The Uncaucus, Part Deux
April 16th, 2010

I recently posted about The Uncaucus, a Providence-based group enabling citizens to participate in the mayoral election in a meaningful way via their blog, a mobile technology platform, an “IdeaLine” for citizens to call and text messages for the candidates, and coming soon, a wiki system for collaboratively editing a job description for the mayor of Providence. I mentioned that The Uncaucus would be hosting a “listening party,” another participatory mechanism at which citizens, instead of listening to mayoral candidates, would tell them what we want from our future mayor. And I said I’d let you know how it went, so here goes.

The event saw a fine turnout of 150+ citizens. Five mayoral candidates were seated off to the side, as were two potential candidates, in order to be distinguished from the rest of the crowd. The format was thus: candidates had submitted questions to The Uncaucus in advance, of which 9 were chosen for the event, sorted into themes, and read to the audience without disclosure of their source. After each question was read, audience members could raise their hands to offer an answer, and a mic would be passed around.

The format took some getting used to; after a few answers from the audience, the emcee reminded us that we were neither talking solely to him nor to the candidates, but to each other. Certainly, he and the candidates were listening (and many of the candidates were taking notes) but sharing our ideas with the candidates was not the only intention. We were also cultivating our collective intelligence, taking inventory of our social capital, becoming a venerable smart mob that would contend with candidates throughout the race, and with the mayor beyond it.

Many beautiful solutions were proposed. And many of them simply built bridges (or healed chasms) between already-existing resources or programs, like connecting farms and school kitchens to grow and make school lunches locally, and connecting higher and K-12 education by having Pell grant recipients teach a semester at the local technical school. I think if we used a methodology for harnessing collective intelligence, like the World Café, we’d develop some more brilliant answers to the candidates’ questions.

The morning after the listening party, I awoke with a sweet feeling. It felt like we’d behaved as a big family, with older folks sharing wisdom earned through years of experience, and younger ones willing to be more radical while riding the crest of the cutting edge. Or more appropriately, it felt like we’d made the stirrings of a civic smart mob. To check this out, voilà the video and the transcript from the event.

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