What’s it like to participate in an IF Sanctuary Project? Here are a few things you might think about in connection to the upcoming project on Shaping Our Towns and Cities.
Panels as Thinking Groups
There are 2 independent panels for our Sanctuary Projects, each with roughly 6-8 participants. One is made up of citizens who have some form of expertise, whether by profession, training, or experience, relevant to discussing some of the many dimensions of the project topic (a “Specialist” panel). The other is made up of citizens who are just interested in talking about the topic (a “Generalist” panel). Regardless of the composition, each panel functions as a “thinking group” rather than an “opinion” or “knowledge” group. This means that we’re not just asking panelists to react with their personal perspectives. And we’re not asking them just to share their knowledge about the topics or to engage in research about the topics. We want people to bring to bear their own perspectives and their knowledge, but we want them to move beyond their own positions to think about the perspectives of others, including those who are not represented on the panel. You might think of this as being yourself–and an other. We want you to be comfortable sharing your thoughts, but we want you to think like an other, to imagine what someone else might think. We want people to re-imagine what the topic might really be about and to re-envision different ways our society might respond. We want them to engage each other as thinkers and not just knowers.
Being Free to Explore Connections
When people start to think in this expansive way, they notice and pursue connections or interconnections among various aspects of the topics under discussion. Many of our participants have told us how rewarding this experience is. In previous discussions they’ve had to wear blinders, to restrict themselves to a narrowly described topic or to their particular disciplinary or professional perspective. They’ve felt hemmed in, just when they’d be on the trail of some interesting link, they’d be told they were straying off topic or beyond their mandate. In our Sanctuary Projects our panelists are not hemmed in, and they’ve told us how liberating this experience is. They’ve enjoyed the way it allows them to dig into the issues and follow leads as they come up.
The Fellowship of Substantial Discussion
As Sanctuary Projects develop, our panelists report a very strong sense of collegiality or fellowship developing in the group. Part of this comes from the open and collaborative attitude we take in the discussions themselves. Since we’re interested in thinking about and developing multiple perspectives, for example, there’s no place for rancorous argument about narrowing down to the one right perspective. And part of this sense of fellowship comes from the very real shared effort it takes to build up these different perspectives. People realize that they really need the insights and breakthroughs that come from bouncing ideas off of one another. They need each other for the hard work of figuring out how to move these ideas ahead. And it is hard work–but it is fun too. Panelists will often say things like, “you worked us really hard today–and, man, was that fun.” They’ll tell us how they find themselves eagerly awaiting the start of the next session because it offered a rare chance to delve into issues beyond the surface or beyond the usual talking points.
It tends to take about a year of monthly meetings to work through a project. Each panel develops a set of contrasting ideas about how society might approach a complex area of social concern, and this really can’t be rushed. It helps to have time for these ideas to stew. Similarly the monthly meetings need to be long enough so that people can really go deep into the topic and develop their thinking, so they tend to last about 3 hours. We try to arrange our Sanctuary Panel meetings to be convenient for the participants. So we’ll typically have meetings along with refreshments or even a meal. The main cost to participants is their commitment of time and energetic participation (we offer support for local travel expenses as needed). There is a modest stipend for panelists who complete the project, though most panelists say that the chief reward is the empowerment they feel from getting to engage with their fellow citizens in such a robust way about a matter of public importance.
If you’re interested in this kind of experience, drop me a line or leave a comment.