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Negotiating the Crossroads: Civic Engagement in the 21st Century
David D. Chrislip

Traditionally, all societies have used enduring stories as guideposts for dealing with social and political issues within their own cultures. Our contemporary, multi-cultural society often brings these stories into conflict. We Americans find ourselves at a crossroad or, more accurately, at a series of crossroads where many stories collide. How do we negotiate these crossroads? How do we create new, more inclusive and constructive stories? How do we find common ground in a world of constant flux, full of contradictory yet convincing stories? How do we move from conflict to what we have in common and from confrontation to dialogue? How can we create new stories that will help guide us toward solutions to social and political problems in American civic life? Without re-imagining the relationship of us and them and the adversarial stories about how civic change occurs, common ground will remain elusive.

Despite the confrontational nature of much of American politics, in some places citizens and local governments negotiate their way through competing interests and obligations in ways that offer hope. They create inclusive and constructive public processes that complement and work in parallel with the formal institutions of governance to reduce the divisiveness of adversarial politics to reach common ground. Citizens work together; that is, they collaborate by including both us and them in the engagement. They take the time to learn about alternative approaches to public problems and learn new roles for supporting them. Rather than using resistance and confrontation, they create forums where contending points of view can be legitimized and understood and use dialogue to facilitate the emergence of a broader consensus. These engagements build a stronger, more inclusive sense of shared identity that respects distinctive cultural and individual identities. Since each place faces different challenges and has its own political dynamics, no one model or process fits every community or region. General principles of collaboration shape each of these processes yet allow the flexibility to meet particular needs.