This post is from Tom Workman, Co-Director of the UHD Center for Public Deliberation.
I’ve just spent the last few months working in several communities across the country who are trying to reduce high-risk drinking among college students, as well as attending several meetings with fellow colleagues working on the issue on a national level. At the last meeting I attended — the Review Board for the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drug and Violence Prevention, I had an epiphany.
Actually, I had a re-epiphany, if that’s possible. I think I knew this long before this month, but my beliefs have become much more confirmed in the past month than ever before. I finally understood why a model that seemed so right from a Deliberative Democracy perspective was failing to show success in many parts of the country.
The model is the use of campus-community coalitions, and the concept is that a group of stakeholders from both the campus and community could collaboratively assess and seek to change the aspects of the local community that was enabling or encouraging destructive alcohol consumption. Many college towns are designed more for the heavy drinker than for anyone else, with lots of alcohol outlets surrounding the campus, many campus traditions and activities that have become centered in drinking or intoxication. Meanwhile, campuses have traditionally maintained lax policies or enforcement efforts of underage drinking, drinking and driving, acute intoxication, or the many problems that often come with it such as vandalism, fights, and sexual assault. The idea has been that a campus -community coalition can ”team together” and make the necessary changes to these environmental factors, influencing a healthier set of behaviors.
The model of a community coalition was recomended as “promising” by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) College Drinking Task Force report published in 2002, and was the major requirement of all colleges who participated in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “A Matter of Degree” program. But the evaluation of that ten school, ten million dollar, ten year project by the Harvard School of Public Health was mixed. Not all ten of the coalitions had the same degree of involvement, the same level of activity, nor the same amount of change. I’d guess we could say the same of the hundreds of campus-communities also employing the model. Sadly, it hasn’t worked as well as everyone had hoped it would in every community, but ( and here’s where the epiphany comes in!) the problem isn’t the coalition, it’s how they operate. The epiphany is that in many cases, coalitions themselves operate in “square-table” deliberation, as a small group of stakeholders tell the rest of the community what’s best for them.
If you’re unfamiliar with “square-table” deliberation, it’s because the term hasn’t made it to the linguistic main-stage (yet). It’s a term coined by Linda Major of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a brilliant community organizer who understands the role of collaboration and citizen involvement in solving community problems. Square tables have clearly delineated sides. One sits on one side and one sits on the other. Though both are “at the table,” they are disconnected.
In my experience, I’ve watched many community organizers try to change environments that enable high-risk drinking among youth by becoming expert-advocates, making their own set of plans, policies, and solutions, and then dictating them to the rest of the community. Expert-Advocates use science, statistics, “best practices” and public health models to determine what the community needs. They are convinced that they fully understand the problem, and know the exact causes and the correct solutions. Any other perspectives are dangerous and “diffuse” the cause; there can be no wavering, no negotiation. Those who don’t agree with these plans, or have issues with the plans, or have other ideas, sit at the opposite side of the table. They are the opponents. The two never share space. In fact, the expert-advocate is encouraged to use the media to support the correct position, and occasionally to show how wrong-headed the opposition actually is on the issue. It makes for dramatic news, but does little to build consensus.
None of the approaches suggested by the expert-advocate are in themselves wrong — in fact, they may be exactly what is needed to create an environment that best supports low-risk alcohol consumption. But in working from the square-table model, they can actually “win the battle but lose the war.” The problem with having opponents is that they, well, oppose you. The ”opponents” I’ve seen form in communities trying to address high-risk drinking among college students inc;lude bar owners, distributers, producers, occasional parents with different philosophies and attitudes about alcohol, and a host of others — not to mention the college students themselves. These are all folks I’d rather have collaborating with me than opposing me.
The opposite of the square table is the round table. Here, there are no sides. Everyone sits in the exact same position to everyone else, which means that there’s an open flow of discussion — and deliberation — to determine the exact scope of the problem, to consider potential causes, and to find agreement on a variety of solutions. We assume that we all have a shared responsibility for the condition of the environment – we all have a set of values about how we want to live, work, learn, and play, we all have a set of practices that we engage, and we all have some degree of agency in sustaining or changing the environment.
Most importantly, there are no opponents. There are people with different perspectives, experiences, interests, values, and opinions, some of which seem miles away from what public health science says is “best.” In a round-table formation, we can talk it through, share perspectives, and find common ground. We can invent our own solutions, or we can come to some understanding about what we need to give up in order to get what we want.
I’m begining to realize that having a coalition doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a round table involved in the community. In fact, many of the coalitions I’ve seen struggle have employed a square table, but rather than the expert-advocate, they’ve filled one side with a group of like-minded advocates they’ve called a coalition and have placed everyone else on the other side. The results of this way of organizing haven’t shown much success, while the one experience of a coalition that employed round-table thinking — the NU Directions Campus-Community Coalition run by Linda Major at the University of Nebraska — has seen dramatic changes in their environment and in student drinking behavior.
True deliberation, then, may be more than a great idea for citizen engagement. It may just be an important public health tool. And it certainly is a “next step” in how we train coalitions to become more successful changing the environments, cultures, and public health practices around them.