by Aaron Keith Kennard

“Every citizen has the duty to be informed, to be thoughtfully concerned, and to participate in the search for solutions.”

Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller

Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller placed extremely high importance on that “search for solutions.” He needed to hear as many different voices as possible when faced with a problem, a tactic mirrored by decision-makers today. Public dialogues provide opportunities for stakeholders and policymakers to glean from the public the things that matter to them. In a world of competing interests and divisive political rhetoric, places where ordinary people come together to share their views provide decision-makers with the most fertile grounds for determining what their focus should be. And in return, people feel that their voices are heard by those impacting their lives.

The above quote from Gov. Rockefeller guides the Institute’s participation in the Partnership for Democratic Practices in Arkansas. Working with the Clinton School of Public Service and the Central Arkansas Library System, the Partnership convenes opportunities for public dialogue on issues important to Arkansans, using a structure developed by the National Issues Forum. Dialogue participants are presented with background into a specific issue topic, then presented with three potential solutions for addressing the issue. Each solution is discussed individually, and then all three are compared to each other, allowing participants to think critically about how their values shape how they view potential solutions.

The public dialogues through the Partnership provide a space for many Arkansans to see the Institute’s Rockefeller Ethic in action. Participants engage in respectful dialogue with a diversity of opinions to work collaboratively and wrestle with potential solutions to issues that are important to them. Previous dialogues have weighed solutions to problems such as food access, election security, water conservation, and political division. 

Public dialogue on these and all issues is critical to creating transformational change. When a discussion succeeds in bringing people together to share their concerns on a subject and engages them in collaboratively discussing potential solutions, the solutions are more robust, and the participants feel a greater sense of responsibility for seeing the issue improve. This greater sense of responsibility leads to a greater sense of community, helping to bridge community divides.

Dialogues allow all of us, from citizens to decision-makers, to better understand the nuances of an issue by learning from others’ views. The impact of a problem on a specific population could be made apparent to someone who might not be a member of that population. 

And perhaps, most importantly, dialogue allows us to learn about other people’s perspectives and the values that inform them. Engaging in respectful conversation lets us articulate why something is important to us as individuals and understand why it is important to others. The more public dialogue that occurs in Arkansas, the more Arkansans can participate in democracy and bridge divides that prevent us from seeing other people’s viewpoints. More participation in democracy — a “duty,” as Winthrop put it — creates a stronger Arkansas.

Aaron Keith Kennard


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