(Summer ’17) Griffin Smith, G

Griffin Smith (G, Urban Studies and Planning)
Griffin spent the summer in Salt Lake City, Utah, working with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and the Environmental Planning Center at the University of Utah. He mediated consensus-building efforts in underserved areas in the Mountain West. In particular, he focused on a rural Utahan community, helping it develop a regional plan, incorporate climate change projections into its efforts, and develop resiliency against other emerging challenges. As part of this, he supported community conversations about climate risks facing the vulnerable region around Zion National Park and piloted and tested climate communication methods. He also researched affordable housing policies for such gateway and amenity communities. He turned this work into a teaching roleplay for students learning about collaboration. In addition, he created a framework for a state civility initiative to restore and build civil politics and discourse in the state.

“Week 11 in Utah: A Tale of Two Futures”

September 14, 2017

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

As far as superlative comparisons go, to me at least, Dickens’ famous start of A Tale of Two Cities often reminds of our 2017 world, and I also worry that most of us, myself included, focus more on the seemingly endless winter than ways to cultivate the first growths of spring. Don’t get me wrong; there is substantial Darkness in United States: resurgent xenophobia and racism; growing doubt of science and the very concept of “fact,” along with solidifying societal acceptance of such doubt; and political tribalization with those on opposite sides increasingly unwillingly to find ways to work for, or even identify, a common cause. I fear a decay of norms against hatred underlies much of this, with hostility towards those who are different from us on the rise and increasingly left unchallenged. As for the Light, on the whole, the world is still becoming a better place for most each day, with the worst kinds of poverty, food insecurity, and disease falling. Technological advances, while no panacea, also promise new methods to limit our impact on the planet, bolster food security, and better understand and preserve the environmental and climate systems on which we depend. In the U.S., catalyzed grassroots political organization is pushing for leaders and policies that will build a more inclusive, equitable, just, and environmentally sound country.

This summer I sought to find, understand, and cultivate some of this Light. My highlights included meeting with other environmental, ADR, and public engagement professionals to discuss bringing people together, resolving conflict, and building consensus in such divided times; charting out a Utah civility initiative to understand what already works in the state and further increasing people’s capacity to civilly and productively engage and work with political “adversaries;” exploring policies and other solutions for tackling growing affordable housing issues in rural, amenity communities; mediating sensitive environmental and regional planning issues in underserved rural communities; and studying how to discuss climate change with these same communities and piloting methods to do so.

Going forward, I’ll take several lessons from this summer. My work reemphasized the importance of listening, and listening well, both during mediations and in life in general. Unless you first take the time to understand where someone’s coming from, and just as importantly, make it clear that they know you understand them, it’s nearly impossible to move into a productive space to discuss new ways forward or shift their perspectives (i.e. around the threat of climate change). Careful listening also plays an important role in constructing civil dialogues among political opponents and can help lay out the differences between the ways each group understands the “facts on the ground” and then work to establish a shared picture. Framing issues in a way that brings multiple perspectives together often allows a variety of people to engage together.

I also met with a Utah practitioner who taught me the difference between dumb and smart cows. When a farmer releases a dumb cow into a new pasture, it sees other cows and walks into the middle of the herd, where it the other cows subsequently kick it for disturbing the social hierarchy. The smart cow waits at the edge of the herd and observes the group dynamic before finding a good place to stand with the rest of the herd. When mediating in any new environment, it’s important to be a smart cow. Political, social, corporate, and religious networks can play substantial role in group dynamics, affecting how to best structure a group process. In Utah, the LDS Church influences much of the state’s political and policy environment, so it’s crucial to understand its relevant positions and goals before entering into a mediation process.

As for climate change, I learned that, though it’s not a top concern for most Utahans, a good deal of people do worry about its potential impacts and want to build resilience proactively. My work found a disconnect between the number of people who think climate change should be considered in regional planning and decision making and those that think it actually will be taken into consideration. In addition, a substantial number of people thought their concerns about climate change were greater than their neighbors’. However, creating productive spaces for people to share their climate change views and concerns showed people that they aren’t alone, and that others also want to prepare for changing climate conditions. Breaking down norms of silence around climate change will prove critical in closing the disconnect to build momentum for planning around climate change.

