May 042010

This is the last of four articles focused on the Liberating Voices practicums conducted for the two Public Thinking Public Health classes held at Evergreen College at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010. The earlier articles focused on the overall context for the sessions, the structure of the group breakout work, and the specific documentation approach for capturing and reporting information. In this article, I’ll try to pull together a few preliminary learnings and observations for the practical application, and perhaps popularization, of the Liberating Voices Pattern Language for civic engagement.

So what does this all mean?

I have long suspected that the real power of Liberating Voices was in the language of patterns (sorry, more word play, well, more than word play, but hang in there for a bit), and perhaps not as much in any specific pattern template or structure, as important as these considerations are.

So the question is: How have the Public Thinking Public Health Practicums informed the development of Liberating Voices as a practical language of patterns for civic imagination and engagement? Here are some initial thoughts.

First, we have been making too much of the technical definition of “what is a pattern?” The practicums were structured more along the lines of a Rosetta Stone immersion approach than Hooked on Phonics, and I believe that for the most part worked. Once folks begin to work with the pattern cards, the concrete issues/opportunities in the area under focus somehow begin to make sense, in all their rich complexity, still a daunting challenge, but no longer a paralyzing conundrum. Recognizing patterns at work and in context was far more immediately intuitive and useful than defining “pattern” in the abstract.

Second, even using a representative stack of cards (well short of the full 136 patterns) provided enough of a sense of the whole to significantly broaden a team’s perspective on its selected scenario. The deck to a certain extent helped to address the natural limitations of  “whoever happens to show up” by providing a framework of experience beyond the specific composition of any given team.

Third, working with clusters of patterns in the context of a whole scenario appeared to reduce the temptation to view individual patterns as “best practices” (that is, in the sense of “prefab” solutions–a distinction that merits extended discussion in another venue) while reinforcing creative ideas for the form and content of a communication strategy/tactic shaped by the influence of multiple patterns.

Fourth, the level of energy, creativity and enthusiasm I witnessed in virtually every team convinced me that the application of a pattern language approach is intrinsically social, participatory and collaborative. That is, it can’t happen by having any one person independently, off on their own, determining which patterns to apply and how.  The collective insights and experiences of a team (I believe at least 4-5 people) are required to ground and validate the selection of patterns as well as to sort out the implications of the pattern selection.

Fifth, and perhaps most important of all, the exercises appeared to generate cohesive narratives (yes, the Power of Story) around the issues and opportunities in any given scenarios, seamlessly drawing upon the specific experience, creativity and imagination of the team. The pattern cards stimulated and guided, but did not limit, the conversations, producing an action-oriented story of how the issues in the situation could be resolved without arbitrarily truncating or compromising their complexity (one of my axes: the fallacy of targeting the “top 3” problems, without regard for the interconnection of all the problems).

Sixth, multiple ways can be developed for extracting learnings from any specific practicum to enrich the development of the overall Liberating Voices framework. The Public Thinking Public Health class conducted a subsequent session in which new patterns were written and uploaded into the online Liberating Voices pattern repository, and the admittedly quick-and-dirty reports I generated simply suggest directions worth considering. Whatever the structure or method, closing this loop reinforces the value of the local workshops in concretely extending and repairing (to borrow Christopher Alexander terminology) the international initiative, thereby broadening and improving the archive for the use of other organizations and communities.

Hmm, seems like a future article should focus on “what if…” Stay tuned; probably not going to happen this week, but perhaps sooner rather than later.

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