This June and July the Jefferson Center hosted a Penn State student, Emma Rohan, made possible by Penn State’s Nevins Fellows program. Emma’s academic work focuses on education policy, and she came to us with experience in the field of deliberative democracy. While she was here, we were grateful for Emma’s support in the first of three Minnesota Community Assemblies — Red Wing. Below is Emma’s reflection on the experience.
It’s been an exciting and engaging start to the Minnesota Community Assembly Project (MNCAP)! This project, part of our Democratic Innovation Program, began in Red Wing over the course of three weekends. On Friday, June 9, participants gathered in the Red Wing Ignite event room, brimming with expectation and more than a little caffeine.
Eight full days of deliberation is a lot of work and commitment, but the thirty-six Red Wing citizens were in it for the long haul. Before they got down to business, participants had the chance to introduce themselves to their neighbors by sharing what they are sacrificing in order to be present at the Citizens Assembly. Taking care of children, enjoying free weekends with family, and going to work are just a few of the activities that participants agreed to forgo for this eight-day project, acknowledging that engaging in citizen-led democracy sometimes involves personal sacrifice.
These participants, randomly selected to reflect the demographics of their community, set out to learn about local government, discuss strengths and areas for improvement, identify the values underpinning good local government, and explore and recommend opportunities to ensure their local government reflects these values.
Participants learned about local government structures from experts around the globe – from Minnesota to Australia. Each equipped with a tablet, participants could vote on their preferred alternatives while visual representations of the results revealed themselves on the big screen. Bonds were forged as citizens helped each other navigate the digital voting system on their tablets.
During the second weekend, June 23-25, two guests joined the assembly in Red Wing to observe, though neither were new to the process. In the case of Ned Crosby, the founder of the Jefferson Center, this was an opportunity to see old processes in a new setting. As the creator of the Citizens Jury process in the United States, Dr. Crosby took the backseat this time, taking note of participation dynamics and exchanging ideas with our other guest observer, Neall Ireland.
A participant in a Canadian province-wide Citizens Assembly in British Columbia in 2004, Neil was captivated by the experience and makes it a habit to seek out opportunities to watch other assemblies in action around the globe: “I really enjoyed observing the Citizen’s Jury; found it particularly interesting to see how there is a common theme for in this type of process for the participants. It is my thought when educated to the issues and empowered, citizen participation truly is the most effective method of engagement and means to making impactful decisions for a constituency. I admire each of the individuals who have come forward to donate their time and contribute to their communities in a meaningful way. I am certain that each of the three communities engaged in the this process will move forward from it in a positive way and be a great example for other communities in the future.”
As the process moved along, time revealed that even cohesive and unified communities carry underlying tension. Discussions on participation responsibilities and representation in local government sparked contention, and the facilitated conversation unearthed divergent expectations and assumptions between community members. With careful attention paid to group dynamics and how a deliberation space may advantage some and silence others, it was refreshing to notice participants sort out their disagreements themselves over a snack break.
Citizens Juries aimed at the prospect of equipping people to evaluate the structure of their local governments and the platform to recommend changes is an undertaking which requires special consideration toward the role of the facilitator. As outsiders in a tight-knit community, the Jefferson Center team realizes the value of presentation of unbiased materials, giving participants space to share and respond to each other, and knowing when to step in to move the conversation along. Even so, navigating uncharted territory comes with miscalculations and oversights. End-of-the-day surveys gave participants the opportunity to share their feedback on the content and process of the event from a facilitation standpoint, and changes were incorporated in order to steer the group in the right direction.
The final weekend in Red Wing presented some of the largest challenges yet, while simultaneously inspiring some of the greatest displays of individual hard work and collective responsibility. With the deadline for the final recommendation by the Community Assembly fast approaching, participants worked together to craft their final recommendations and supporting statements, the report representing the culmination of their work together. Decisions about the presentation of the report were far from unanimous, and even after eight-hour days of deliberation, citizens in Red Wing stayed overtime to continue the discussion.
The Red Wing Community Assembly’s vision statement highlights some of the qualities of local government participants agreed were indispensable: “Our community needs a clear strategic vision, with leadership committed to working toward that vision. We’d like to see broad community participation, engagement, and communication – all aspects of transparency – to ensure community members are informed and engaged in developing and implementing our strategic vision and holding leadership accountable.” To accomplish this vision, the assembly advocated for a few alternatives to the status quo, such as ranked-choice voting, stronger financial disclosure requirements , better public meetings, and digital public engagement. It is important to note that support for these recommendations was not unanimous, and citizens had the opportunity to express their personal dissent or further recommendations by submitting a personal statement attached to the final report. See the final report in its entirety here.
By the end of our time in Red Wing, we couldn’t help but notice a renewed sense of ownership and personal stake in many of the citizens toward the governance of their communities. Several people shared new commitments they have undertaken since the Community Assembly got underway: people described their conversations with family and friends about the work they’ve done, several participants mentioned applying for local boards and commissions for the first time, and one participant even wrote a Letter to the Editor in the local newspaper. Regardless of the outcome, the value of forging these types of relationships between communities and their local governments cannot be overstated.
We are enthusiastic about the ways Red Wing will carry on this work beyond the formal process of the Community Assembly and into the community as a whole. One down, with Willmar and Brooklyn Park on deck!