In addition to connecting people to others who share their concerns, other methods also help communicate about climate change. It’s important to address the uncertainty about projections head on to be honest about “gaps” in the models while also highlighting the overwhelming certainty of what climate scientists do know. Use narratives and highlight impacts that are local, relevant, and personal to make the issue real to the audience. As part of this, it can be helpful to raise the potential economic, demographic, and health risk associated with climate change to show that it will impact more than just the environment. Finally, stay engaging and inspire action by highlighting what your audience can do to address climate change. Fearful or ominous messaging causes people to shut down with fear or chose to ignore what they rather not hear and believe.

And people do need to hear and believe this. In the past few weeks, Harvey and Irma, two of the most damaging hurricanes in US history, took hundreds of lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure. While no single hurricane or weather event can be said to be “caused” by climate change, it’s a certainty that changing climatic conditions will only cause more such events of ever increasing severities. It’s time to talk about climate change. To do so, we’ll need to work both to create civil political spaces to have these conversations and talk to those with (very) different opinions than our own. We have two vastly different futures ahead of us. It’s going to be a difficult task, uphill, grating task to work towards the one that safeguards the planet for ourselves, our children, and our species, but there’s some hope, some Light, and some good in this world, and that’s worth fighting for.


“Week 8 in Utah: Changing Views about Climate Change?”

August 18, 2017

In my last blog, I highlighted my work with the Zion Regional Collaborative (ZRC), a regional working group made up of stakeholders from the area around Zion National Park. The group is focused on many regional challenges, especially tourism pressures and resulting crowding and transportation issues. While the region is also expected to face numerous pressures related to climate change – including increased wildfires, floods, temperatures, runoff, soil erosion, storm intensity, and precipitation variability, – the group hasn’t focused on climate change directly.

I wanted to both understand the group’s existing views and attitudes towards climate change and study the impact of providing targeted information and discussion forums. To do this, the facilitation team created a presentation that focused on regional level impacts, addressed uncertainty directly, highlighted health and economic impacts, used narrative and recent examples, and framed climate change in terms of climate and natural hazard risks – all helpful components of a climate communication strategy. After the presentation, the participants split up into small groups to discuss their concerns and informational needs. Participants filled out surveys before and after the exercise.
While the data pool is too small to conduct robust analysis and make any firm conclusions at this point, here are some of the highlights I’ve learned from the participants so far.

Crucially, the data suggest a disconnect between the number of people who think climate change should be considered in regional planning and decision making and those that think it actually will be taken into consideration.

In terms of opinion changes in the pre and post surveys, it seems that the presentation and small group conversations had the effects we hoped for. Respondents showed increased concern for climate change impacts, increased recognition that others were similarly concerned, increased desire to plan for climate change, and increased hopefulness that the community would plan for climate change. Participants changed their views most about others’ opinions towards climate change, suggesting that the presentation and group talks allowed participants to see that ‘they aren’t alone’ in their concerns. Concern about the impacts of climate change changed the least, with some qualitative data suggesting that many people already knew much of the information in the presentation

In addition, the range of quantitative answers for each question decreased in the post-surveys, showing that the presentation and small group conversations helped people come together and narrow their range of views/converge. The range decreased the most around the need to plan for climate change impacts.

However, the qualitative data suggests that climate change and natural hazard impacts are not top concerns for the group. Though, on the other hand, participants did list climate change risks highlighted in the presentation as major risks in the post-survey, suggesting the presentation modified the groups’ focus on specific climate risks, at least temporarily. Overall, the results show the presentation had variable effects on participants’ perspectives about climate risks, with the two most frequent responses noting that the presentation had increased/confirmed participant knowledge or had no effect. This may, however, reflect more on the pre-exiting range of knowledge about climate risks in the group than the effect of the presentation. It is also notable that only two responses noted the presentation increased interest in responsive action and planning.

For the small group conversations, participants most frequently noted they affected their perspectives by showing them new/different views about climate risks, with some even commenting that these new views encouraged them to reevaluate their own beliefs. Furthermore, several group members commented that the small group conversations showed them that there is more local concern about climate change than they initially thought. Though, others noted that the conversations did not change their perspectives. Several respondents also wrote that the small group conversations inspired a desire for actionable outcomes from public education around climate change, to highlighting its costs and developing local adaption strategies.

Comments both about exposure to new ideas leading to reevaluation of beliefs and those about learning others share their climate concerns suggest the power of constructive group environments in exposing shared belief and evaluating and reshaping collective norms. As I mentioned last time, group norms can develop around politically sensitive issues, preventing open conversation and can lead people to think their views differ from those of their peers. Though as a cautionary note, some participants did not fill out the surveys, and I expect that some of those most skeptical about climate change did not, so the findings may not apply to that group.

