Building community and civic engagement through deliberation

Written by Jennifer Korn, Branch Manager, Pleasant Ridge and William Muse, NIFI President 

What if there was a space where community members could meet and participate in moderated discussions on hot button topics in a respectful, positive, and productive manner? Where, rather than engaging in heated arguments, the focus is on learning from each other and finding common ground and practical solutions? Where the ideas shared in these discussions are shared with policymakers and put to work?

This sounds like an impossible dream, but it is very much possible in our branch libraries thanks to our partnership with the National Issues Forums Institute, opens a new window (NIFI). NIFI supports and encourages group deliberation on current important issues facing America through Community Forums, creating non-partisan issue guides, and reporting Forum findings to lawmakers and policy groups. These Forums also build community and inspire grassroots action. As neutral and free-to-use spaces that are open to all community members, public libraries provide the perfect space to host these Forums. 

Anyone is welcome to participate in Community Forums. The only requirement is a willingness to share and listen. Participants are encouraged to prepare in advance by reading the brief Issue Guide on the topic of the Forum. These Issue Guides can be found at the host Branch Library, opens a new window and on NIFI’s website, opens a new window.

The main points from the guides are covered again at the start of each Forum. The Forum itself runs for about two hours and is led by a neutral moderator who is trained to lead attendees through tough discussions to find possible solutions. All Forum attendees have the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences as they relate to the topic, listen and learn from the other attendees, and work with their neighbors to problem solve.

The aim of the Forum is, “not about reaching an agreement or seeing eye-to-eye. It’s about looking at the costs and consequences of possible solutions to daunting problems, and finding out what we, as a people, will or will not accept.” (Deliberation, opens a new window. National Issues Forum Institute. November 30, 2019) 

In April of 2019, the Pleasant Ridge Branch Library hosted a Community Forum on “A House Divided: What would we have to give up to get the political system we want.” The 20 attendees and the moderators finished the Forum energized by the thoughtful discussion and idea-sharing that happened in the Forum. Participants lingered after the Forum’s formal conclusion to continue their discussions and further develop new connections with their neighbors. They expressed their eagerness to participate in more Community Forums in the future.

To that end, the Pleasant Ridge and Corryville branch libraries are partnering with the National Issues Forums Institute to host three Community Forums in early 2020. We invite our community members to participate, to make your voices heard, and to be an active part of the democratic process. The three Forums listed below are just a start to hosting more Community Forums throughout Hamilton County during 2020.