Since organizing the Voters Not Politicians 2018 ballot initiative that put citizens in charge of drawing Michigan's legislative maps, Katie Fahey has been the founding executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She regularly interviews colleagues in the world of democracy reform for The Fulcrum’s Opinion section.
Jasmine Hull is Chief Operating Officer for Deliberations.US. She brings extensive experience in educational leadership and a passion for reform in our public educational system and civics education.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: What is Deliberations.US - and how did it come about?
Hull: It is a virtual space for people to talk to each other about issues that impact them, without the noise of disinformation and distrust. In this deliberative space, participants nationwide can identify areas of agreement and create plausible solutions together.
The program is hosted on a customized video platform called Kazm designed to facilitate small-group deliberation. Via this platform, people of diverse backgrounds can have meaningful conversations on important issues, and the changes they would like to see happen in our democracy. The program was birthed out of a partnership with Lawrence Lessig at Equal Citizens and Katie Fahey with The People, in a desire to strengthen and nurture our democracy.
Fahey: Can you tell us about your background; what led you to get involved with Deliberations.US?
Hull: My background is in public education; with 13 years in K-12 education as an administrator and operational leader. I had the privilege of launching charter schools in Louisiana and Texas that are currently thriving. I successfully improved low performance and enrollment, but experienced burnout due to work/life imbalance and increasing demands set in place with the onset of Covid. Due to staffing shortages, the workload had become overwhelming as we tried to fill in where needed so students would not feel the gaps. While taking a step back to evaluate what I wanted personally and professionally, I saw the Deliberations.US posting. It instantly drew me in, as I am passionate about the demographic. I wanted to be part of this movement. creating the impact I had been missing in my previous educational work.
Fahey: Can you tell me more about the format?
Hull: The format is similar to Zoom; a video-capable conversation platform that is intentionally casual, so people feel comfortable. The Kazm platform is uniquely designed to encourage participation by all, can run with or without a moderator, and is scalable to include thousands of participants in one deliberation. Deliberations can be scheduled at any time and are open to the public or private to a group of invited participants.
When you join a deliberation, you arrive at a virtual waiting room where event guidelines are presented with a brief overview of the user-friendly platform functionality. The participant group is split into breakout rooms of 8-12 people, then paced through slides introducing the topic via brief, engaging videos, followed by question prompts to get the conversation flowing. To ensure we remain nonpartisan and that all facts are articulated, platform media and materials are thoughtfully curated by a carefully assembled panel of professors and professionals in the democracy and deliberations fields, with topic-specific expertise.
With all the facts presented, participants engage in discussion with others, explore diverse perspectives on an issue, and make informed decisions. The experience exposes participants to diverse perspectives that will change how they view each other, empowering them to have thoughtful conversations on important issues facing their communities.
At the end of the deliberation, participants are presented with opportunities to partner with other organizations, or to sign up and stay in contact with The People or Deliberations.US, to join future deliberations.
Fahey: Who is the target audience?
Hull: Our goal is to target all citizens nationwide, so everyone can engage in and trust our platform as a safe space to voice their concerns and identify solutions with others to move forward together.
Currently, we are focusing on students ages 16-29 enrolled in high schools, colleges and universities. We are working with educators to engage their students by assigning deliberations as an in-class project.
Students are one of the lowest percentage groups for voter turnout. Historically we have seen voter participation increase as age, education, and income increase; so by getting in on the ground floor, we can significantly impact voter participation over time while deepening their civic knowledge.
Fahey: How will this program strengthen the ideals of democracy?
Hull: Democracy does not work independently; we must actively participate beyond simply voting. Being able to discuss and deliberate policies and issues impacting our communities is a skill needed for a thriving democracy. By providing education on the issues, legislation, and policies that impact people and their communities, participants can take that knowledge and be a voice to be heard by decision-makers. The result is civically-engaged citizens who are a powerful force in strengthening our democracy.
When we talk directly to each other, we discover that we have more in common than not, and can overcome partisan barriers to change and work together for a healthier democracy.
Fahey: What stage is the program in, and how do you see it evolving?
Hull: We are entering the toddler phase; still learning what strategies and approaches work best while developing new materials to engage diverse audiences. We received great feedback this year from participants in our first module, deliberating the Electoral College. We are working on expanding programming to engage more communities and academic settings.
Over the next few years, there is a tremendous opportunity for expansion in how the platform is used. We are evolving to be a trusted source for the voice and pulse of the people.
Fahey: How do I learn more about upcoming deliberations?
Hull: For general information, access our website at Deliberations.US. We have deliberations scheduled weekly that are available to join here. We can also accommodate requests for private deliberations by emailing us at Support@Deliberations.US. New modules will be added soon and advertised through our social media channels, website, and partner organizations like The People!
Fahey: If you were speaking with a high school student or a new immigrant to our country, how would you describe what being an American means to you?
Hull: I would liken it to farming. A person does not have to be of any particular ethnicity, gender, age, or background to be a farmer. You are presented with a unique opportunity to grow anything you desire (the American dream); yet a commitment is required to actively nurture and work the land to ensure it produces as intended. You can not sit idly by and let it run wild. There are challenges to contend with; soil conditions; weather; economic factors - yet anything worth having is worth preserving; like our democracy. It is our responsibility to leave a legacy for future generations.