A key aspect of democracy is innovation; people’s ability to be creative and create an impact within their communities, but also having the civic space to carry out this inventiveness. The space to actively engage in civic conversations and initiatives is missing in some cases, a need Cristin Brawner noticed during her time working as an associate for the Kettering Foundation and, previously, as Executive Director of the David Mathews Center.

While participating in other exchanges and meetings, Brawner noticed that those in the South were drawn to one another through their shared history, but, at the time, there was no regional group where these individuals could discuss the commonalities and struggles they encountered in their state. Using her expertise with community engagement, Brawner formed the Southern Deliberative Democracy Network (SDDN), a group of civic-minded individuals from across the South who can coordinate projects and share resources to promote democracy. There are members joining from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas so far. 

Most recently, the group facilitated forums and meetings to deliberate food insecurity as part of the National Week of Conversation movement. Before the start of the forum series, the Network members created a survey that participants could fill out after completing the forum. Not only did this give the SDDN a standardized review of the communities’ needs and beliefs, but it also gave the group a means to share their data and create a framework for next steps.

Doing this work, there is always speedbumps, but this group creates the capacity to make these hurdles a little easier, and brainstorm ways to combat these issues head-on. A difficulty the Network has discussed is the effort to increase participation and diversity, particularly, incorporating the voices of marginalized groups that need to be heard. As the obstacle was explained, members identified an asset that most communities possess: a connector. The person you think of when you think of your community; someone who knows everyone and everyone knows them, like Cristin in bringing this group together. Bridging this relationship will create more opportunities to build stronger, trusting relationships, expand the collaborative network within the community, and create an improved democracy.

Above all else, everyone agrees that no matter the ups and downs, they love the deliberative work they do, and that this work will never be finished. A member who is helping author a mis and disinformation issue guide with Colorado State explained that there will never be a final copy of this guide. Democracy and ways of thinking are always shifting, and it’s our responsibility to be the most informed, up-to-date, and citizen-empowered society that we can be to create the democracy we deserve.

The Southern Deliberative Democracy Network is looking ahead to its next projects and partnerships. A main discussion for this summer is to start developing a dialogue resource focusing on the 2024 election, challenges of the political process and elections, and finding a respectful way to address each other’s differences. Coming up in October 2023, the SDDN has also submitted a proposal to present at the 9th National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in Atlanta. The Mathews Center is thankful to be a part of a wonderful network of civic-minded individuals and look forward to our future meetings and collaborations. If you would like more information about the Network or are interested in joining, please contact Cristin Brawner at cristinfbrawner@gmail.com.