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Community meeting at Saint Mary's College.

Towards a New Way of Civic Engagement in Small Town America

In the wake of political unrest and polarization which followed President Trump’s victory last November, the Leadership Center decided to host a series of Community Conversations for the local communities near campus.  In partnership with local resident Edy Schwartz and the Town Council of Moraga, the initiative was launched in December.  Through this project, community residents, College students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been invited to leave the comfort of their computer screens and meet up face-to-face to listen and discuss issues.  Below we share ‘Ten Lessons We’ve Learned” through convening these community conversations.  Our last gathering of the semester will be held on Saturday, April 29th in the Soda Center at Saint Mary’s College from 9:30 – 11:30 am.  All are welcome.

Within the MA in Leadership Program, we talk a lot about the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges.  Technical problems can be solved with known solutions whereas adaptive challenges are ones for which there is no known solution.  We knew post-election that we were in a new political moment and this moment was mobilizing people to connect, engage and become more invested in the civic process.  We also knew, we didn’t have an answer to what was needed.

According to Ron Heifetz and his colleagues, adaptive problems are ones that “can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, p.19).  What we were witnessing fell into that category.  Watching people respond with significant anger, fear, surprise, and confusion after the election, we knew we needed to begin the process by creating space for people to voice what they were feeling and connect with others.

As we listened closely we began to diagnose the adaptive challenge – a need to complement the current political structure with space for deep listening, authentic communication and creative problem solving among people who are both elected official and ordinary citizens.  In part, this analysis resulted from noticing that our political structures (both locally and nationally) are now dealing with many more adaptive challenges so the former approach, based on solving technical problems, is no longer sufficient.

To respond to adaptive challenges, we must be curious and not so sure of the right answer.  In the ‘old mode’ of politics, the way to win an issue was often by being 100% sure and persuasive that there was a right answer.  In this new context, listening and collective creative problem solving is essential – not just a ‘nice to have’ element to the political process.

As we reflect upon the months since the election, here are the
Top 10 Lessons We’ve Learned:

  1. Creating a space to encourage deeper listening is enough.
  2. Pay attention to welcoming people.
  3. Start by connecting people to each other.
  4. Don’t be afraid to structure listening time.
  5. Share a mini-lesson on a topic relevant to civic engagement.
  6. Create topic groups organically and in the moment.
  7. Come back to the Community Commons.
  8. Do the work to engage people of all ages.
  9. Be open to the side conversations.
  10. Appreciate the small victories.

Please Click Here if you are interested in more details about the 10 Lessons Learned about the Community Conversations process.


Maura Wolf, Associate Professor, MA in Leadership, Saint Mary’s College of California, in partnership with Edy Schwartz, Moraga Community Resident

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