EPP Challenges: "New Activism"
This is a blog post from Frank Dukes - a long time EPP section member. We hope you will share responses to his post and join the discussion in either the comments below or on the EPP LinkedIn discussion for this topic.
The E/PP field, and by extension the Section, faces a challenge that may either overwhelm or transform us. Like a kayaker facing a large boulder in a river, which forces the streaming water to one side, or over, we must decide how we will confront this challenge.
I am referring to what some have called the "New Activism". This term encompasses a range of opposition to our work and a similar opposition to conventional public policy and planning practices. Although including most prominently some Tea Party members, who may indeed make up a majority of this opposition, this opposition also includes those who would claim no affiliation and, in some cases, those who would associate with the "Occupy" movement.
Although local expressions of this opposition may not claim any affiliation at all, there are national efforts to lead this anti-planning, anti-government initiative. For example, the American Policy Center (http://americanpolicy.org/) offers a kit to help activists fight the United Nations Agenda 21, which they claim drives planning efforts in the United States. The fact that few public officials have ever heard of Agenda 21, or that it has no legal status in local, state or federal government, is merely taken as evidence of its sinister nature, rather than as a rebuttal.
Our field has faced similar challenges before. Indeed, all segments of environmental or public policy conflict resolution stakeholders have a certain skepticism that their goals may be compromised by participation in a process that they may not have experienced before. This skepticism is a healthy concern that ensures that we keep our practice sharp. But during the late 1990s and continuing into the next decade, we were confronted with a substantial segment of the environmental advocacy community who believed that our practices placed their goals at a disadvantage.
The concern of the environmental advocacy community was deeper, structural and widely publicized. They, too believed that we were largely biased; in this case it was a perceived bias against advocacy and confrontation as well as against legitimate representative practices of democratic governance. Many of us responded by inviting them to tell us their stories and concerns; those of you active in E/PP then will recall a series of sessions titled "Listening to Our Publics" at national and regional events. My own Institute for Environmental Negotiation, working with the National Audubon Society and The Wilderness Society, led a year-long process of engagement that resulted in publication of Collaboration: A Guide for Environmental Advocates. And those concerns largely eroded as we took them seriously, adapted where change was needed, and explained where change was not appropriate.
This situation is different, although I would agree that listening to and understanding the concern of the New Activists are useful responses, especially at the local level. And we do need to demonstrate best practices, such as use of clear and respectful language. We need to set clear values and expectations about what is and is not acceptable, to ensure clarity of process, and to implement strong, clear groundrules that promote fairness, safety and access for all. We need to ensure a clear agenda with opportunities for input are established.
While some colleague might disagree with this approach – seeking to understand, emphasizing best practices – I would expect that most would agree with its value.
But I think this is insufficient to the challenge. I think that we also need to be much stronger advocates for the work that we do. What does that mean?
I recently led a training for planners and other public officials who have been confronted by these activists with challenges to their planning and public involvement processes, and even challenges to the (constitutional) structure of government that they represent. One segment of that training gave an opportunity for participants to articulate the values that underlay their planning and public processes. And, to my dismay, the participants could not do so.
I know what I wanted them to say: that public planning ensures safety, avoids costly duplication of services, and promotes the transparency of, access to, and responsiveness of government that is enshrined in the constitution. Without good public planning for water quality and supply, for transportation, for schools, for economic development, we would have – and, in places that have ineffective planning, sometimes do have – our children drinking contaminated water and important but troublesome and even dangerous facilities located in our poorest communities. Without public planning we have closed-door decisions that, if history is a gauge, privilege those behind those closed doors and burden those left out of the process.
I wonder how many of you reading this post can articulate what values you are serving? Is it possible that the most common response to this question would be “neutrality?” During a webinar last winter, I noted that few people outside of our field believe that third parties are 'neutral,' and in fact that this claim may lead to distrust (as the claim is seen as false) and even active dislike (as neutrality itself, which may be seen as uncaring, or absence of thoughtfulness, or unwillingness to acknowledge injustice, is not wanted).
I suggest that our values are rooted, not in neutrality, but in democratic practice. More specifically, I suggest that our values begin by recognizing a distinction between good and bad public speech. Bad public speech relies upon claims based upon ideology rather than fact, denigrating humanity of one’s opponents, bounded participation. Bad public speech can drive out good public speech and leave no room for creative problem solving. Bad public speech leaves the public sphere with a far smaller range of options, and drives out those seeking affinity and protections of civic participation. It is less humane and offers less legitimacy to the results.
Good public speech is inclusive, seeks access to good information, promotes understanding of others' perspectives, encourages creativity, and promotes learning and caring. Good public speech invariably brings a much better range of options, more humane range of options, and more legitimacy for those options. Good public speech may also drive out bad public speech.
To be an advocate for our values means standing up for the constitutional rights enshrined in the first amendment. The Constitution declares the right for all – not just those shouting the loudest, or showing up in the biggest numbers, but all – to participate in public processes.
To be an advocate for our values means being willing publicly and forcefully to be an advocate for good public speech and against bad public speech. It means being willing to disagree with those who without any factual basis criticize the principles of our work. This may include our use of editorials, letters to the editor, public debates, or disagreements in the middle of meetings.
Do you see yourself in this quote? If so, where? What are your values? “But it's clear that our current notions of tolerance are dangerously flaccid. It no longer will do, as Isaiah Berlin once pointed out, to shrug and say: I believe in kindness and you believe in concentration camps, and let's leave it at that. That's not tolerance; it's indifference in which respect for free speech is less a value than an alibi.” – Timothy Rutten
The first amendment to the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.