For people in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, Polaris, is the only star that always sits in the same place in the sky. Before modern technologies like GPS, it was vital to navigation. So it has become a metaphor for a significant and dependable point of reference.
A North Star concept is a guiding light, an ideal reference point that influences how we go about doing our work or living our lives. We use it to orient ourselves.
In our work for a wise democracy, our major North Star concept is “creative participation of the whole”. Although we never achieve it, it is our ongoing point of reference and aspiration. The further we stretch towards it, the wiser and more democratic our initiatives become. We seek to provide contexts, understandings and processes that help all parts of the whole be creative together.
But what do we mean when we say we want to engage the creative participation of the whole? Here’s one way to describe it:
We want to engage the full range of diverse players, energies and perspectives that make up the whole – the whole situation, community, challenge or opportunity we are addressing – such that
(a) the players understand as fully as possible what’s going on – including their own roles and how to relate to what’s not knowable or controllable;
(b) they realize together how to proceed in light of that fuller reality;
(c) they work flexibly with and within that reality, guided by their deepening understanding; and
(d) they continually seek to realize what needs to be taken into account for broad longterm benefit.
This approach is grounded in a rare and fundamental recognition of what we call “intrinsic participation”. We believe that everyone and everything involved with a shared challenge or opportunity is, has been, and always will be participating in creating what that is and how it unfolds. Even more broadly, “intrinsic participation” suggests that we are ALL participating in everything that’s going on, whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not.
To the extent we view the world through the lens of intrinsic participation, our challenge shifts from “getting people involved” to making the intrinsic participation that is already going on more conscious, “choiceful” and wise. We want all participants to become more aware of themselves, each other, and how they’re connected into a bigger picture they are all part of. We want them to become increasingly aware of long-term benefits and directions that are available to them, and to understand what those options mean about what makes sense and how to proceed. We want all this to happen with them at every step of the way, together, all the time. That’s what we’re here to make possible, to the extent we are able. (As noted above, our capacity to do this is always limited, but our efforts guided by this vision and intention are potent contributions to Life.)
A Focus on Diversity, Not Quantities
Interestingly, with this approach, the concept of engagement skips into a seriously different paradigm. Suddenly we are not talking about every individual’s voice being heard or every person taking action. We are talking about every aspect of the whole scene being uncovered and considered individually and collectively so that the full DIVERSITY of players can participate with that big-picture awareness and wisdom, individually and collectively. This may involve everyone or it may involve a subset of the whole that embodies the full relevant diversity of the whole – or it may seek to do some of both. But our focus on “the whole” starts with not ignoring or marginalizing important parts of its full diversity.
So in our forums, our ideal is not everyone being included and speaking. but every perspective being and feeling fully heard. This is a fascinating and important distinction. It points to an ideal where everyone concerned is listening because they are involved and want to know what each other has to say in the process of understanding the bigger picture they’re all tangled up in. In this case, if Person A sees that Person B has voiced views, concerns, and ideas that Person A happens to share – and that Person B was taken seriously – Person A can FEEL HEARD without having to say anything.
Since we want all facets of the big picture to be heard, if someone does NOT feel heard, we take that seriously. We take the trouble to hear them or to actively seek out, welcome, and engage with someone who shares their perspective and energy, so that their piece of the puzzle is included in the whole picture that’s being painted. And for wise democracy to work, things need to be set up so that everyone can see how their piece – their piece of what’s going on, their piece of what should happen, their piece of the best direction – fits in the larger shared picture.
So that’s what’s going on with this “creative participation of the whole”. It is a higher and more dynamic form of “common sense”. Perhaps we could call it “the common sensing of the whole”. It involves engaging diverse aspects of a whole – diverse stakeholders, citizens and roles in the whole, diverse perspectives and energies, as well as diverse ways of understanding the whole (and its parts), as well as different resources useful for what happens next, and so on – engaging all these in interactions that access more of the whole for both understanding and action. And doing that over and over, as we discover more and as the scene evolves.
Note how this idea (and ideal) embraces both what we can call “the wisdom aspect of participation” (since we end up considering more of the big picture) and “the power aspect of participation” (since we end up aligning and engaging more of the energy and resources that we need to move ahead together).
There’s another shift in worldview going on here: We talk about channeling diversity into productive interactions like conversation and collaboration. In this enterprise, diverse ordinary people, diverse stakeholders, diverse experts, and diverse perspectives shift from being seen as problems to being seen as resources for achieving greater understanding of the issue, greater buy-in for the results, and greater capacity to make it happen.
Inclusion (from the perspective of this worldview) becomes less a matter of justice – although that’s still a legitimate concern – and more a matter of being smart about discovering a fuller picture of what’s needed and then dealing with that fuller picture together. Participation becomes the creative and empowered use of full-spectrum diversity rather than just people being able to have their say or everyone being involved in decision-making.
This can happen in many different ways: We see diverse people and perspectives engaging in interactions that embrace more of what’s real and more of what’s possible
* when a lively community-level World Cafe creatively stirs and shifts the views of hundreds of participants… or
* when a Citizens Assembly of randomly selected ordinary people hears a spectrum of opinions about a public issue and then considers the best course of action for the larger community from which the participants were selected… or
* when a dynamic facilitator or nonviolent communicator uses reflective listening to open up new possibilities in the midst of intense conflict… or
* when diverse players in an Open Space conference find passion-partners with whom to make new forms of progress on what they love… or
* when stakeholders representing all parts and interests in a major issue domain collaborate to make that domain function more effectively and sustainably… or
… our list can go on and on. See “Resources for Participation” for references to these and other approaches.
So there’s no shortage of approaches to encourage high quality productive interactions among all parts of a whole. We just need to master their appropriate use and to embed them in new forms of democratic culture and institutions where the participatory wisdom that results has the power to regenerate healthy life in the situations to which it is applied….
… Remembering that our goal is always to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.