Changing the Conversation

January 14, 2010 Leave a comment


The photo above was sent to me by my father, who is also the photographer.  In fact, he is also the sign maker.  This statement currently sits by the roadside in front of my parents’ house in upstate New York.  When I asked what sparked this action, he wrote:

There really wasn’t a single event that brought this about.  I got increasingly frustrated with the so-called health care reform debate, knowing that wealthy corporations had donated millions of dollars to the “campaign funds” of many legislators.  Citizen groups retaliated by collecting millions of dollars to counter the corporate propaganda.  What a waste of money!  Then I saw an interview on PBS with Christopher Dodd, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee.  The interviewer pointed out that Committee members had received 30 million dollars from banks and financial institutions.  Dodd himself had received 7 million dollars.  When asked if this might not influence his decision, he replied something like “Of course not”.  That was probably the straw that broke this camel’s back.

And he is not alone.  What frustrates many I know the most, is how those of us who are outraged no matter our political leanings then end up taking it out against one another, through media-manufactured circuses and so-called public “hearings” (just who is really listening?).  In many cases it’s not that we fundamentally disagree, but that we are seemingly set up to fail by the existing structures and processes.  As Judith Innes and David Booher say in a critique of public participation processes in this country, many of these  create or reinforce an us-them dynamic that ends up (pre)serving the status quo and eroding trust across the board.  Ultimately, everyone involved is in some sense demeaned.

Innes and Booher go on to advocate for a multi-stakeholder (multi-way, not just two-way) collaborative approach to public political participation.  They promote authentic dialogue (not rigid “hearings’) between these multiple perspectives as a process that yields the learning, networks, and social capital that is required to build civic capacity for problem-solving and the realization of shared visions.  In this complex networked world, that is both the need and the opportunity in front of us– self-organization and political design must go hand-in-hand.

My father ended the explanation of his signage by saying: “I would love to see this go viral in some way, prompting a grassroots movement for publicly funded elections.” That would be our cue, you self-organizing blue and red signmakers out there.  So what do you say?  How do we change that conversation or others that move you?  Where do WE THE PEOPLE go from here?

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  • Gibran says:

    Thanks Curtis for bringing this sort of thought out on our blog. I’ve been pondering a David Brooks column since January 4. Some of us on the coasts can charicature the Tea Party movement, but what does the following quote tell us about shared frustration across party lines:

    “The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.”

    Time for a the sort of conversation that takes us beyond polarization!

  • Curtis says:

    I think Brooks is right on! Just had an experience the other day with advocates who are also hell bent on what they are against that they polarize those who actually see eye-to-eye with them on the issues. Too much us/them, either/or, my way or the high way stuff going on here! We are better than that!

  • Frank says:

    I think you father’s sign and his point about publicly funded elections are on target. The sign states the goal and public funding is the way to make it happen. People should be made aware that there is a bill in Congress for public funding of elections – the Fair Elections Now Act. (Links to more info at We really need to push our representatives (especially our Senators) to pass this bill.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    More grist for the mill: Watch
    Killer At Large about how the food industry is killing us, aided and abetted by a Congress so beholden to them that they will not legislate in favor of our health. One of the first things I thought about afterward was how much I should have been caring about and advocating for publically funded elections all along.

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