The Experience of being in a Citizens’ Assembly: I Will Never Be the Same

by Marion Sharp

Marion Sharp

The experience of being a panelist in a citizen assembly process (in this case, a Citizens Initiative Review) changed me – and changed my perspective on how the world could work.

I went into this experience . . . curious, but definitely skeptical. I had recently attended a large one-day event that had a similar intent as a citizen assembly. It was interesting . . . but there were several important elements that didn’t build my trust and confidence in the event and the process. And for one, I do think it requires more than one day.

So when I arrived in Salem, Oregon to participate in a citizens assembly examining 2010 Ballot Measure 73, Oregon Minimum Criminal Sentence Increase – I was once again curious, but even more cautious and skeptical.

The experience of being a panelist in a Citizens' Assembly process changed me - and changed my perspective on how the world could work.

Here is the statement that we produced at the end of the week that was published in the 2010 Voters Pamphlet in Oregon. I can tell you that this accurately reflects ALL of our work and our positions. We reviewed every single note that was taken, every summary of what was said, AND we were directed to question anything that did not seem to reflect what any one of us (and all of us collectively) had said. This was understandably missing in the one-day event – our group notes disappeared to a panel of event staff who summarized and transformed what each group contributed to create a final document. There was no ability to determine what happened to our group’s contribution and no opportunity to raise questions and concerns about what was produced.

This is part of the dilemma of a one-day event, there’s just not enough time – and the citizens assembly was a full week. A huge and relevant difference. With a several day event, there is time to build relationships (aka trust) and to more completely understand the many issues involved.

I would note this is in contrast to picking up my Voter’s Pamphlet, skimming it quickly and filling out my ballot.

Here is one key ‘ingredient’ for me of the deliberative process – one of many. We were introduced to the idea of ‘stay in listening/learning mode’. So as more and more information was introduced over the week, we were reminded frequently to keep listening and keep learning. Here is one example of the impact of that for me – occurring during the first few hours of the week.

That first morning we were working through an example in order to practice the process. In my group we were discussing the example and the person next to me began talking. Very quickly I could tell that we were on very different pages politically and my ‘natural’ reaction kicked in . . . . including “OMG, I’m not going to like anything this person says and if this is what the discussions are going to be like, this is not going to be fun.” But then I remembered the ‘stay in listening/learning mode’ . . . and so I kept listening. And a few minutes later, I was stunned.

I agreed with him.

How is that possible? I guarantee in ‘normal’ circumstances I would have stopped listening, filled my head with reactions and waited for him to finish. And avoided him the rest of the week. I would never have heard the part where I agreed with him.

Instead we became friends and we were standing next to each other at the news conference at the end of our deliberation when they took our group picture in front of the state capitol.

There were many more amazing moments during this week-long process. But that one really touched my heart and forever changed me. And I really think these kinds of experiences, engaged in often, could change our world.