Forging Constructive Community Discourse Task Force
2004 to 2005
A Scoping Group was formed in 2004 to define the topic of Constructive Community Discourse, one of several heard repeatedly through ongoing community outreach. The Scoping Group recommended creation of a Task Force to gather input on issues causing community discord and to recommend specific projects and activities that would:
- Improve public exchange of information
- Strengthen and support democratic processes for Town decision-making
- Foster a sense of community
- Identify reasons why communication and discourse among citizens and between town and citizens appears to be problematic.
- Create an action plan for improving communication and discourse.
- Identify structural mechanisms that can be used to improve communication (the "what").
- Identify mechanisms for encouraging the appropriate forms of discourse (the "how").
- The Task Force met weekly to discuss the issues and come up with recommendations.
- The membership was judged to be adequately representative of the diversity in town without the need for additional outreach.
- The Task Force governed their discussion in accordance with the Town's Guidelines for Civil Discourse. Decisions were reached primarily through consensus.
- Barriers to effective and appropriate communication and discourse fall into two categories:
- Absence of information or data
- Central discussion themes were that:
- Communication must be decentralized so that more citizens become more involved
- Communication must be improved in terms of both content and tone.
- It is relatively straightforward to identify ways to improve the availability and sharing of information. It is more difficult to objectively specify how we communicate with one another. However, we can identify mechanisms that will aid in the development of the fundamental qualities of:
- taking personal responsibility for our discourse
- listening to the other person
- keeping an open mind
- inclining toward respect for and tolerance of the position of others
- These problems are not unique to Lexington, but are common everywhere. They are a function of human nature, the heterogeneity of our society, and the general tensions among peoples throughout the world. While we cannot change human nature, we can change the atmosphere associated with our interactions. Similarly, we recognize that our heterogeneity makes for a richer, albeit more contentious, society and solutions to our problems lie in tolerance and respect and civility.
- Many of our recommendations have been suggested in the past, and lack of action on them has been a source of frustration, and an impediment to constructive community discourse in itself.
- While money can be a limitation, several of the proposed mechanisms can be implemented without additional expense to the town. Lexington has a history of volunteerism, and it is likely that talented and committed people will come forward.
- Other obstacles to civil discourse include:
- Issues that pit newcomers and longtime residents against one another
- Tensions around taxes and overrides when some residents desire more services and others are unwilling to pay for those services
- Issues that create polarization within the community for other reasons
Structural mechanisms are identified that could enhance quality and quantity of information disseminated.
- Mechanisms that can be implemented immediately include:
- Inserts in newsletters and tax bills
- Development or improvement of neighborhood associations
- TMMA Communications Group and precinct meetings
- Newcomers' Welcome Packet
- Politics in the Park
- Initial work on the Gathering Place
Mechanisms that will take more time include:
- Full implementation of the town website (priority)
- Full implementation of the Gathering Place (priority)
- Town Day
- Last Night
Mechanisms are also identified for improving the appropriate forms of discourse. Mechanisms that can be implemented immediately include:
- Preparation of the manual
- Training of committee and board chairs (priority)
Mechanisms that will take more time include:
- Training of committee and board members
Our most serious proposal is that at least some of the actions mentioned in this report be implemented as soon as possible - if for no other reason than as a good-faith effort. Citizens need to be able to view their leaders as responsive. This will engender trust and will aid the process of communication.