Wisdom councils chart new pathways to direct democracy in WNC

MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE: "Money is winning and the solution has to be people coming into conversation," says Jim Rough, creator of the wisdom council process, speaking at an Oct. 14 public forum in Asheville.

It’s election season — time to pay attention to candidate platforms, get educated on the issues and let your voice be heard … right? Though many dedicated voters go to the polls term after term, hoping to bring about the world they want to see, many are still asking: Is it enough? Are “we the people” really setting the priorities and naming the issues? Is this democracy working?

“If we all sat down with a piece of paper and asked, ‘How do we create something that is of the people, for the people and by the people?’ we wouldn’t get anything near what we have now, because there is nothing about it that answers any one of those three things,” says Kerry Lindsey, co-founder of Wise Democracy North Carolina, a group that formed in March with the goal of facilitating deeper conversations among citizens. The group’s key method is implementing “Wisdom Councils.”

“The wisdom council is structured so that there are 12 people who are randomly selected out of the community, and then they are brought together to come up with three or four statements or points … that they’ve come to through consensus,” explains Ruth Backstrom, one of the group’s cofounders.

With a system designed to harness the creativity and resolve that can be yielded when multiple perspectives are combined, Wise Democracy NC members see wisdom councils as potentially revolutionary for political discourse and re-empowering the voice of the people to name and enact solutions for our collective future.

But the randomly selected 12 participants aren’t just thrown in a room and expected to hash it out. The key to success lies in a process called “Dynamic Facilitation,” designed by Jim Rough, creator of the wisdom council process.

The dynamic facilitator’s job is to keep the group moving forward by identifying points of agreement and keeping the conversation on a creative, solutions-based track.

Rosa Zubizarreta, author of the dynamic facilitation manual, explains, “Your goal [as a facilitator] is to really connect deeply with each person and help them feel heard and safe,” she says, “and that’s where the choice creation starts. As human beings, we are either in defensive/protective mode which looks like fight, flight, freeze, etc. or we’re in open, creative, synthesizing mode.”

It’s when we are afraid of not being heard and our perspective is not being considered that the prospect of generating solutions becomes remote, Zubizarreta explains. “And that’s why you end up with people fighting over what color the bathroom tissue is going to be — because they want to know that they count. In [dynamic facilitation], we’re not voting, not getting into win/lose. We’re getting to the deeper issues.”

“Right now we think of facilitation for group meetings and politics for politics, [and] we don’t think of those worlds meeting. But they really do, and that’s what’s exciting about wisdom councils,” says Backstrom, who also runs the nonprofit Solution Generators Network, which hosts workshops in systems change in the Durham area.

Last fall, Backstrom and Asheville-based Susan Michael reached out to Rough for advice on bringing the approach to North Carolina as a pathway to improve what they see as myopic and dysfunctional political discourse in this state.

Rough created the dynamic facilitation method in the ’80s and, in 2002, published Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People. In his book, he promoted wisdom councils and called for a “Citizen’s Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would require an annual national wisdom council — a simple solution that, Rough contended, is the key to remediating current political, social and economic dystfunction.

Though such ambitions haven’t taken hold in the U.S., they have in central Europe, particularly in Austria: In 2006, one of its states, Vorarlberg,  started holding wisdom councils; more recently, state leaders adopted a constitutional amendment providing for a government-sponsored wisdom council that could be convened on any particular issue if 1) the government deemed it necessary, or 2) the citizens petitioned for it with 1,000 signatures or more.

“They implemented an amendment different than what I had — better than what I had,” says Rough. “But there’s been a dearth of implementation here in the U.S. … So we [at the Center for Wise Democracy] were kind of waiting for some place to get desperate enough to give us a call. And that’s really what happened when Ruth and Susan called and said, ‘Look at what’s happening in North Carolina — we need some help.’”

The wisdom council experiment

In the fall of 2013, Solution Generators began hosting workshops in dynamic facilitation in Durham. The following March, participants in a breakout group in one session came up with the idea for Wise Democracy NC.

“The idea was to train people to do these councils and hold them across North Carolina — to change the level of political discourse here, because it is just rock bottom,” says Backstrom. The last wisdom council to be held in the U.S. was in Asheland, Ore., in 2003, “And they changed the entire city council over the course of two elections from it,” she reports.

After six months of conference calls, a lot of volunteer hours and planning, Wise Democracy NC produced the Wisdom Council Experiment —  which included workshops in dynamic facilitation as well as one wisdom council at Westminster Presbyterian Church in East Asheville on Oct. 10 and 11 this year.

Wise Democracy NC selected a dozen potential participants for Asheville's first "wisdom council," held earlier this October. (photos by Jordan Foltz)
Wise Democracy NC selected a dozen potential participants for Asheville’s first “wisdom council,” held earlier this October. (photos by Jordan Foltz)

To produce the series, Wise Democracy enlisted the help of several leading figures in the field of facilitation and innovative forms of choice creation, including Rough, Zubizarreta, Juanita Brown (creator of The World Café social technology) and Tao of Democracy author Tom Atlee.

“We purchased the voter registration list from the Board of Elections, and then put it through a mathematical formula to get the top 30,000 people. Then we sent a letter to the top 300 from that list and started to make a lot of calls,” says Michael. Of the Buncombe County residents contacted, only 10 responded and just eight showed up for the wisdom council in mid-October. Each participant was paid $80 and had lunch and dinner provided for the day-and-a-half event.

“When I first received this letter, it was pretty amazing. It was the first time I’d heard about wisdom councils, and I’m a firm believer in gathering people, talking and listening and arriving at consensus,” says Tom Gill of Black Mountain, one of the eight participants.

