Listening to the Big Apple

ON July 20, 5,000 citizens from New York and surrounds gathered in Manhattan to consider six concept plans for the rebuilding of Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan, following the terrorist attacks of September 11 last year.

Decision-makers were looking for direction in their planning for the site; participants wanted to be heard; and facilitators worked to achieve both. I was one of the 500 volunteer facilitators, and the only Australian, selected to work at the event.

The experience was both overwhelming and a privilege.

Overwhelming in size alone. It was overwhelming to be working in a building that covered five city blocks, in an auditorium that seated 5,500 people around tables, and had a central raised stage for the lead facilitator and presentations from experts.

Many large video screens hung throughout the space so that we could all see the proceedings. There were laptops on all tables, computer support staff, grief counsellors, floor managers, area coordinators, catering staff, constant food and refreshments and the ever-present press from media outlets.

It was a complex undertaking by any standards.

It was a privilege to be present, and it was a leap of faith. To have registered on-line, have been selected as a volunteer, travelled to New York and offered skills to facilitate discussion. Skills and a philosophy of facilitation that had been learned and developed mainly in Perth would now be tested in this arena.

It was a privilege to be part of the staff – albeit as a volunteer.

Participants were seated in tables of 10, with a facilitator, and their task for the day was to discuss a series of structured questions and vote on a variety of issues. The first task for the facilitator was to host the table by welcoming participants as they arrived, then to establish safety and openness in the group so that diverse views could be expressed and heard.

Following an emotional opening to the day, where a band played (and the gathering sung) America the Beautiful, there was a welcome from organisers and dignitaries, followed by some presentations.

The World Trade Center site is now a gaping 6.5-hectare hole – the size of which reminded me of Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit. These people came to have their say as to how it would be redeveloped – and the first question for participants was about their hopes and fears for the site. Hopes were about inspiration, while fears were about mediocrity. That was the warm up and set the scene.

Fortunately the groups were not required to reach consensus in any of their deliberations – as there was scope to record each table’s majority view, and also ‘strongly held minority views’. That allowed everyone to be heard, and neither judged nor persuaded to a particular point of view. Difference was, therefore, valued.

Consider the differences between: the lawyer from Lower Manhattan who lived opposite ground zero with his young family; the Jamaican maintenance worker who was on the 44th floor of Tower One when then first plane hit; the design student on internship in New Jersey; the waiter from the ‘Windows on the World’ restaurant on the 107th floor of Tower One who had been unemployed since September 11; the Brooklyn grandmother whose view across the Hudson River was the World Trade Center skyline; and the computer whiz who came prepared with his own memorial design – and the need for an independent facilitator becomes clear.

What was needed was someone who would monitor the process of the discussion and leave the content to the participants. Someone who didn’t have a stake in the outcome and was able to deal with the thoughts and feelings of all participants in a respectful manner.

Many participants said that their table’s discussion would not have worked without the facilitator’s independence.

Facilitators had attended a half-day orientation, which prepared us to some degree. Our role was to be the human face of the discussion, to keep everyone connected, on time and on task as far as possible, considering the emotional involvement of participants. Monitoring participants was a constant task, encouraging some, asking quest-ions to clarify meaning, making sure everyone was heard in the allotted time, and that they agreed with the summaries keyed in to the laptop – making the facilitators’ role a very busy one.

A complicating factor was the ambient noise level and constant distractions in a room of 5,000 people talking, with the resultant difficulty in focusing on the task at hand. Added to that was the seemingly constant presence of the press, who photographed or filmed the table or sat and listened to discussion, or interviewed individuals at the table.

The overall outcome for participants was that they felt heard at their tables and sent strong messages to the decision-makers.

Those messages included: don’t build on the footprints of the twin towers, restore the skyline, be bold in design and go back to the drawing board because the current low profile plans are unacceptable.

The question remains as to whether those decision-makers will really listen to the city and use the public’s views in their deliberations.

Having made the leap of faith, my skills and philosophy of facilitation were tested in a complex and emotional environment where I had to anchor myself and my feelings frequently so as to be fully present for the participants. As was predicted by the organisers, the event was a great roller coaster ride for facilitators.

I’m encouraged to say that the test was both valuable and affirming and that the New York experience was exceptional.

p Roberta Mead is self-employed in Perth as an organisational consultant and facilitator working largely in the corporate sector in organisational development, planning and change.

She specialises in facilitation, which includes community consultation.

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