Center for Public Deliberation awarded for elevating democratic conversations

Samantha Ye

Kalie McMonagle receives Civvy award
Kalie McMonagle (right), program coordinator for the Center for Public Deliberation, accepted the organization’s first-ever Civvy Award in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Kalie McMonagle)

Democracy can start with a conversation, and the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation won their first national “Civvy” award last month for the many conversations they have produced.

The Civvys focus on organizations whose collaborative work elevates democracy and civic engagement in American life. The CPD tied for the local level award for pioneering a model of university-led community communications, according to the Civvy website.

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The CPD uses deliberation as a method of community problem-solving, where citizens of different background, not just politicians or experts, consider the decision-making through small-group discussion. Students in the CPD are trained to be impartial facilitators who guide the process.

Over the last 12 years, the CPD have designed city housing with legos, conversed on the “Art of Belonging” in Fort Collins and brought together what is now the Larimer County Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities.

Getting the Civvy really said that this is something worth doing.” -Kalie McMonagle, program coordinator.

“When we started, it was really an experiment in what can happen when a city has resources like this to actually be able to just elevate the conversation,” said Kalie McMonagle, program coordinator. “Getting the Civvy really said that this is something worth doing.”

Going by the CPD’s recent workloads, locals have long found value in their services.

The center is getting requests for 12 to 14 events per semester now after years of cultivating local relationships, McMonagle said. The CPD can only handle six to eight events, but it’s still nice to see demand so high.

The events aim for more democratic decisions and a responsive community, McMonagle said. Events this semester have included gathering input for CSU’s new strategic plan and soliciting feedback to inform the City’s water, arts and tax plans.

Center for Public Deliberation Student Associates
The Center for Public Deliberation’s Student Associate Program accepts 15 new students per semester. They have trained around 300 student facilitators in the last 12 years. (Photo courtesy of Kalie McMonagle)

Martin Carcasson, director and founder of the CPD, said a big part of the Center, especially these days, is how it helps people see “wicked issues” in different ways.

Wicked issues have no clear right or wrong solutions and cut across multiple competing values. They do not suit the simple narratives rife at the national level, Carcasson said.

CPD sets up the conversation with an alternative perspective.

“Instead of putting the wickedness in people, you’re putting it in the problem,” Carcasson said. “And when you do that you’re getting away from an adversarial model, where we’re all yelling at each other, to a much more collaborative model.”

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Carcasson started the Center out of a standard, one-semester communication class. CPD’s Student Association Program now consists of a three-credit, one-semester course—where students receive training and event practice—and a second semester where students earn one to three credits of practicum for 45-135 hours of CPD-related work. Student associates start as facilitators in that second semester and can continue earning practicum credit for semesters afterward.

Students must apply to take the course. CPD accepts 15 students a semester.

Communication studies major Joseph Lupo has facilitated at multiple CPD forums and recently joined the Poudre Think Tank, a longstanding collaboration between the CPD and the Poudre School District. Lupo wrote in an email to The Collegian, that facilitation training is one of the most helpful things he’s ever learned.

I think a big part of the CPD, especially these days, is there’s a hopefulness to it.” -Martin Carcasson, Center for Public Deliberation director

Like Carcasson, Lupo thinks deliberative discussions at the local level can serve as an “antidote” to national polarization.

“We are polarized, yes,” Lupo wrote. “But in many cases this polarization can be exaggerated or a matter of perception that is broken down after they have a civil, structured conversation with those whom they disagree with.”

Lupo’s role as a facilitator requires him to be “passionately impartial” or passionate about the process but without bias on the issue. Lupo wrote this allows all participants to share their thoughts and maybe hear perspectives different from their own, ultimately the magic of deliberative process.

Once someone has a face to put on “the opposition,” they may realize how those with different opinions prioritize values in a different way and be less willing to vilify them, Lupo wrote.

Currently, 30-35 undergraduate students are working with CPD as well as a couple of graduate students and returning alumni. The relatively large number of facilitators the Center has available allows them to hold bigger events with deeper, small-group discussions, McMonagle said.

The Center is currently focusing on providing more translation services and developing shootoff partnerships to expand the diversity of discussion participants. McMonagle said they are a never-ending experiment.

The CPD’s model, which was the first type of facilitation center to use students in this way, is now being duplicated by other universities across the country, Carcasson said. And he believes every university should have a center like this.

“I think a big part of the CPD, especially these days, is there’s a hopefulness to it,” Carcasson said. “You can get people in a room, even with a polarized issue, but with a good process, people can have these conversations…That’s my hope for saving democracy.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.