Mary Parker Follett:

"Democracy is an infinitely including spirit.  We have an instinct for democracy because we have an instinct for wholeness; we get wholeness only through reciprocal relations, through infinitely expanding reciprocal relations. Democracy is really neither extending nor including merely, but creating wholes." (1918)

This is, indeed, quite a paradigm shift from seeing democracy as a game of "winners and losers," where the 51% of the voting population happens to gain electoral office can then pretend to safely ignore the other 49%. At the same time, there may be large numbers of us who are indeed ready for such a shift.

According to Paul Ray, the repeated "thoroughgoing revision" of many of our conceptual frameworks over the last several decades has led to the growth of what he terms "Cultural Creatives." His research shows that the common denominator shared by this demographic has been the practice of learning to re-think "what we thought we knew, " again and again, in the process of experiencing one paradigm-shift after another.

At the same time, those of us who identify as Cultural Creatives still have much to learn from participating in deep dialogue with those of us who hold more traditional orientations or who see the world through a  "modern" perspective.  One of those learnings may well be a deeper realization of how much we all really do share in common, across any and all categorizations.

In closing, I would like to invite all of us who feel called to this work, to participate in considering how we might successfully introduce new forms of group process and democratic practice to our communities and societies. How might we best support that which is wanting to emerge?

I welcome your contributions to the ongoing conversation, in the deep faith that each one of us has a gift to offer to the larger whole. May we all help midwife, as gently and effectively as possible, a future filled with blessings for everyone.


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