Listening to New Hampshire: Grassroots Groups Assemble Civic Infrastructure for Dialogues
The need was clear. All the pieces were at hand. The challenge was to mold them into a robust civic infrastructure to support dialogue about pressing issues in New Hampshire’s cities and towns.
Bruce Mallory and others took up the challenge, and NH Listens is the result—a network of local groups (currently nine in all) that bring residents together for facilitated, small-group conversations about the issues that matter to them.
One way to think of civic infrastructure is as “the activities, meetings, community groups, etc., that bring people together to address their challenges.” But it’s not enough to have those “building materials” in isolation; someone has to weld them together. Fortunately, New Hampshire has many of those “someones.”
“Before this began, there was little ability to convene dialogues on either a statewide or local level,” Mallory remembered in a recent interview. “All communities have issues that need conversation—school reform, master planning, taxation, disaster mitigation, you name it. Historically, few communities are prepared to have those robust dialogues, and there has not been a statewide infrastructure to support them.”
Many communities, however, already had the right pieces: strong webs of local relationships, neutral conveners willing to help, community champions respected across divides. As a civic engagement initiative of the University of New Hampshire since 2011, NH Listens has supported those people and organizations as they build local capacity for neutral, open, inclusive dialogues.
Mallory’s approach takes its cues from the principles of slow democracy. Rather than approach communities with the idea, he responds to requests for a Listens chapter. He works with a local, neutral convening organization to create an advisory committee with a diverse blend of people across local constituencies: business, healthcare, youth, the school district, religious institutions, and law enforcement, among others.
Perhaps most important, he allows the development of each local Listens organization to proceed at its own pace, within the comfort zone of local organizers. “Dover Listens existed for two years without ever having a community forum,” he recalled. “They eventually put a toe in the water by having small, facilitated candidate forums instead of a larger community forum about a controversial issue. It’s only recently that Dover Listens sponsored a city-wide conversation on the future of its schools.
“But that is hardly abnormal. In fact, it can often take one to two years to develop Listens projects to the point where they’ll be sustainable.”
The impact of these organizations is getting attention. Recently, a Listens chapter in New Hampshire’s North Country hosted a bipartisan dialogue with its elected state representatives and senators. The contrast between the local gathering and the climate in the federal government at that time—then in the midst of a shutdown—was striking. “The state representatives were so proud of their ability to engage in civil dialogue in light of the partisan gridlock at the federal level,” Mallory said.
All this local activity is starting to reverberate on the statewide level. “With local Listens groups in place, it’s much easier to trigger a statewide conversation when a major issue comes up,” Mallory noted. “We simply get in touch with the local leaders and ask them to organize dialogues on the topic on the same day.”
The results can be eye-opening. Last year, NH Listens used this infrastructure of local partners to organize a statewide dialogue about mental health, part of the White House’s national conversation on the topic. More than 400 people took part.
Not surprisingly, the state itself has begun to collaborate with NH Listens. Mallory and company have built dialogue capacity in three governor’s commissions, as well as in the Department of Environmental Services (to initiate dialogue with employees) and the Department of Transportation. With its successful model—and 140 trained volunteer facilitators currently in place,--NH Listens has further growth in its sights. Mallory envisions 15-20 active groups two years from now, as well as steps to build statewide capacity further.
In advancing this agenda, he will continue to leverage what he sees as keys to success: “frequent check-ins, a local champion to keep the effort moving forward, passionate volunteers who are seen as neutral brokers, continued recruitment and training of facilitators, and a deep respect for community dynamics,” he said. “As long as we use these ingredients, I believe we will continue to respond to a need. There is a tremendous hunger for this work.”