Spurred by changing demographics and community growth in the 1990s, the Kuna Alliance for a Cohesive Community Team (ACT) initiated a community-wide Study Circles programme, the oldest in the US, for a grassroots democratic deliberative process.
Problems and Purpose
The Kuna Alliance for a Cohesive Community Team (ACT) and its supporters knew they needed a vehicle to provide an infrastructure of collaborative discussion; they required a place where citizens could gain ownership of the issues as well as discover and maintain common ground, creating a greater desire and ability to work together to solve local issues. What was needed was a community information gathering source: a place where the community gets a voice, a neutral setting facilitated by a non-profit, non-political, non-partisan group. Citizens needed a voice before decisions were made. Until the project's initiation, the only voice came from people showing up at meetings furious about a controversial issue or decisions made without input. Community leaders developed a plan to implement grassroots decision making, where study circle participants knew their ideas would reach the agencies that requested the information to be implemented into public policy. The goal was not a single event, but to be persistent in changing the way decisions were and are made in Kuna through a perpetual system webbed into the lifeblood of the Kuna Community.
Background History and Context
Kuna ACT Study Circles began as concerned organizations and citizens came together to create community-wide awareness to, and identify possible solutions to the burgeoning community. During the late 1990s, the community of Kuna was experiencing phenomenal growth of up to 17 percent. Residents' concerns included growing drug use, gang activity, school buildings bursting at the seams, political wrangling, and lack of constructive communication between major political subdivisions in the community. City, school and community leaders were at an impasse. There was need of a trusted arena for open communication. Leaders and citizens alike were becoming tired of confrontation and desperate for resources. All residents were concerned about maintaining Kuna’s relaxed hometown atmosphere while addressing being among the fastest growing communities in the nation. While they watched bordering cities grow faster than their plans, Kuna wanted to manage their growth. Leaders and citizens resolved to move their community forward with the strength of synthesis provided by the deliberative democratic process. Subsequently, the Kuna ACT (Alliance for a Cohesive Community Team) was created “to improve the communication in our community by giving people a greater voice in making decisions, helping residents and organizations work together to solve problems, [and] getting citizens involved in long-term planning” .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Kuna Study Circles were initiated by the Alliance for a Cohesive Community Team (ACT), in partnership with Everyday Democracy/The Paul J. Aicher Foundation (formerly Study Circles Resource Center/Topsfield Foundation). The process was lead by the ACT with guidance ongoing support and training from the partner organizations. Everyday Democracy Program Manager Matt Leighninger proved an indispensible resource and anchor not only for the Alliance's beginnings, but in helping them with sound ideas and examples as they personalized a unique system for the Kuna Community. The resulting system continues to grow as the community collectively communicates through many issues and challenges.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
People are recruited to praticipate in study circles through the various groups and organizations to which they belong. This kind of recruitment goes beyond the old government practice of simply calling meetings and hoping people show up; the key is to map the community, figure out what people belong to, and get people within those groups and organizations to recruit people they already know. ACT makes it their priority to assemble a large and diverse body of citizens. To this end, the organization has engaged the Migrant Family Liaison to personally invite all Spanish speakers to all school related study circles. Spanish-speaking facilitators and recorders were present at these events and discussions were conducted in their native language. Recordings were later translated and incorporated into the official Study Circle public report.
Methods and Tools Used
The Alliance for Community Cohesion's work to implement deliberative, participatory democracy within the community goes beyond the use of study circles. Approaches taken by the group include:
- Involving participants in a combination of small- and large-group meetings - that is, structured, facilitated small groups for reasoned, deliberative dialogue; and large forums for sharing information, amplifying shared conclusions, and moving from talk to action. One common mistake made in other communities has been using large meetings for things (like dialogue) that only small meetings can do, and vice versa.
- Giving the participants in these meetings the opportunity to compare values and experiences, and to consider a range of views and policy options. People have to be able to connect these issues to their own lives and what matters to them.
- Effecting change in a number of ways, such as by applying citizen input to policy and planning decisions; by encouraging change within organizations and institutions; by creating teams to work on particular action ideas; and by inspiring and connecting individual volunteers.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
Kuna’s established process is often tailored to match the needs of the issue, but has these basic features:
- A community concern is voiced. The Study Circle process is requested by the relevant professional entities.
- The Coordinator organizes public meetings implements wide variety of public invitation and notification.
