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Jay Rothman and Daniela Cohen on the Aria Group School Intervention in Yellow Springs, Ohio
Newsletter 141 - July 27, 2023
From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion
On June 26, 2023, I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Jay Rothman, President of the Aria Group, a creative conflict engagement firm which does analysis and intervention in deep-rooted, identity conflicts, together with Daniela Cohen, an associate with the Aria Group, who has expertise on refugee and immigrant inclusion and DEI in both South Africa and Canada. We talked about an intervention they did in a deeply divided school conflict in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Jay started out by explaining that Yellow Springs is a small (population 3500) very progressive community that had always unquestionably supported the local schools throughout its history, until recently. A school bond issue failed six years ago for the first time ever and failed again a few years later. The schools, meanwhile, have become increasingly run down, and the cost for either renovating them or rebuilding them has doubled since the first bond issue failed. Not only does this impact the quality of education, but there is also a fear, that, should the bond issue fail again, the district will be forced to consolidate with another larger school district, and thereby lose local control. Jay's firm, The Aria Group, was asked by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation to do an analysis of what was dividing the school board and the community so badly that they were unable to pass a bond issue. The Aria Group was then asked to follow up this analysis with an intervention to try to bring the town closer together on this issue.
by Heidi Burgess
July 25, 2023
We were delighted to learn that Jay started his analysis by using our limiting hyper-polarization matrix.. "We used the matrix, which helped us describe what were the overlying issues and the underlying issues, and then it helped us do an analysis of what was going on in the environment." After talking to many people, Jay and Daniela found that the town had four dominant, yet conflicting, values. One set of citizens was concerned about education quality: the schools were in such bad shape that teachers couldn't provide a good education in the physical settings that existed. A second set of residents were concerned that the town stay affordable. "There is already the sense," Jay explained, "that Yellow Springs is unaffordable to be the inclusive place that it desires to be, that it aspires to be, that it has been." The cost of renovating or replacing the crumbling schools would make local taxes even higher, making the town even less affordable, some feared. A third group was concerned about environmental sustainability. They didn't want to build new schools, thereby filling the landfills with the materials from the old schools. "We should be reusing and recycling, not building new buildings," they argued. A fourth group was concerned about green space. There was talk about moving all the schools onto one campus, leaving a large unused space in the middle of town that folks didn't want to see developed. So they lobbied strongly not to change the footprint of the school system. "So," Jay said, "we had these four contending values, and people were getting very personalized about it. There was a very vitriolic Facebook page. Things really got to the level of identity-based conflict, which is the focus of my career. And here it is, in my backyard."
After spending a month doing their analysis, the foundation asked Jay to do an intervention with the school board and the community " to try to build some collaborative momentum out of what had been a very stuck process." Jay explained that their primary goal was simply to get things moving.
And keep things moving as much as possible. We tried to help them move forward in a constructive way. But even if there's some antagonism that surfaces, even if there's some things that go bad, let's just keep going. Don't let them get stuck. Keep the conversations going, keep the public involved and get more and more of the public involved. Not only to gather their ideas, but mostly to have them have a sense that their voice matters. Because a lot of people were getting to a sense of “a plague on all of your houses! You guys [the school board] can't agree. So, we'd rather not spend all of this money on this, anyway. And if you can't agree, then, okay, we're just going to back off. We're not going to read the paper anymore. We're not going to listen to these conversations anymore. We're going to vote against it.”
So, I think we helped to get rid of that excuse. Because things are not stuck now. Now the board is moving together. People are still uncertain. Whether it's [the bond issue] going to pass or not, we don't know, because that's not until November. And there are still plenty of hurdles. But there is now this sense of forward momentum.
First Intervention: A “World Café”
One of the interventions they used was a "World Café" that they assisted the Village Mediation Program in running.
Daniela described how it worked.
They had the four values in kind of rectangle. And they asked people to put a dot where they stood, where they felt the most strongly in terms of what they wanted, and they spoke about that. And then they listened to other people speak and then tried to take the perspective of somebody else, of why their value was really important to them. And after that, they had a chance to move their dot, if they'd moved at all. And people moved!
They explained that it was easy to assume that you had the right answer if you only looked at the issue from your own perspective. But at the World Café, people heard all four perspectives. And while some people didn't move, others were more open to considering new approaches, because they better understood, then, where others were coming from, and how their perspectives actually did make sense too.
A limitation of the World Café, however, is it only involved a relatively small subset of people. It left out many from the community. To remedy that, Jay and Daniela sent out a survey to the entire town.
We sent it to everybody. Everybody got a postcard in the mail. We put advertisements in the newspaper. We posted them around town. We used social media. We invited community leaders to actually help us draft and redraft the survey. It was a long slog, well in a sense, it wasn’t long, it was fast, but it was demanding. We did it in about three or four weeks, I think. And we turned around the data analysis in three days.
They got 700 responses, about 1/5 of the town. In addition to answering a lot of closed-ended questions about respondent demographics and their school preferences, they asked people to explain why they voted for the option they chose. Most people answered in a couple of paragraphs. As Jay observed, 700 times two paragraphs is "a lot of data!" They also asked a "bonus question," about respondents' vision for the future of Yellow Springs, and Jay said, "we got an equal amount of very rich, interesting, heartening input.
I told people, you should read this, because if you're disappointed in Yellow Springs, this will raise your esteem for it once again. Because people's thoughts and ideals for a beautiful future were really meaningful. And grounded.
