Dialogue & Deliberation is one collaborative approach within ASTC’s Community Science Framework, built from various applications of related principles and research. We consider Dialogue & Deliberation a foundational approach because it is focused on surfacing common values and making clear priorities through a process of co-creation with your partner. This approach represents a set of processes with the shared goal of increasing understanding, resolving conflicts (where they exist), and developing recommendations to address community priorities.
What's Dialogue & Deliberation All About?
Watch the video below to hear expert Dialogue & Deliberation practitioners break down the basics of this approach to community science, including Courtney Breese from the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation and ASTC Community Science Dialogue & Deliberation Fellows, Kristan Uhlenbrock (Denver Museum of Nature & Science) and David Valentine (Science Museum of Minnesota).
Click the topics below to learn more.
Dialogue & Deliberation does not have a singular, agreed-upon definition. You may come across practitioners who hold a different interpretation of this term or refer to the same approach as “deliberative democracy” or call a deliberative event a “forum”. The description below encompasses what ASTC’s Community Science Initiative means by Dialogue & Deliberation.
Dialogue is a conversation in which convening participants learn more about a topic and about each other’s values, experiences, and perspectives. Dialogue aims to create a sense of trust and openness, so participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas and listening deeply to viewpoints different from their own. Successful dialogue can increase empathy among participants, clarify misunderstandings, and reveal underlying assumptions.
Deliberation is a more directed form of conversation geared toward making a decision about a specific course of action. Deliberation allows participants to closely examine options, share preferences, and learn from one another in order to make an informed, democratic choice. Successful deliberation can help participants balance power dynamics in decision-making, examine the pros and cons of various options, and directly discuss how people’s differing values influence their decisions.
“We made decisions together. We kept talking more and more and it landed on sustainable practices… Then we really dug deep. We spent a whole meeting discussing it, and then we took some time, and then we decided on the final topic at the next meeting.” — Claudia Martinez, International Museum of Art and Science
Although we can define “Dialogue” and “Deliberation” separately, the two elements are complementary, and both are fundamental to the process. Dialogue & Deliberation efforts often begin with dialogue and then move into deliberation. However, the distinction between the two is not always clear, nor does it need to be in order to host a successful event or series of events. Dialogue & Deliberation can take many forms, but nearly all processes involve facilitators, offer materials that frame the discussion, include a diverse mix of community members, experts, and stakeholders, and are designed to produce actionable insights to advance community priorities.
Ultimately, Dialogue & Deliberation aims to address a community priority. It is an approach that does not rely solely on academic experts or elected officials, but instead centers the idea that communities—defined here as diverse groups of people with shared priorities and interests—should have a say in matters that impact them, that they have valuable insights to offer, and that the work they do in service of solving a problem is indispensable.
This approach entreats communities, policymakers, advocacy partners, and science engagement practitioners to identify actionable goals and co-develop solutions in a productive, democratic way, which is essential in the face of issues that demand immediate action. When done thoughtfully, Dialogue & Deliberation can also help shift historically entrenched power dynamics and flatten traditional hierarchies, making more space for those who experience systemic and institutional inequities.
“I think there’s something very healing and trust-building and restorative about the way that the community can come together. This event really left an impression as to just how powerful and important that can be—just building relationships and building trust and building some shared excitement.” — Colleen O’Connor Toberman / Land Use & Planning Program Director, Friends of the Mississippi River
Dialogue & Deliberation is not like other forms of communication that are frequently applied to societal issues, such as debates, town hall meetings, or expert Q&As. Dialogue & Deliberation builds on areas of agreement and mutual understanding, unlike debates, for instance, which focus on points of disagreement. Debates are competitive, with a focus on “winning” or “being right,” whereas Dialogue & Deliberation is cooperative, with a focus on moving forward together.