- Study Circles convene. During this process, discussion begins with a general presentation to those in attendance setting the stage by providing basic factual information Attendees aredivided into small diversified groups, given information packets, and groups are dispersed to reflect on discussion questions. Each group is led by a trained, impartial facilitator and supported by a recorder that documents confidential input from participants. The Coordinator synthesizes the recommendations that come to the top into a public document for dispersal. This document is presented personally to the asking entity by the Coordinator or Kuna ACT Team. A full copy is maintained at the public library and emailed to all citizens requesting a copy. A report is also filed with the media.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The preeminent solution provided by these efforts is a trusted avenue of community involvement through a grassroots deliberative democratic process.
Kuna ACT has organized multiple Study Circles in the Kuna Community since its beginning in 1999. The unique circle format has provided the community with valuable input for decision-making, and many solutions.
Solutions have been successful by holding Study Circles addressing the following issues :
- “Keeping a Quality Kuna” which focused on managing the growth of the community and sustaining infrastructure towards positive planning and development, education, public safety, quality of life, physical appearance of the community services, recreation and government;
- “Disaster Planning” where resources from all available entities came together in one room to provide a plan and an emergency disaster plan was instituted;
- “Planning for the Kuna We Want” involving collected input presented to the Planning and Zoning commission. Citizen input provided information for decisions on diversity of housing, development of commercial and industrial areas, protection of the ecosystem of Indian Creek which runs through town, working towards providing a recreation district, the priority of curbs and sidewalks, development of parks, and a new sewer system infrastructure.
- “Bond for Kuna Schools” and as a result, a $15.2 million bond passed which had originally been defeated;
- “Teen Talk” written and carried out by student leaders in Kuna High School;
- “Developing a theme for the City of Kuna”, resulting in a beautification plan and mission statement being formulated
- “Juvenile Justice Program” which established the Kuna Juvenile Justice Council which is still actively serving first time offenders in the community;
- “School Tax Bond Leveling” in which the School Board received input from the community before deciding to implement bond leveling;
- “Kuna Services and Curriculum Planning” where input supported a School Resource Officer, another bond with priorities in using the monies for 3 new elementary schools and upkeep on existing buildings and citizens becoming involved in the District Curriculum Development Committee.
- “Developing School Zones and Configuration” where the School Board passed approval to adopt boundaries and implement a new school configuration - this was a very heated conversation with administration, teachers and parents in polarized conflict. Once aseries of study circles were held, a more peaceable implementation occurred than was ever anticipated.
- “What High School Graduates Should Know and Be Able to Do” involving over 150 diverse citizens, from recent high school graduates to retired folk prioritizing important knowledge and skills Kuna High School students should obtain by graduation. The outcomes from this have been complied into binders which are used for present decision-making by school administration.
- “Budget Crisis” where because of the economic downturn, the school district has gone to the public using the Kuna ACT protocol to get input for hard decisions as they face tighter budgets for schools. Because of this process, hard decisions have been made with understanding and support from parents and patrons of the school district.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
A full analysis of this intitiative was undertaken by Archon Fung of the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Briefly, his findings include :
- Limited information is available on participation rates but the ACT has made significant strides towards increasing participation and interest in the programme, evidenced by the high attendance rates, with approximately 100 participants per circle on average.
- While there are a core group of individuals that attend most events, participation shifts depending on the topic. This indicates the programme is reaching the relevant stakeholders in policy areas under focus for each event (eg. land use vs school funding).
- The organization appears to lack the funding needed to conduct an extensive outreach campaign.
- Based on participnt testimony, it appears that the Study Circles are effective in bringing new ideas and perspectives to light. Dr. Fung notes that participants "repeatedly cite the important role played by ground rules, facilitators, randomization of groups, and neutral discussion questions as contributing to the quality of dialogue that takes place" .
- Highly controversial topics tend to attract participants with strong opinions (who are, therefore, less willing to change their minds) while more 'neutral' topics tend to generate more original ideas and collaborative decision making.
- The project's longevity is testament to its embeddedness in the community.
- Kuna ACT acts as n "institutional home and sponsor" for the active participation of residents in community deliberation .
- The ACT provides a service to the decision makers by hosting and facilitating high-quality public deliberations on important community issues. According to Fung, "a significant number of community leaders from several different institutions seem to have bought into the idea that greater public participation in controversial decision making is desirable and that Study Circles are the appropriate venue for supporting that participation" .
- The organization dedicates itself to non-partisanship and neutrality which has allowed it to transcend political struggles and maintain a good standing with a wide range of stakeholders.
- The use of Study Circles for multiple issues has avoided pigeon-holing of the programme, helping it to maintain its relevancy even as new issues present themselves.
 Archon Fung, "Kuna Case Study," Kettering Foundation, November 4, 2004, http://www.archonfung.net/papers/KetteringMeet/KunaCase.pdf
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Arnette Johnson.
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