BY KATHRYN LISS
Asheville these days is struggling with how to address the many conundrums we face as a diverse and growing community, but a bit of local history may point the way forward. Conflict is normal and natural: It can be constructive or destructive depending on how it’s handled.
A whole-community approach
In the late 1990s, Asheville and Buncombe County residents found themselves at loggerheads over conflicting visions for the area’s future. Recognizing that this was hindering progress, they hired a consultant who convened a community input session to talk about what should be done. Hundreds of residents got involved, and out of that, Asheville-Buncombe VISION was created. The nonprofit’s board included community leaders as well as representatives of city and county government, academia and the private sector. Together, they set goals and benchmarks for the area’s future; a subcommittee was charged with designing a process for engaging the wider community in decision-making.
Oralene Simmons and I co-chaired the subcommittee. We chose a process based on the work of the Study Circles Resource Center. (This national organization, now called Everyday Democracy, was also the basis for the Asheville-based nonprofit Building Bridges.) Once we’d determined the design of the dialogues that would be a key part of the process, a new committee was structured to identify specific topics and fill in the details. Annually for five years, that committee chose an issue for the whole community to look at and developed materials to guide that year’s discussion.
Know thy neighbor
Typically, about 150 city and county residents would get together to talk about the chosen topic, which could be anything from smart growth to transportation. The whole group began by meeting with people who were knowledgeable about the subject. Fortified by that knowledge base, small, facilitated groups assembled for several weeks in firehouses and libraries around the county to create relationships and consider the pertinent concerns. At the end, the whole group met again, but this time with people who had the authority to make the ideas presented by the small groups actually happen. Some of those recommendations were implemented, such as establishing bus service to Black Mountain.
This structure enabled participants to both learn more about the subject and, in the small groups, gain a better understanding of how various options would affect different residents. Taking time to get acquainted helped ensure that really caring about people’s needs was a key component. During the brainstorming sessions, people had an opportunity to modify their suggestions to acknowledge others’ needs as well as their own. In doing this, we found mutually agreeable solutions.
Twenty years later, perhaps it’s time to revisit this process to help us find new solutions for a community that’s overwhelmed by growth-related issues and underwhelmed with employment opportunities that match the cost of living — a community that’s rich in ideas for improvement but short on agreement.
Currently, the way we’re addressing those needs is to scream at each other without a lot of listening. I believe that local leaders are eager for community input, but because of the way that input is structured, it becomes essentially one-way listening: Individual citizens fling their ideas at leaders in hopes of somehow getting what they want, without regard for the needs of their fellow community members.
With this approach, whatever leadership does, it won’t satisfy either side.
The decision on the Vance Monument is a good example. A commission consisting of good, thoughtful people made a recommendation; City Council and the county commissioners accepted it. But there’s been continuing resistance to the decision because it wasn’t reached collaboratively by all elements of the community. A different process might have produced the same decision, but it would have been accepted better if everyone had felt heard and had a chance to hear the thinking of those who disagree with them, particularly if it were done in a context of caring about each other.
Continuity and change
Today, a number of key local government leaders are newcomers to Asheville. The constant influx of new people means we’re losing our history. Yes, we have processes for “public input,” but instead of helping generate consensus, they’re leading to ever greater divergence of views. Each segment of the community is yelling at the elected officials to promote its particular point of view, but there’s no structure for helping us all listen to one another across differences, en route to achieving mutually agreeable solutions.
The Everyday Democracy structure is only one of many that have been created over the last 20 years to bring people together; another is what are called “citizen assemblies.” Various processes for addressing different needs can be found on the website of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.
Enabling citizens to talk and listen to one another helps us discover a spectrum of ideas, rather than being trapped in false dualities. Meeting other community members and learning about them helps us recognize our common humanity and mitigates our differences in outlook.
To prosper at this stage in history, we must both respect those who have come before and learn to integrate newcomers into our community. There are still many people here with generational roots, but because of wide-ranging changes in climate and politics, we’re attracting many people from across the country.
Let’s take this opportunity to get to know one another in ways that help us solve problems together rather than further dividing us. I have no doubt that, just as happened 20 years ago, we can craft alternative futures that will serve community members of all backgrounds.
Asheville resident Kathryn Liss, the former director of training for The Mediation Center, is a longtime volunteer with Building Bridges who has taught at Mars Hill University and serves as a consultant on equity and inclusion. She can be reached at Kliss@igc.org.