Catalyzing Community Change through Deliberative Dialogue

August 26, 2020 Jesi Carson, Participedia Team
August 24, 2020 Joyce Wong

A research study that seeks to understand how action and change arise from deliberative dialogue and what support is needed to facilitate action and change.

Problems and Purpose

How does action and change arise from deliberative dialogue? What supports are needed to facilitate action and change? Understanding and identifying the conditions and supports needed to facilitate change and action may provide insight for other communities seeking positive social change through deliberative dialogue. 

Background History and Context

Six communities across the United States: Selma, Alabama, Syracuse, New York, Wagner, South Dakota, Montgomery County, Maryland, Huntington, West Virginia, and Springfield Missouri have all seen positive social change arise through the practice of deliberative dialogue. Although these six communities vary in context, a research study was initiated to learn more about how action and change emerge from deliberative dialogues and what supports may be needed in the process through studying these six communities. 

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

This research study was conducted by i2i Institute’s for Everyday Democracy and the Kettering Foundation.   

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The six sites were selected by the Kettering Foundation and Everyday Democracy. Community representatives and members from each site engaged with this research study.  

Goals of the Deliberative Dialogue process at the Six Sites:  

Selma, Alabama: Address poverty and youth violence 

Syracuse, New York: End racism, promote interfaith understanding 

Wagner, South Dakota: Address community race relations 

Montgomery County, Maryland: Close the race-based achievement gap in public schools 

Huntington, West Virginia: Help people connect more fully to public issues, to promote public dialogue 

Springfield, Missouri: Minimize economic challenges, improve civic infrastructure, reduce poverty 

Methods and Tools Used

Research was conducted through a Learning Community. A Learning Community is an “organized but flexible structure that provides participant stakeholders the opportunity to develop connections, share lessons, explore ideas, and improve their effectiveness as deliberative practitioners” in their communities. [1] The Learning Community consisted of representatives and members of the six communities.  

A participatory research and emphasis on inductive reasoning characterized the method used in this study. Eighteen interviews were conducted during each site visit. Ripple mapping sessions were conducted and over two hundred documents and qualitative sources were analyzed.  

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

An initial “exploratory” meeting launched off this project in May 2012. Four “Learning Community” in-person meetings with the full project team occurred between July 2013 through November 2014. From April to August 2015, five site visits were conducted in Syracuse, NY, Selma, AL, Springfield, MO, Wagner, SD, and West Virginia followed by a Final “Learning Community” meeting in November 2015.  

Initial meetings focused on developing the five research questions to guide data collection. The five research questions were:  

  1. How do project leaders and communities think about/define dialogue, deliberation, “action and change” in relationship to their work? 
  2. How does the initial framing affect action and change in communities? 
  3. What actions and changes are stimulated by dialogue/deliberation and how does this happen? 
  4. What can we learn about supporting action and change before, during and following the dialogue? 
  5. How are race, equity, and inclusivity incorporated in the work? 

In addition, the six sites and Learning Community members facilitated interviews, reported back on research outcomes, and tested the “change model” developed during this project with the sites.  

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Understanding Action and Change: Three ways that action and change were categorized and identified as a result of the deliberative dialogue process:  

  • Action External to Process: Specific actions that result in positive community change 
  • Action Internal to Process: Actions or changes among participants engaged in the dialogues such as relationship building or hearing different perspectives  
  • Alternate to Status Quo: Dialogue as the change to what is culturally “the norm” in a community 

How does action/change arise?  

The Change Model: The intersection of three critical “spheres” or components- developing relationships, building trust, and “expanding the landscape”- is where the opportunity for action/change in a dialogue process was most potent. “Expanding the landscape” is defined as positive changes in vision, community capacity, and empowerment for individuals, communities, or institutions.  

In addition, four focus areas were identified as helpful in assessing whether a community has the three critical components. These four focus areas correspond to the three components indicated in the parenthesis.  

  • Who is Present: Recruitment, retention, community leaders, system actors (Developing Relationships) 
  • Sense of Ownership: Levels of community “buy-in” (Building Trust) 
  • Access to Resources: External and internal resources activated by the dialogues (Expanding the Landscape and Developing Relationships) 
  • Where Communities Start From: Understanding initial community conditions, contexts, or using a “readiness” tool or assessment (Expanding Landscape and Building Trust) 

Principles that are successful to moving from dialogue to action to change:  

  • Respecting Community Agency: More “buy-in” and greater ownership of the change process occurs when the community leads the process in identifying problems and solutions.  
  • Framing for Action: Building in the expectation for action before and during the dialogues can position a community to move towards action and change 
  • Identifying helpful participants: Recruiting the “right” people to participant is important. “Right” people could include individuals who are most impacted by the issue, excluded because of structural barriers, have political power or are well-connected to the community.  
  • Knowing the community: Understanding the community context such as both the barriers and opportunities that exist for community participant. 
  • Addressing inequities and being inclusive: Using an equity lens to assess the four focus areas: Who is Present, Sense of Ownership, Access to Resources, and Where Communities Start From and explicitly including race, equity, and inclusivity throughout the dialogue process 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Although all six sites varied greatly in their contexts and goals, there was agreement that deliberative dialogue as a process towards change and action was fundamentally valuable for their communities. Equity and inclusion also needed to be incorporated throughout the deliberative dialogue process. Additional research could include applying and evaluating the Change Model with more communities that engaged in a deliberative dialogue process. Developing tools, protocols, and resources based on the insights from this research project could further support communities seeking change through dialogues.  

See Also


  1. Moore, Marah and Summer Wood.  Catalyzing Community Change through Deliberative Dialogue. i2i Institute. 2016, 3.  

External Links