ChatGPT - Aided Analysis
Since they were in a time crunch to do the analysis, they utilized ChatGPT to boil down the hundreds of pages of answers to both questions to about three pages and five key ideas. They weren't asking GPT to find a consensus position, but rather, just report back what people answered. When I asked Jay if the summaries were credible, he responded:
Very credible. Now, I edited it. I didn't use it as it gave it back to me. And Daniela then edited it my edits and we felt very comfortable with it in the end. But I was amazed by it. And I was baffled how I was going to share this data in three days [without it]. . . . Folks were very pleased. They said to us "we feel like our voice was heard. It was wonderful for us to have an outlet because we've been feeling kind of silenced.”
Another benefit of the survey, Daniele pointed out, was that it gave solid data.
So even in the board meeting that followed, a couple of people referred to the survey results. So, it just kind of gave this concrete, tangible, factual data that people could refer to, rather than, “he said, she said, they said” kind of what was going on. So, I think that was an important function as well, that there was some solid data from a large proportion of the community that could be referred to.
School Board Response
The board took all of this data and developed a hybrid model: they decided to rebuild the high school and the middle school, and remodel the elementary school, adding a pre-k and re-arranging the grades so that 4th grade would go to middle school.
The price tag was significant, but it was subsidized by a lot of money from the state for new buildings that remodeled buildings would not qualify for. So, there were all sorts of log rolling that went on. There was all sorts of integrative bargaining that actually went on.
Unfortunately, people kept using the word “compromise,” and I tried to steer them away from that, saying, “I don't think you've compromised on the deepest concerns that you actually have. I think you've all got them fulfilled. Not a 100%, but in ways that are very significant.” So, the environmentalists, the green space folks, the quality building folks, the economic affordability folks, all got at least some of what they wanted. That last one, that's a little bit different. But in the package that was put together, everybody's deepest concerns were at least minimally met. And I call that an integrative solution.
The board felt so too and agreed to go forward with it with a 5-0 vote.
The economic affordability issue was "a little bit different," Jay explained, because the end result was quite pricey. But to address that problem, a number of people in the community are trying to establish a fund to help out community members in need with their additional tax bill. The idea, which actually was developed at the World Café, is being called the "Leave No Resident Behind Fund." Jay warned that it's not certain that the necessary funds can be raised, or how, exactly, it will work.
But there's a lot of people seeing if it can work. And I think, even that effort is meaningful, because the affordability issue is super challenging. So how can the town rally together to support people for whom it will be even more challenging than for others?
The outcome is still uncertain. The Board needs one more vote that has to be 4-1 or 5-0 to put the bond issue on the ballot in November, and then, of course, it has to pass. But Jay observed,
I'm sure there will still be disagreement. But my prediction (and in November, we'll be able to tell how foolhardy this prediction is), but I predict that it will pass with flying colors in the fall.
At the end of the interview, I asked Jay and Daniela what lessons they learned from this experience that might apply in other places. Jay started out by saying that he'd wished he'd thought about that question before, so I agreed we could revisit it in a second interview we were already planning to do. But both he and Daniela did come up with some quick answers. Jay went first:
The first one, I'd say, is it's a systems problem. It has to be addressed at a systems level. And that partly means intrapersonal, people's feelings and their hopes and their hurts on an individual level; relational, people's relationships with each other are really core; groups, the different stakeholder groups, and the different interest groups, and the different identity groups. And then structurally, in terms of how our organizations are run and led. All of these factors have to be considered.
And that's where your framework was really helpful for me. And that's where having a month of research before I began the intervention was so important. Because I had all sorts of ideas when I was interviewing people, and I said, uncharacteristically, “I have nothing to suggest. I'm not going to let myself suggest anything. I'm only going to sit back and try to get an analysis.”
I also think keeping out of keeping out of the public eye was a useful thing. Not only because this is my home, but also because it enabled us to assure people that our conversations were going to be private, that they weren't going to be in the media, that they weren't going to be publicized. But these were quiet explorations to try to rebuild a kind of a civil society that had somewhat been lost.
Also, I think my frame of identity-based conflict was useful. It looked like this was an issue of resources and, surely, in many ways it was. But underlying the resource issue of how much a levy would be and what kind of building we'd build, were people’s sense of hopes and hurts. And their own respective sense of identities and values. And that we prioritized all of those.
And then finally, the survey, which was an opportunity for people to have voice, and for us to consolidate that voice as a constructive input to help the board move forward. So, the research and practice really supported each other.
Creating different kinds of forums for people to express what was important to them, what really matters to them, as well as to be able to hear each other [was really important]. And doing that in different ways throughout the process. Whether it's one on one with the person themselves, whether it's two people together, whether it's smaller groups, bigger groups, all of those things, I think, are critical.
She also agreed with Jay that identifying the different groups' values was critical.
Making the values explicit. What is it that people really care about here? I think that makes it easier for people to see each other's perspective and to understand what's at stake.
The World Café was a powerful way to do that, but it left out a lot of people. It's important to consider who is being included in any process, and who is being left out. It's important, then, to devise a way to bring in the people who would otherwise be left out.
And the other piece, I think, is just persistence. The idea that people can be so polarized and so divided and through the systemic approach and in an ongoing way over a sustained period of time, people can come together and find that integrative solution, that it is possible. I think that's a really important piece as well.
If you watch the full video or read the transcript, you will see that Jay and Daniela were, indeed, extremely persistent, in the face of one obstacle after another. And they utilized several more strategies besides the World Café and the survey which we highlighted here. So we urge our readers to watch or read the full video if you find what you've read here interesting, useful, or inspiring!
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