March 20th, 2014

The Power of Sitting in Circle


NOTE: This blog post is cross-posted from the Groupaya blog, found here.

One early January morning two years ago, Jeff Conklin, Eugene Eric Kim, and I met at the Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Fairfield and drove on to Sacramento together. We went to talk with longtime stakeholders in the California Delta about a different way of thinking about the wickedly difficult problems of water and the Delta.

Last week was our penultimate meeting of the second phase of the project that resulted from that Sacramento trip: the Delta Dialogues. Over the past two years, the stakeholders have made amazing progress during monthly, daylong sessions and outside gatherings and phone calls. But it hasn’t been easy: I’ve walked into only two of those meetings feeling completely confident we would have a good session; during the other meetings, I’ve had to rely on hope and prayers that they would go well.

What was the difference between the two meetings and others?

The two meetings in which I felt confident were quite structured, with breakout groups that reported out their findings and conversations. The other meetings were not so structured. Yes, we have entered those sessions with clear goals and clear questions, but the process has mostly been one of sitting in circle in dialogue.

In other words, it has been a messy, unpredictable, emergent process. Campbell Ingram, the director and our client, has been remarkably comfortable and patient with the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the process. If he didn’t have the stomach for it, there is no way we could have come this far.

So how far have we come?

Of all of our dialogues, Friday was the one about which I was most happy. Why? More Delta Dialogues participants than ever before went beyond the predictable words that position their particular stakeholder group and instead indicated they wanted to find solutions that work for the whole water question, and for all stakeholders. That these comments and openness came at a time of drought and discord, when stakeholders were feeling how hard the Delta system is to change, was all the more remarkable.

The stakeholders weren’t putting their heads in the sand. One stakeholder declared that nothing could ever change because of century-old water rights. He had a point, of course; senior water rights seem inviolable, even holding up under conditions of drought.

But the response to that comment was surprising, and demonstrated the progress of the process. A farmer said, “Well, I’m one of those senior water rights holders… But nobody wins; nobody’s gonna comes out of this thing if we all sit back and say, ‘My position is sacrosanct and yours is impossible!’”

Those were world-changing words.

IMG_9561-300x200And we heard them again and again. An environmentalist acknowledged to a farmer that we need to find ways to ensure conservation lands serve both farmers and species. A water exporter, who has contributed to a $200 million effort to develop a plan for water conveyance, suggested that perhaps we need to erase the plan and start over.

As I reflected on the day, I was reminded of another dialogue circle I have participated in — my women’s circle – three times a year for over 15 years. When I sit in circle with them in our homes, I get to be in a conversation that is unlike the other conversations in my life. We listen deeply, we challenge one another’s thinking, and there is no goal beyond being together. And yet, we change. And we are different in two ways: We see the world differently, and we make a difference in a new way.

Over the years, I have watched this group of women lead more courageous lives. They’ve stepped off safe corporate paths, leaving the stability and security they provide, to follow their passions, even when it has led to less predictable ways of earning a living.

I believe that this sort of work — sitting in circle, deepening relationships with one another and supporting one another in thinking in more nuanced ways — gives individuals the courage to lead more visionary lives.

And yet, it can be hard to really understand the deep value of sitting in circle without experiencing it firsthand. We haven’t been able to get funding for a Phase III of the Delta Dialogues – it is hard to justify and explain the work that goes into preparing for each Delta Dialogues meeting. And yet for our participants, the value is clear. Despite super busy schedules and other places where they are wanted and needed, our participants keep coming back.

I wonder if they keep coming back for the same reasons why I keep coming back to my women’s circle. I have grown to love the women in the circle like family. They say things that used to drive me crazy, and now I simply feel fondness as I watch them do their thing, the way they do their thing.

I have often described my time in our circle as a “remembering” of myself. As we step back from the busyness of our daily lives, I remember who I am and what I really care about. I always leave renewed and inspired to live from my best self.

The Delta Dialogues participants, some of whom have sued and fought each other for years, have grown comfortable with each other. The meetings are full of laughter. They have a deeper understanding of each other, not only in terms of positioning on water issues but also in personal terms.

If Delta Dialogues participants go out into the world and are more visionary, more holistic in their thinking, more compassionate about other stakeholder groups, and more courageous in speaking up, that is a huge accomplishment. It’s not collective action, which is more tangible and exciting. But it is profound. It is individuals, supported and challenged by a circle, changing the world.

That’s the power of the Delta Dialogues. That’s the power of sitting in circle.