“They were all charged with the question of ‘What would you do to maintain the quality of life in Asheville?’” says Rev. Gaya Erlandson, also of Wise Democracy NC. “It was purposefully designed to be really generic so that they could come up with their own topics within that.”

On Oct. 14, the Tuesday following the council, Wise Democracy held a public forum at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, where the participants reported their experiences and their proposed solutions.

“At first, a lot of things came up around job inequality, discrimination, lack of confidence in our institutions — like our schools, government and financial institutions,” says participant Kristine Madera. “By the end of Friday night, we had come up with this idea that what all of our grievances had in common was a loss of hope. [And from that], the idea we began to work with was that there is no collective vision, nothing calling us forward in a complete way — not in politics, not in society, not anywhere,” she says.

Though several participants reported feeling frustrated at times, and unsure of whether the council was leading to any solutions, they agreed that by mid-Saturday, Oct. 11, they got “in the zone.” Solutions started to congeal.

“There were so many thoughts and opinions out there on Friday night that I didn’t see how it would ever come together,” says participant Charlie Flynn. “But I was blown away on Saturday in the way things were distilled slowly, drip by drip, until we had a pretty fine product.”

The “product” these eight Buncombe County individuals came up with is multifold and “better than any one of us could have come up with on our own,” says Gill.

They drafted A New Social Contract, a heartfelt offering of cultural solutions for preserving quality of life in Asheville.

It consists of two parts: “The New Democracy” describes and calls for neighborhood councils as a form of direct democracy that will reforge the connection between the people and the government, hypothetically reinvesting deliberating power in the hands of “we the people.”

The second part, “Economic Adjustment,” describes an economy whereby members of society are taken care of based on intrinsic contributions to society, independent of monetary evaluation or purchasing power.

There’s a validity and indisputable nature to these solutions that comes from the egalitarian, truly democratic process by which they were generated, and that’s the point, says Rough: Collectively, we know what we need; we have wisdom; and we can access it, given the right conditions.

What’s next?

This first Wisdom Council Experiment is only the beginning for Wise Democracy NC, says Lindsey. “There are at least 11 of us who are committed to getting wisdom councils in the Asheville governance system,” he says.

Although Wise Democracy NC has contingents in both Durham and Asheville, members see the smaller city as particularly ripe for this kind of participatory democracy, and a community with a unique potential to set trends for the rest of the country.

“Things like climate change and democracy are difficult subjects that we need to be looking at,” says Asheville-based Ty Hallock, also of Wise Democracy. “They’re bigger problems, and we have to have a bigger perspective, and I think, given our [per capita] interests in Asheville in this ‘bigger picture,’ that we can be the seed which starts the whole U.S. doing wisdom councils.”

Having successfully produced the October wisdom council, the group looks forward to raising awareness in the region about their goals and plans on holding another session over the winter, after which they hope local officials will attend a public forum where the results will be shared.

Beyond the possible ripple effects on a regional scale, Asheville’s wisdom council stands to be included in an upcoming documentary called The Blind Spot, directed by Switzerland-based Martin Rausch, whose film crew captured the entire event. His goal is to explore a handful of newly evolving systems of deliberation, including wisdom councils, and make them more available to the world.

“I don’t believe in business as usual,” says Rausch. “I believe that if we get together with processes like this that something happens between people because we want to move forward together. It’s not about being right. It’s not about winning. It’s about coming together and creating the space and the conditions where something can happen between us and something can evolve. Babylon didn’t have it. Greece didn’t have it. Rome didn’t have it.”

As much as wisdom councils are poised to re-establish “we the people” as the ones who dictate larger issues and suggest larger solutions, their impact on the individual is just as profound, Lindsey emphasizes: “We are not used to being heard at this level. Many of us are not used to being heard at all.”

Rough calls for action, as he did at the closing of the Oct. 14 forum: “Over and over again we say, “We need to get a net carbon tax. We need to lessen the gap. We need to recover the middle class. Where’s this ‘we’? Has anybody seen it? If we had a ‘we,’ then we wouldn’t have these problems.

“Money is winning and the solution has to be people coming into conversation.”

To find out more about Wise Democracy North Carolina visit wisedemocracync.org.

To read the The New Social Contract, go to avl.mx/0hv.



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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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2 thoughts on “Wisdom councils chart new pathways to direct democracy in WNC

  1. MG Massey

    yes, a death of hope is the issue. Asheville killed my hope. The rich who run this tourist town are choking on the Cherokee curse. Ironic as , when I moved here, I didn’t know we were from here nor that I was Tsalagi(Cherokee). Back Then, I saw things through the lens of “white ” people . Now, I see thing through the eyes of my ancestors driven out of here by the “settlers” avarice and prejudice. Nothing has changed in ASheville and it won’t till apologies to the former residents and their children has been made. Till we all realize that LIFE came before money, nothing in this world will be valued as precious as it is, not will we see change. The failure to think of how ones actions affect others..and self centeredness.. are what led to all of our ills. AS my people say ; “we are all connected”. It’s time we start acting like it. WE can all work together or we can all die alone.

    • Jordan Foltz

      Thanks so much for your comments MG. A ritual honoring the tribes who once lived here is a powerful idea. I wonder if such an honoring could even happen on an annual level locally. Maybe Wise Democracy NC would like your input on the subject of the next Wisdom Council: something about how we can properly honor the foundational cultures and people of this area in order to really thrive today. Considering the consequences of that disconnect would be a valuable public conversation. I think there are several groups in the area who would be interested in working to create an event or ritual to address the concerns you are highlighting.

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