Perspectives: Restoring the Art of Conversation
December 16, 2019 by On the Table NLN
Conversation can be a powerful tool to bring communities together, drive change and more – and, the On the Table model isn’t the only way this idea comes to life. In our “Perspectives” series, we feature leaders from organizations in the civic engagement space, sharing thoughts and insights on a variety of issues. In this feature, we talk with Debilyn Molineaux, executive director at Bridge Alliance – a coalition of over 90 organizations dedicated to bridging the divides that separate us and aim to fix our political system now. Debilyn has a long history of work in civic engagement. Prior to her role at Bridge Alliance, she served as managing partner at the Living Room Conversations, a nonprofit that encourages conversation and dialogue to increase understanding and drive change in communities.
What led you to focus your career on civic engagement and the importance of conversation and dialogue?
I saw early on in this work that “we, the people” are the biggest obstacle. Too many of us are operating from a place that doesn’t allow us to really hear and participate in conversations in a meaningful way. I started to see that a shift was needed in the way we think about politics – how we interact and engage around those issues that often seem so polarizing. I knew that something had to be done to bridge those gaps and facilitate connections between people despite their differences, identify areas of common ground and achieve a shared understanding in order to move solutions forward.
That’s what led me to work with Joan Blades to develop a DIY conversation guide on different topics. Now at Bridge Alliance, we help organizational leaders collaborate where it makes sense to strengthen all areas of democracy.
What have you learned about bringing people together in conversation through your work in civic engagement?
When coming together with someone to discuss viewpoints that are different than your own, there are two things that I’ve found hold people back – first, overcoming a fear of being attacked, made fun of or looking foolish and, second, being truly open-minded and setting aside any judgement or bias.
But as someone who is mindful about coming together with all types of people, opinions and viewpoints, I promise it’s not that hard! (More on that here.) I would encourage people to be brave and curious about learning from someone new. You may not agree with them, their thinking may not make sense to you, but by listening to where someone is coming from, you can find a way to move forward together.
What is the key to creating an environment where people will feel comfortable opening up in conversation around potentially polarizing topics?
Storytelling is the fastest way to get past our pre-conceived notions of another person – and create a space for people to share. That doesn’t happen through facts and figures.
Sharing a personal, authentic story can be a good way to start these conversations. There’s something about witnessing someone be vulnerable that allows others in the room to allow themselves to be open and share their stories. too.
So often, we talk about evaluating the effectiveness of initiatives – examining outcomes, measuring return on investment, etc. How do you define success in this type of work?
I see people try and skip over the initial step of building relationships all of the time. Building relationships take time, and you need those relationships and true connectedness to drive change in civic engagement.
Relationship-building is hard to see and measure. When bringing people together, I look for an increase in what I call “heart-connectedness” – are people more open-minded leaving the room than they were when they arrived? Do they have a better understanding of and perhaps empathy for the experiences of others? If I can answer “yes” to those questions, I would say that’s a successful outcome. It takes time for the ripples to start to form, for people to feel comfortable enough to act. Public policy or collaborative solutions to the big problems – all of that comes later.
How are you applying these insights in your work with Bridge Alliance?
Over the course of our national history, we’ve evolved and included more and more people in the process of self-governance. In the last several decades, we’ve become aware of more systemic disempowerment that seems invisible is hampering our ability to self-govern. At Bridge Alliance, we’ve taken the idea of “diversity” from a subject matter to be studied and declared that diversity will be our operating system moving forward, as we work on healthy self-governance and supporting democratic values. We have a lot of work to do with our own organization, and will be supporting our members in 2020 and beyond.
What in the civic engagement space is really exciting to you right now and why?
While I’ve been discouraged that, as a society, we’ve really lost the art of conversation, I’m excited about those who are working to restore it, albeit though in a more structured way – through their writing, workshops, etc.