March 17th, 2014

Will the Delta Dialogues Send a Message?


The Delta Dialogues entered a period of change with its February gathering, as the facilitation team departed and participants summed up their work and accomplishments in preparation for writing a letter to state leaders and the public.Map Button

The change in the Delta Dialogues was apparent from the first minute of the February gathering, at Conaway Ranch in Woodland. Campbell Ingram of the Delta Conservancy stood at the front of the room, instead of facilitators Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin, who sat to either side. campbellThis would be the last meeting for the facilitators, because the funding to support their work has expired. The dialogues, Ingram explained, would continue along under the direction of the participants themselves.
“We are in transition,” Ingram said.

That introduction set up a daylong meeting during which the participants, representing a diverse group of stakeholders, took stock of the dialogues’ work so far, discussed how to tell the public about that work, and proposed questions to carry the Dialogues into the future.

“I think this is a valuable process and I hope it continues,” said Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman. “Personally why I think it’s valuable is that it does include Delta voices and most of the other conversations that are going on do not.”

“What the Delta Dialogues has gone through in the last year and a half that’s very important in my mind is just proving that we can talk to each other in a civil manner,” said Leo Winternitz, who recently retired from the Nature Conservancy.

houseAfter Ingram facilitated the first hour of the Dialogues – a preview of what he said would be three more meetings in the months to come — he turned the floor back over to Cobble. She then led an exercise in which participants used post-it notes to answer seven questions arrayed on easels around the room.
Those questions – and those post-it note/answers – were designed to assess the extent to which participants, after two years of meetings, had made progress and found common ground. The questions and answers, participants said, were to inform a letter from Dialogues participants that would be drafted in March and sent to state leaders and the public.

At the beginning of the second phase of the Dialogues last spring, participants had set the goal of communicating the work of the Dialogues to the public, with the goal of influencing public knowledge and ongoing policymaking. But there has been no official communication between the Dialogues and the public. A letter – which the participants said would show how the participants had built trust and communicated well, and exported what they learned and agreed upon as a group – would fill that void.

participantsAs they discussed the letter, discussion focused on the fourth of seven questions: Where has common ground been found among the participants?

The answer involved the value of a process like the Dialogues, that includes diverse stakeholders, including those excluded from other processes, and that has ground rules designed to encourage listening, thinking, and conversations that produced deeper, shared understanding.

The common ground included broad agreement that questions still need to be considered around the possibility of including hybrid conveyance with an intake in the Western Delta. The interest in the Western Delta was related to the shared understanding that there is a need for physical assurances in the Delta, in part because the trust of stakeholders – from Delta residents to water contractors – had been broken in the past when promised projects and benefits failed to materialize.

shared understandingOther points on which participants had found common ground, by their own account: the need for the improvement of the Delta ecosystem, the risks of silver bullet and “mega” solutions; that compromise and collaboration are needed; and that trying to envision a future Delta could be the path to more common ground.

It wasn’t clear if the letter would be signed or exactly what form it would take. (Your storyteller was asked to help draft it). Steve Chappell of Suisun Resource Conservation worried aloud that a letter like this could pose risks for participants representing state agencies and perhaps other participants as well. “We have to remember the political risk for not advocating for your group in the letter,” he said.

stickiesModerator Kristin Cobble, Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, and Paul Helliker of DWR also had an exchange over whether the letter should include calls for more transparency. Helliker said that he didn’t understand the objection to BDCP’s transparency – given all the many different versions of the BDCP documents that have been publicly released and the hundreds of public meetings held throughout the Delta and elsewhere. Piepho countered that the mass of material was hard to navigate, and Cobble pointedly said in response that transparency had to be married with participation by stakeholders.

Assessments of the process were positive, though facilitator Conklin, in his concluding remarks, criticized himself for three “failures”. 1. The fact that the work done in the dialogues had not gotten out and noticed in the legislature and to the public. 2. The lack of continuity in the group, as participants came and went through Phase 2, and the resulting difficulties with continuity. 3. The inability to get the most of dialogue mapping process that mapped the conversations throughout the meetings.

birdsAttendance was an issue for the February meeting. There were no Delta farmers or exporters, in part because some were called away to an emergency meeting on the drought.

The participants also made a list of topics and questions for more study as the Dialogues continue—questions that ranged from porous levees and the possibilities of a West Delta intake, to questions of overall water supply, to the management of groundwater. One line of questions involved how to reconfigure the BDCP to provide physical assurances to stakeholders, reduce the impact of conveyance on the North Delta, and provide sufficient flow for fish and people.