At town-hall meetings and expert Q&A sessions, community members often have limited time to make a statement or ask questions, while the policymaker or expert controls the conversation. Dialogue & Deliberation makes space to uncover common ground across diverse groups and individuals, often seeking consensus across all participants. Consensus does not necessarily mean all parties receive their most ideal outcome, but rather, through open dialogue, participants discuss how their interests can be met in mutually agreeable ways. Dialogue & Deliberation allows for multi-directional conversation between community members, policymakers, and experts, which can shift power dynamics and produce new and unique solutions.
“It was a lot of intellectual conversations and very open conversations where people were creating solutions, creating ideas, and hearing from people that we might not have had the space to ever speak to. We had a high school student talking with the city’s mayor to give him ideas about what they can do. It was really nice to see that collaboration of different roles in the community.” — A community-based organization who partnered with a museum on a Dialogue & Deliberation event
Many problems that communities currently face are complex and lie at the intersection of science, technology, and human well-being—for example, local flooding or health inequities. Science and technology center professionals often have important insights to share about these topics and are skilled in communicating complex concepts to a wide range of audiences; often, they also have experience in designing and facilitating interactive events.
Additionally, science and technology centers and museums are particularly well-positioned to host events on potentially contentious topics because they are viewed by many members of the public as trustworthy, unbiased, and reliable sources of science-related information. Many are already active in broader public engagement and can draw on insight into existing partnerships with community-based organizations. These partners can help science engagement institutions learn about community priorities as well as design and facilitate Dialogue & Deliberation efforts tailored to the needs and desires of the communities with which they are collaborating.
Ultimately, Dialogue & Deliberation can advance a science or technology center’s goals, vision, and overarching mission—to provide science-based services and resources to local communities. While serious and sincere at its core, Dialogue & Deliberation is a process that can also be inspiring and exciting as members of a community learn more about and from one another.
“The notion of museums, instead of being a place where somebody goes and observes and learns by exhibits—of being much more dynamic in the community, which is how I see things moving—I think it’s very exciting to expand the repertoire of museums and how they interact with people.” —Maura Williams, Unity Unitarian Church
ASTC defines “communities” as connected or organized groups of people who share a common geography, jurisdiction, set of characteristics, interests, or goals—not just a particular racial or ethnic group or zip code. We encourage those seeking to engage in community science to be specific about which communities they aim to partner with and serve—this will help you find the right collaborative partner within your community.
A community partner can be any organization that represents a community’s values and priorities. Some examples include community development nonprofits, faith-based organizations, neighborhood civic associations, environmental advocacy organizations, youth-focused nonprofits, tribal organizations, and regional planning commissions. Community science requires collaborative work and often seeks to address current and historical harms within a community, so the ideal community partner may be very different from the organizations that you have traditionally partnered with for science engagement activities. You may need to work with multiple partners in order to represent the diversity within your community.
When considering who to collaborate with on Dialogue & Deliberation, be clear about the role each partner will play in your shared process. Every community partner will have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, an issue-focused nonprofit may have a deeper understanding of a topic’s scientific background but may be less diverse and less connected to the community than a neighborhood association. Authentic partnership goes beyond inviting an organization whose resources you would like to use or who can offer complementary scientific expertise. Look for partners who can represent the interests and needs of the people you hope will benefit from your work and listen with humility when they offer their insights and perspectives.
“As a community engagement professional, it is not my job to determine what priorities are; it’s my job to listen to communities and to respond to emergent priorities.” — David Valentine, Science Museum of Minnesota
Chances are that you and your team already have many of the skills needed to get started. While Dialogue & Deliberation might seem complicated, people like you are already using this approach in their daily lives. At any given moment, neighborhood associations, businesses, families, and others are engaged in conversations about how to work together to solve problems they face. They might sit down at a coffee shop without an issue guide, a written agenda, or a facilitator, but they are deliberating. For some groups and some topics, a more formal and technical type of Dialogue & Deliberation is called for, and the resources in this toolkit can help you accomplish that. Remember: you do not need to be a Dialogue & Deliberation expert to put this approach to work for your community. All that is required is that you come to this type of community science work with honest intention, thoughtfulness, and a commitment to long-term and deep engagement with communities.