Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Deliberate Democracy

Common Ground Project Brings Citizens Into Dialogue About Affirmative Action and Education

By Miriam Schulman

In many ways, the most important part of the Common Ground Project begins when the public discussion is over.

A series of community forums, the project brings Bay Area residents together to discuss potentially divisive issues under the sponsorship of the San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Clara County Library System, San Francisco TV station KPIX, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Last year, forums dealt with affirmative action. Beginning in April, the focus shifted to public education.

Participants in the project are not experts; no panel of authorities holds forth on the subject; the discussions are not expected to produce any concrete agenda or result in consensus.

Indeed, over the course of the project, participants have often disagreed sharply. Here is an exchange about affirmative action as reported by Mercury News Vice President and Editor Rob Elder, also a member of the Ethics Center advisory board:

"Paul Cummins, a black minister, and Joel De Angelis, a white venture capitalist, found themselves at loggerheads over the importance of individual initiative. Cummins said he didn't know anyone of any color who didn't feel they'd gotten some help at some point in their lives that made a difference.

"'My mother sacrificed so that I could go to college,' he said. 'People died so that I could vote.'

"De Angelis seemed indignant at the concept. 'You're selling yourself short,' he said. 'You had to step up.' He insisted the individual was responsible for his own fate, period."

But, says County Librarian Susan Fuller, the public forums are only part of the story. "After the meetings, many times we see people with divergent views standing a long time in the parking lot talking to each other, listening, exchanging phone numbers," she says. "Usually, we tend to talk to the people who agree with us. This kind of forum gives people an opportunity to hear things outside of their regular experience."

When the library system and the Mercury News began the project in 1995, such exchanges were exactly what they had in mind. Elder notes that there aren't many venues in our society where people can deliberate together. "The media tend to be a common denominator," he says, but watching TV or reading a newspaper is an isolated activity. "There's not any give and take. To have a community, you have to be able to talk to people who disagree with you. The process of deliberating with other citizens is crucial to a democracy."

Neither the newspaper nor the library system expected agreement to arise out of these meetings. "The idea was that people would come together, express opinions, and begin to pick out areas where there was common ground," says Fuller. "We knew they wouldn't come to consensus in a two-hour meeting, but we hoped the program would be a catalyst, so people would begin the discussion and then move on on their own."

In fact, according to Elder, several of the groups that came together to discuss affirmative action have continued to meet. As for taking action on the issue, Elder points out that the California Civil Rights Initiative, which seeks to outlaw affirmative action in the state, will appear on the November ballot. "Then people will be faced with a choice about whether to abolish it or not. That will be a specific action they can take," he says.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics began working with the Common Ground Project just as the topic of the forums shifted from affirmative action to education. The Mercury News had taken a poll in Santa Clara County that showed public education was residents' No. 1 concern.

Some "listening meetings" were held in the spring to begin identifying a more manageable focus within the large subject of education. Participants expressed concerns ranging from the failure to teach phonics to the lack of funding for schools to the need for more praise in the classroom.

"Obviously, we needed a structure," says Fuller. "The structure we're developing essentially looks at the responsibility of all the actors in the schools: students, teachers, administrators, parents, businesses, community members. We hope to come up with a list that outlines where various responsibilities lie and don't lieÑwhat donÕt we expect the schools to do."

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Director Thomas Shanks, S.J., describes the Center's role in planning these new forums: "One of the most important questions for the planners and participants is how to respect the interests and needs of all the parties involved in the conversation. ThatÕs the starting place for the forums and for all discussions of ethics."

According to Shanks, public education provides a subject about which people disagree but where they also have significant communal interests. As such, it's an ideal topic for exploring the common good, an approach to ethics that views society as a community joined in the pursuit of shared values.

Shanks sees the Common Ground Project as one of the few large-scale public programs addressing the question, How do we come together as a community to figure out what values we share, and then how do we work to make those values concrete? "The project is a method for making the common-good theory real," he says.

Besides participating in planning the forums, the Center also hosted a town meeting August 15 in Santa Clara University's Mayer Theatre, which KPIX aired on August 16. The broadcast brought the discussion to members of the community who might not have attended the library forums.

In addition, the Common Ground Project has been extended to other areas in the state including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno, and Monterey, with local media and library partnerships in each city. Elder, Fuller, and Shanks are the local representatives on the statewide planning committee.