While I won’t make it down to Zion again this summer, there are some exciting next steps to take with group. Most importantly, if the group is interested, the facilitation team may follow up by conducting a local risk assessment focusing on some of the concerns most highlighted by the group in the survey, such as flash flooding. Given that the results point to the role of norms the risk assessment process should ensure that participants can share and discuss their views on climate change, learning from each other to plan together.

*I’ve include some word clouds below based on qualitative survey answers.

Pre-Survey: What three issues do you think will present the greatest challenges to Zion region stakeholders’ planning and decision-making over the next 10 years?

Pre-Survey: What climate risks/natural hazards do you think will be most important to Zion region stakeholders’ planning and decision-making over the next 10 years?
wordcloud (1)

Post-Survey: After the presentation, what climate risks/natural hazards do you NOW think will be most important to Zion region stakeholders’ planning and decision-making over the next 10 years?
wordcloud (2)

Post-Survey: How, if at all, did the presentation influence your perspectives about whether climate risks/natural hazards are a concern for the Zion region and which risks are most important? Please explain.
wordcloud (3)

Post-Survey: How, if at all, did the small group discussion influence your perspectives about whether climate risks/natural hazards are a concern for the Zion region and which risks are most important? Please explain.
wordcloud (4)

“Week 6 in Utah: Changing the Narrative around Collaboration and Climate Change”

August 4, 2017


I’ve now spent several weeks in Salt Lake City with EDR involved in several mediation, climate change, and policy projects. One of my goals in coming out West this summer was to take a break from the East Coast to explore mediation and consensus building in less familiar, more rural contexts and connect with and learn from those who may have very different perspectives from my own – two “ah-ha” moments over the last few weeks have shown me that I’m in the right place.

EDR teaches an annual “Short Course on Collaboration.” Over several months, government, nonprofit, academic, and private sector officials are brought together and introduced to the core concepts of the collaboration, with enrollment limited to those living and working in Utah. I’m helping with two of the 2-day sessions during my time here this summer.

I’ve spent most of the last four and half years focused on collaborative, mutli-stakeholder processes, mainly based on the East Coast, and I’ve grown used to working with regional nonprofit, public, government, and even private sector representatives familiar with and who have likely participated in consensus building processes. While they might not have the skills (or always the desire) to initiate or run such a process, the concept usually isn’t new to them. This isn’t the case in Utah.

While Utah is known for its relative civil state politics, using collaboration to build consensus around government policies and projects is rare. As the first day of the class went on, I realized that, for many of the students, the concept of collaboration at the government and policy creation level was relatively foreign. I was gratified to watch as those in the class grappled with the idea, asked challenging questions, and began to consider how they could use the approach to transform some of their ongoing professional projects from finding ways to meet Utah’s growing water needs while protecting the regional rivers to supporting the growth of the Salt Lake Valley and preserving the local wilderness that contributes to the vibrancy of the region.

I had my second recent “ah-ha” moment while supporting the work of the Zion Regional Collaborative. The ZRC brings together an array of stakeholders living and working in the region around Zion National Park. The area is currently experiencing several challenges, mainly related to increased visitation to the National Park, including rising housing costs, insufficient transportation infrastructure, crowding inside and outside the park, and preservation of local community character. In addition, the region, like most of the US Southwest, is expected to face increased temperatures and rainfall variability with climate change. This could lead to higher risks of drought, wildfire, flash flooding, runoff, and rock fall, while also impacting resident health and the local economy.

Over this summer, I want to better understand the climate and natural hazards facing rural communities, social attitudes towards these threats, and ways of encourage proactive action and adaptation. As part of my work with the ZRC, I designed pre and post surveys measuring attitudes about local natural hazard and climate risks before and after a presentation and small group discussions. One of the biggest take-aways for me was seeing the large disconnect between stakeholders’ high personal concern and their perceptions about the lack of other’s concern about climate change in the pre-survey and seeing the realizations that many of their peers share their concerns in the post-survey.

Group norms can develop around politically sensitive issues, like climate change, that prevent open conversation and can lead people to think their views differ from those of their peers. Creating safe environments where people can share their thoughts and respectfully learn from one another can play a powerful role in connecting people and creating larger momentum for action. For many parts of the country, helping people realize that many of their families, friends, and neighbors share their concerns may be the first step for changing the story around climate change.


