Leadership Lab: How Rustic Teens Are Learning with Stanford University to Find Common Ground
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Leadership Lab: How Rustic Teens Are Learning with Stanford University to Find Common Ground

The outcomes produced by a process called Deliberative Polling are somewhat astounding. Dr. Alice Siu has been studying the results for years. She serves as the Associate Director of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, and she’ll be leading a Global Youth Climate Summit that’s being held in collaboration with the Rustic Pathways Foundation this summer.

The Deliberative Polling process helps examine people’s opinions on selected issues. Siu says that 50% to 70% of the time there are significant changes in personal opinions after participants complete all the steps involved in the polling activity. In comparison, the Pew Research Center found in 2018 that people change their minds about issues only 14% of the time after viewing something on social media.

The documentary The Social Dilemma showcases many reasons why It may be uncommon for people to understand a different point of view in today’s divided culture. Debates rage online, but it usually isn’t very productive. As the documentary notes, carefully-designed algorithms feed people online material that regularly supports their beliefs.

The Deliberative Polling process breaks that mold. Not only are participants exposed to different ideas, but they also work in a collaborative way to understand other perspectives. Rustic students from 25 countries participating in the summit this July will learn and practice these techniques to work on environmental issues affecting their communities.

What is a Deliberative Poll?

Stanford University Professor James Fishkin created the concept of Deliberative Polling in 1988. It has been used more than 100 times in 30 different countries. The process begins with the selection of topics to poll. Then a random group of participants are recruited to represent the larger population. The participants::

  1. Fill out a questionnaire on the topics
  2. Review balanced materials on the issues being discussed after completing the questionnaire
  3. Participate in small groups that discuss the topics with the assistance of a moderator
  4. Come together as a larger plenary group for a Q&A session with issue experts
  5. Retake the original questionnaire

Courtesy of Stanford University

Stanford University staff go to great lengths to ensure various points of view are represented during deliberations. Understanding different opinions is a key to success. Dr. Siu will foster this collaboration when she works with the Rustic students who are participating in the summit.

“It’s really important to understand why we believe what we believe and can articulate that,” Siu said. “Sometimes we forget we are part of a society where people disagree with us, and we need to learn to listen to one another.”

Stanford University offers both in person and online Deliberate Polls. Dr. Siu says the online platform, like the one Rustic students will use, will nudge people who haven’t spoken much to ensure multiple opinions are heard. There also are time limits on how long someone can speak so one person doesn’t dominate the conversation.

Where has it been successfully used?

Deliberative Polling has been successfully utilized in a number of places to guide policy. In Texas, a poll was held in the 1990s on electricity resources. It found that residents were in favor of renewable energy and would pay a little more if necessary to provide it. The outcome led to investments in wind power that made Texas the leading wind power provider in the United States.

In Mongolia, a successful Deliberative Poll in 2015 persuaded the country to pass a law  requiring Deliberative Polls to be conducted for the consideration of any constitutional amendments. This is quite an undertaking in the nation since much of the population lives in small isolated communities that are far from the capital.

Mongolian citizens gathered to participate in the first nation-wide Deliberative Poll on constitutional amendments in 2017.

Photo: The Asia Foundation

In South Korea, a deliberation helped the country determine whether or not they should keep building nuclear reactors 5 and 6. They decided to continue with the projects based on the outcome of the poll.

Another poll that received much attention in the United States was the America in One Room deliberation. It brought together 526 Americans in Texas in September 2019 to discuss climate change, the economy and immigration.

Stanford researchers noted that participants generally became more moderate in their views after going through the deliberative process. Norman Bradburn, who is a senior fellow at the nonpartisan group NORC, told the New York Times that the deliberation helped many participants ask questions and think more for themselves.

“What they learned in deliberation – at least for some of them – is that you don’t just accept what your party says,” Bradburn said.

The effort inspired students in the Baltimore City schools to participate in their own two day deliberative event focusing on the economy, healthcare and foreign policy.

How Opinions Change

There are numerous figures that showcase how dramatic the changes in opinion can be after deliberation. In the America One Room project it was easy to track how both Democrats and Republicans shifted their views during the process.

On the Republican side, one question that sparked a big change was whether or not the United States should “reduce the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.”

65% of Republicans initially supported this proposal, but this support dropped 31 points to 34%  after deliberation. In general, Republicans and Democrats moved significantly closer together on all five immigration questions.

On the Democrat side, the most dramatic change was on the question about whether or not “the government should fund a bond for each child born that will accumulate in value until the child turns 18 to then become usable for higher education or other essentials for a start in life.” This bonds proposal was a key idea of one of the Democratic presidential candidates and initially was supported by 62% of the Democrats. This support among Democrats though plummeted to 21% after deliberation.

The Global Youth Climate Summit

Dr. Siu will focus on some of these ins and outs of deliberation during the Global Youth Climate Summit, which is part of Rustic Pathways’ Leadership Lab series. She says it’s important to pick specific questions rather than ones on broader beliefs. When it comes to climate change, a question could focus specifically on gas and oil production levels rather than on beliefs about whether or not the use of these energy sources is good or bad.

Rustic students who are registered for the summit noted how eager they are to listen to different opinions and improve their skills at collaboration. Prudence Brittany Amarissa from Gading Serpong, Indonesia is among them. She says she is concerned about pollution and deforestation in her country. She is hoping that learning to collaborate will help her push for change.

“I tend to give out my opinions a lot, so I would like to try to be better at the listening side of things and improve those skills of understanding people’s opinions,” Amarissa said.

She will get her chance starting on July 12 when the summit begins. The program is full, but Rustic Pathways has opened a waitlist for any other students interested in the summit. There also will be future Leadership Lab programs available. More details will be available soon. View Rustic Pathways’ website for more details.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer