Director of the Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: I was wondering if you could tell me about what transformative moment inspired you to start this Public Conversations Project?
A: It was a particular moment in a video-tape. I had turned on to PBS, which I expect higher things from than other stations, and it was an hour long film about population followed by a conversation by two pro-choice and two pro-life leaders, Waddleton, Nelly Brown, Congressman Dornan and Eloise Smeel and facilitated by Martin Lagronski. I watched hoping it might really be a constructive conversation about this wonderful film and what happened was that it rapidly degenerated into name-calling and finger-pointing and screaming at each other. I think it was the moment that Lagronski slumped into his chair and muttered just barely audible "There's nothing going on there but a lot of noise", that the wires crossed in my brain. I'd been listening with my sort of concerned citizen ears and suddenly my family therapist and other therapist wire crossed in my brain. My inner voice went something like this, "Wait a minute, I wouldn't put up with this in my office." None of my colleagues would let this sort of thing go down with their clients, we know how to stop that, how to interrupt that and get a different kind of conversation going.
Then came the question, "Gee, I wonder if the kind of thing we do in our office with couples and families and chronic conflict could be applied to conversations with people who are at loggerheads about polarized issues like abortion?" And that light bulb turned on in my brain with a kind of intensity and excitement and a sense of possibility that I called up my colleagues and I ordered the film. I invited my colleagues to come to lunch and talk about it and watch it.
The idea was in 1989 and the first year we ate lunch.
The second year I think we had 18 dialogues about abortion, single sessions. And the plan was that this was like an opening interview in therapy. This was just like a teeny step and the plan was we'll see if we can do that one step and then we'll get a much longer dialogue on abortion and that didn't happen for about 7 years. What did happen was that this led to the media discovering us through my involvement with the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which was active in Washington and across the country at the time. And when Alan Goodman and NPR did a piece on us, suddenly, this larger public discovered us and really before we were ready. We were just in my kids' bedrooms, and we weren't even an organization and we said, "Well, this is fantastic, would this work for environmental fights, or what about animal research?" And we said, "Well, we don't know, but we'll be glad to try."