Friday, January 28, 2011

News from Russell Forum for Civic Life

After a short break, the Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia is back in action for 2011 and will be rolling out an engaging array of programs and training for the year ahead! Beginning in February and running through 2012, Russell Forum plans to offer forums in venues in the Athens area that focus on the economy, education and the job market, and polarization and politics. We are also developing two new workshops scheduled for later this spring. The first will provide training in advanced moderating techniques. The second will showcase a streamlined approach to framing community issues called “framing on the fly” that allows groups to develop a basic framework for discussing tough issues in just a few days. Stay tuned for details and dates for these exciting new programs!

Meanwhile, another great aspect of the Russell Forum’s work is that from time to time we get an opportunity to test drive new issue guides still in development. This month the Kettering Foundation asked us to host a test forum for its new National Issues Forums guide, “What Should Go on the Internet: Privacy, Freedom, and Security”. The topic considers what we put on the Internet and explores the concerns the public has about this tremendous resource. We gathered a group of fifteen dedicated Russell Forum attendees to thresh a preliminary version of the issue guide. Brad Rourke, one of the guide’s authors, was on hand to observe the discussion and take notes as things progressed. When an issue guide gets to the test phase, the developers like to see how it goes over with group of participants. Are there particular kinks? Is the language confusing? Is the guide shaped so that it leads participants to deliberation OR are there problems that serve as hang-ups to the discussion? Jill Severn and I moderated the forum and here are just a few notes and musings that Jill shared about the “test-drive” of the new issue book:

“I think the new privacy and the Internet issue book will be a great resource for people and their communities. My sense as a moderator is that although most of the participants at our test forum accept and indeed appreciate many aspects of their wired world, some if not all of have some ambivalence about its impact on their lives. As one participant expressed, the Internet engages people's brains and asks them to make sound judgments in new arenas and to adjust or reexamine their old relationships to the wider world. This can be a messy process for people who experience the transition from old ways to new ways and some of the forum participants described a wistful longing for simpler and more holistic times. For younger participants who have grown up always knowing the wired world, the concerns about privacy and security were present, but were expected and part of the normal set of risks they negotiate.

This experience of the change brought on by technology reminds me of the research I did on people's experience of getting electricity in rural areas here in Georgia in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Most everyone was excited to get lights, and other benefits of electricity, but initially, many people had little understanding of exactly what the potential of this new technology might be--some were afraid of it, some ascribed fantastical properties to it such as the fear often expressed that the electricity would leak out of the wires, and some adopted it selectively mixing it with their old practices such as having a refrigerator but still cooking food with a wood stove.

When people and communities have to make a transition from one way of being to another one of the things that helps them make sense of this process is meaningful conversation and discussion. This forum topic should give people navigating this current transition a great basis to make sense and move forward.”

The discussion was rich and hopefully our feedback (and that of our participants) gave Brad good food for thought!

Another neat Russell Forum initiative is a project with a small group of University of Georgia faculty, exploring ways to bring civic engagement into the classroom. Entitled, “Making the Academic more than Academic," this faculty learning community is exploring how they might incorporate National Issues Forums, World Café, and Study Circles models for dialogue into their courses. It’s been great to share our knowledge of NIF and its possibilities with them and also to have a chance to learn more about other approaches that we haven’t had much experience with. Heather Cummings Jensen, a colleague from the UGA campus, will lead our group through a World Café experience in late February and then the group will look at Everyday Democracy’s Study Circles to close out the academic year. We hope to give some of these other civic engagement programs some room in our calendar of events for Russell Forum as we become more familiar with them.

I hope this update has energized you and made you want exercise your civic muscle! Join us for a community forum on the new National Issues Forums issue guide, Economic Security: How Should We Take Charge of Our Future? on Friday, February 25th from 3:30-5 p.m. in the Russell Library Auditorium. This forum is part of nationwide effort to have an authentic and constructive conversation about how we as Americans can best take charge of the future so our families can feel reasonably secure, parents can help their children prosper, and everyone can move toward a financially stable retirement.

As always, if you’re interested in the work of Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia, you can find out more at our website: OR by contacting us at OR by calling (706) 542-5788.

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