On July 20th, 2002 I volunteered as a facilitator (along with 499 of my colleagues) for a remarkable experiment. Organized by The Civic Alliance To Rebuild Downtown New York, and moderated by America Speaks, this event represents an experiment in increasing the amount and quality of public participation in policy issues. The organizers invited a cross section of people from the New York City region, survivors of the September 11th destruction of the World Trade Center (WTC), and families of the victims to comment upon a series of ideas for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. You can read in depth material on web sites I give at the end of this article. My purpose is to make note of several things that impressed me about this event.
THE DILEMMA OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
America Speaks has a model for public participation that they believe combines the best of modern technology with the feel of small town democracy. Whether the reference to small town democracy is accurate is open to much interpretation. I did experience a table full of citizens who took the process seriously, listened to the proposals and gave thoughtful answers to the questions asked. I also experienced that the parameters of the discussion were determined by two organizations (who someone described as “500 pound gorillas”), who represent traditional top down power structures. They are the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA). Although they organized many public meetings to get input, some traditional, some not, I still had the sense that some people had influence over the decision on the content that was not openly stated. To some extent this is unavoidable in the current state of our Republic. Rebuilding this site involves people with legal rights and economic interests that are a combination of public and private, and who benefit both themselves and a large number of other people when they succeed in promoting their agenda. They also have the capacity to do harm, or affect others in ways they might not appreciate. When the WTC was originally built, some residential neighborhoods were cut off from each other and from the water front. This was done by corporations that also provided many jobs from janitors to junk bond traders, and bankers to builders. The rebuilding of this site poses similar dilemmas. The rights of a large number of diverse stakeholders both converge and clash here, and each group has forms of “public participation” that has served them in the past.
Democracy is a rather vague term. I suspect most of us think we know it when we see it, but would be hard pressed to give a widely accepted definition. In what sense this event represented democracy in action is also open to interpretation. I personally think it remarkable that America Speaks got the LMDC and PA to make use of their process. I believe that the criterion for success is whether the LMDC & PA actually listened to the advice the participants gave on July 20th; what one person called “a testable hypothesis”. Shortly after the event I heard a news report claiming that the LMDC & PA were going to allow more time for the process of deciding how to rebuild. If true, that may or may not prove the hypothesis correct. One of the things the people proposed that day was to scrap the leases guaranteeing developers the right to rebuild the same square footage of office space. They said the number of buildings required to do so would crowd the site, and they wanted the memorial to the victims built first, and the rest of the site designed around it. Only time will tell if this happens. Just note that this piece of advice could prevent the recreation of some of the jobs that were lost on Sept. 11th. This goes to illustrate just one of many dilemma of this rebuilding project.
There is also the issue of who is the client in all this. From the “public” to local residents, to corporations and semi-public agencies, city, state and federal governments, and the families of the victims, there are many stakeholders. Who is the client? Who decides? Who has what right to input, and in what form? I think this will be long discussed and little decided.
THE FACILITAOR’S ROLE
I’m glad I was given the opportunity to volunteer for this event. I feel that it is a way to give something back to my country. I also noticed my own struggle to stay “on” professionally in the face of the feelings I shared with the participants in the aftermath of this tragedy. I succeeded, and I’m also aware that there is no perfect way of walling off my feelings in such a situation. I visited the WTC site and will never forget the six story deep hole where those two buildings stood. I wanted to pour my tears into it. I also had to be ready to serve my clients the next morning. May I never lose sight of that dilemma.
If you want more information on this event, the process or the aftermath, visit these web sites: www.americaspeaks.org, www.civic-alliance.org, and www.listeningtothecity.org. There is much work for we facilitators and facilitative problem solvers. How do we let the potential clients know what we offer in answer to the problems they face? To me, that is the first question.
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