Having recently attended the Athenaeum program featuring Jill Bolte Taylor, neurologist, Sandy Sasso, rabbi, and Carrie Newcomer, folk singer, followed one week later by my first experience at a Healing the Heart of Democracy discussion circle, I feel certain that honest talking, deep listening, and the repetition of same are keys to civic life in a democracy.
How do we talk honestly and listen deeply? In the book named above, Parker Palmer suggests that we must make it a point to speak and listen in groups where trust and confidence are established by allowing people who do not share our views to speak from their hearts, without interruption, correction, or argument from us. They, of course, need to extend us the same courtesy. Silence and a creative tension must be allowed to persist. Eventually, Palmer says, our hearts will "break open" (as opposed to "break apart"), exposing sympathetic spaces which accommodate discussion of differences. Then, if we have a task to accomplish together, and if we keep talking and keep listening, we may be able to compromise on a consensus solution.
I have seen such a pattern described in the Fall 2012 OnEarth article, "Common Sense in Kansas," by Kim Larson. In a town plagued by unemployment, citizens stood divided both over whether Sun Electric should increase its polluting power plant and whether climate change matters or even exists. Without attempting to reach agreement on the climate issue, community conversations resulted in Siemens establishing a nacelle factory, bringing in 400 cleaner jobs and a fervor for wind energy. (The nacelle houses a wind turbine's generator, gearbox, drive train, and brake assembly.) Nancy Jackson, who spearheaded the discussions, commented, "It's about genuinely listening to our audience and then engaging on their terms. . . . not about 'framing.' It's about honoring a different way of knowing."
Walter Lippmann said virtually the same thing in his 1930's article, "The Indispensable Opposition." He argues that we must talk to our opponent, listen to our opponent, and avoid repairing only to the views of people with whom we agree. The reason? Only then can the truth be found. This variety of truth-search is slow and complicated, attributes not popular in today's world. After all, we easily can visit only sympathetic web sites, read only columnists of our own persuasion, and insulate ourselves against neighbors with whom we deeply disagree. Electronic connection magnifies ways in which we can isolate ourselves from others.
Yet Palmer, Larson, and Lippmann agree about a method on which League of Women Voters has relied for more than 90 years: Come together face-to-face. Keep talking. Keep listening. Repeat. In that cumbersome and messy process, slow as it is, we rethink our views, process the opponent's views, and sometimes change our minds. Eventually, we may reach a consensus that allows the emergence of a unified position. If not, we are likely at least to attain a fuller understanding of others' views. ― Karen Kay - October, 2012
We all have observed election outcomes that were determined by who stayed home. Why might that happen? Maybe the person feels her vote won't make a difference. Maybe he encountered obstacles and has no photo ID. Perhaps she has no transportation that will allow her both to vote and also to get to work on time. Perhaps he moved and failed to change his voter registration. The reasons are legion.
No group of local volunteers could meet every need for every voter. So our leagues do what they can, depending on the size and energy of their membership. In this space, I cannot detail all the activities through which leagues serve their communities' voting public. However, here are some present and recent efforts:
Holding public meetings to inform people about ballot questions
Publishing voters' guides (paper or electronic) for local candidates and ballot issues
Posting candidate or ballot information at the local or state LWV web site
Posting candidate or ballot information at Vote411.org
Sponsoring candidate meet-and-greet events, debates, or forums
Assisting individuals who are experiencing difficulty obtaining a photo ID
Writing or helping edit county election worker training material
Assisting County Clerks with election worker training sessions
Reminding citizens to become informed and then to vote on Election Day
Responding to telephone and e-mail inquiries about voting and elections
Serving as polling place election workers
Furnishing rides to the polls
Monitoring the election process, using LWV surveys to compile information
Conferring after elections with the local Clerk or Election Board to improve practice
Seeking continually to generate better election laws and procedures
Since members of League of Women Voters tend to be committed and creative volunteers, new avenues of service emerge constantly. While remaining strictly nonpartisan, leagues strive to enroll, engage, and empower voters. ― Karen Kay - July, 2012