“Week 1.5 in Utah: Go West Young Man

July 7, 2017


Through the generosity of MIT’s Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center, I’m spending my summer in Salt Lake City, Utah as a PKG Fellow. And while I’m looking forward to time in the mountains (well, I’m already taking advantage of that, see below), I’m here to work with the Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program based in the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, directed by Danya Rumore, a MIT DUSP alumna.

The EDR Program encourages and applies collaboration, mediation, and other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes in conflicts throughout Utah and the Mountain West. In short, it helps bring people together, bury their hatchets, and work together civilly and productively, particularly around some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the region today from water shortages to urban sprawl. This will be somewhat of a homecoming for me; before grad school, I worked for the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) to build agreement around a range of policy issues in multi-stakeholder negotiations. I also volunteer as a court mediator, so I’m no stranger to the human capacity for vitriol or, for that matter, reconciliation.


With Danya and the EDR Program this summer, I’ll focus on a variety of projects from analyzing climate change data to facilitating community conversations around the impacts of tourism on housing prices and transportation. I’m particularly interested in assisting to two underserved regions, the Zion National Park region and Bonner County, Idaho. I’ll help mediate their regional planning efforts around an array of growing pressures.

A major part of both efforts will involve working at the intersection of policy and science. In particular, I’ll explore ways to facilitate productive conversations about climate change in places with high levels of climate change skeptics and incorporate these lessons into the projects. The state has some of the higher numbers of climate change skeptics in the country (The Yale Program on Climate Change Communicate has some cool, interactive maps showing U.S. opinions about various facets of climate change). At the same time, Utahans (or Utahns – I’m learning that the choice between these two words may even be more controversial than climate here) will likely face an ever-growing threat of extreme drought, variable river flows, and extreme heat under current climate change projections. Thus, figuring out how to discuss climate productively and convincingly during these processes is critical for helping these already vulnerable regions proactively prepare for changing conditions.

With the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I’m hopeful that my efforts this summer can play some small part in bridging divides and helping people come together around forward thinking climate solutions. More broadly, I also hope to learn from and better understand those with different opinions from me.

There’s no shortage of articles, analyses, or pronouncements about the growing political, cultural, and economic divides in our country, especially after the 2016 election. While Colorado is home and Iowa witness to most of formative experiences during college, I’ve spent most of my last four years in the backyard of MIT and Harvard – not necessarily a standard slice of America. I want to use my time out in the rural Mountain West to begin to understand what divides us, and more importantly, what unites us.

As part of this, I’ll work between EDR and the National Institute for Civil Discourse to bring the Institute’s initiatives to curb political dysfunction and restore civil governance to Utah(a)n politicians. The director of the Institute, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, recently spoke at a EDR hosted conversation on “Fostering Productive Dialogue in Divided Times” (you can read my thoughts on that conversation here, or you could also just read the blog above this). She warned of the fundamental fraying of our society and spoke to the need to reestablish norms of and forums for respectful disagreement that allow us, even if we don’t agree, to build a better country, society, and future together. While I can’t single handedly change the country’s divides this summer (though that would really make for some golden future blog material), I can listen and learn from those around me, seek to understand different points of view, and explore how to unleash our better angels.


“Week 1 in Utah: Fostering Productive Dialogue in Divided Times”

July 3, 2017

People being viciously attacked—verbally and physically—just because they are a certain race, ethnicity, religion, or simply trying to fly war torn countries. Vitriol flying back and forth across social media. Friends, neighbors, and even family members that no longer speak to each other because of how they voted in the last presidential election. Politically motivated shootings of politicians. We live in divided times. The question is: what can we do to heal our nation’s rifts?

Nationally recognized speakers and almost 100 participants from around the region and across the country came together at the S.J. Quinney College of Law on June 15th to address this question, specifically how to foster productive dialogue and restore civility amid our current social and political challenges. The Dialogue on Collaboration on “Fostering Productive Dialogue in Divided Times” was hosted by the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in partnership with The Langdon Group, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Intermountain Chapter, and the Utah Council on Conflict Resolution (UCCR).

The event could not have been more timely: only the day before, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot in Alexandria, Virginia, in what is considered a politically motivated act—a visceral reminder of how vitriolic the political rhetoric and ideological divides have become in our country.

During the event, Michele Straube, the outgoing Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program, described dialogue as meaningful conversation in which people focus on learning from each other and together with others. Dialogue, she explained, centers around people trying to better understand each other and each other’s views. It requires approaching interactions with curiosity, authenticity, vulnerability, and empathy. Through doing so, we can embrace our similarities and differences and potentially begin to work together to address shared concerns.

Three panelists shared their experiences with fostering dialogue. Larry Schooler, who directs community engagement and public participation projects for the City of Austin, Texas, highlighted the challenge of empowering citizens to take a meaningful role in governance, rather than simply being “consumers of government.” He emphasized that doing so necessitates creating inclusive environments and planting the seeds for meaningful dialogue. He suggested this type of public engagement empowers the unengaged, fosters civility, increases community capacity, and allows people to see differences with curiosity rather than mistrust. Larry concluded with the sage advice: listen to others with the intent to understand, not to reply.

Donna Silverberg, a mediator and the owner of DS Consulting, emphasized the importance of the “5 Cs” in facilitating dialogue: clarity, commitment, curiosity, consciousness, and courage. Clarity of purpose allows people to know when and why to engage with each other—how to communicate, act, decide, and define success as a group. Having a commitment to a shared purpose, process, and each other ensures groups can productively work through differences. Curiosity enables people to engage one another with an open mind and to “speak as though they are right and listen as though they may be wrong.” Consciousness ensures people fully see and grapple with the impact of the dialogue on others and on themselves. Finally, she noted, no progress will be made if parties lack the courage to engage with one another and with the essential challenges in front of them. Donna illustrated the role these elements play by sharing process examples from the development of water quality standards in Oregon around fish consumption.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, began by acknowledging her state of mind in the wake of the June 14th shooting, noting her institute was founded in the wake of the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Gifford. Carolyn warned that this latest shooting symbolizes the fraying of US political and civic culture. She emphasized that hate speech increasingly leads actual physical violence. She pointed to the critical role of leadership in changing the nature of discourse and behavior. She also noted that constituents must pressure their elected officials to change their behavior through letters (especially postcards), phone calls, and office visits. Carolyn shared her institute’s Commitment to Civility initiative where politicians sign a pledge to work together in a productive, non-hyper-partisan manner. Carolyn closed her presentation by showing an example of how it’s possible for even the staunchest of foes to find common ground.

During the panel discussion, the panelists and audience identified several additional ways to encourage productive dialogue, including:

  • Frame issues in a manner that brings multiple perspectives together and allows a variety of people to engage with the process.
  • Map all potentially relevant stakeholders to ensure they are invited to conversations, figure out how to make the event meaningful to them to encourage their attendance, and document outreach attempts in case they don’t come and oppose the effort later.
  • Get enough of the “general interested public” to attend meetings to counterbalance the effect of “affected stakeholders” and “usual suspects.”
  • Encourage attendance by making meetings entertaining and framing the problem in a way that raises the public’s interest (e.g. frame a master planning meeting as a way to ensure the doubling of a city’s population will not erode municipal services).

Danya Rumore, the incoming Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program, then introduced the concept of civity (yes, that’s spelled correctly). Civity is a culture of deliberatively engaging in relationships of respect and empathy with others who are different to develop a “we all belong” mindset. Exercising civity requires intentional interactions with others, acting with authenticity to acknowledge our shared humanity, and embracing and reaching across differences to create a sense of belonging. Danya highlighted that “with rights come responsibilities” and that civity, by bridging societal gaps, establishes the fundamental social fabric necessary to work from to problem solve together.

Dialogue participants engaged with concept of civity and practiced effective dialogue through a series of exercises. We shared our stories of why we do the work we do as authentically and intentionally as possible without interruptions, explored (and attempted to embrace) differences in communication styles, and brainstormed how to foster higher quality dialogue. Many people found new connections with those they talked with and explored simply “being humans together” without attack or judgement.

Dan Adams from The Langdon Group closed the day by reminding us that we, as mediators, facilitators, public officials, and/or citizens, don’t have to do our work and live through our experiences alone, and urged us to connect with other people to share our successes, failures, and burdens. He also suggested that fostering real dialogues means putting in real effort to engage those with different opinions (that is, you can’t match the level of effort you put into your communication with how you feel about the person).

On the eve of Independence Day, the day on which we celebrate the America becoming a country of “united states,” it’s worth remembering that only through effectively talking with and understanding each other can we thrive as one nation “indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.”

A video of the Dialogue on Collaboration: Fostering Productive Dialogue in Divided Times presentations and panel discussion is available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc8Plu-GATU&feature=youtu.be


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