The Staircase of Participation

My work is in the realm of participation. Inviting people together to take part in something, to turn-towards-each-other. This is not participation for the sake of participation but to support change and learning – if it’s about us, don’t do it without us. Cynthia Kurtz describes “In my experience the greater the degree of participation the stronger the positive impact of any project that involves people and aims to improve some situation faced by those people.”

In Cynthia’s article on Participatory Narrative Inquiry she uses an analogy of a staircase to encourage more participation:

I have also noticed that some forms of participation are easier to manage than others. So I generally encourage people planning projects to think about taking one more step up the staircase of participation, wherever they find themselves now; but I order the steps so as to make the transition more feasible in practice. If you are asking people to tell you stories, why not ask them what their stories mean? If you already do that, why not ask people what the stories other people told mean? If you already do that, why not ask people to build something with their stories? Why not ask them what that means? If you already do that, why not ask people if they can see any trends in the stories that have been told? If you already do that, why not ask people to design interventions based on the stories they have told and heard? Then, why not ask people to help you plan new projects? And so on. As you step up, keep watching your project to see if increasing participation is making it better. If it stops making the project better (for the people you are doing the project to help), stop increasing the participation. Wherever you find yourself is participatory enough. For now.

So the staircase in this example could be:

  • first to ask people to tell their stories with others present from the system
  • ask them what their stories mean
  • ask the others what the stories other people told mean
  • ask them to build something with their stories, and what that means
  • ask people to design interventions based on the stories they have told and heard

As I’m writing this I’m realizing part of the reason I’m drawn to the Collective Story Harvest process is that it has this ladder of participation naturally embedded in it. The Collective Story Harvest is a process that invites people to tell their stories in circles with others – not to an interviewer. It asks others to share what the stories mean through a set of story themes. After that sharing back the storytellers themselves have a chance to share their reflections – a way of exploring what their stories mean to them. Then I often use the Collective Story Harvest process as a launching place – sometimes a World Cafe or other group dialogue process to explore and begin to harvest what we might build together from the collective wisdom we have discovered. And then this can be carried out of the room through some Action Space work of hatching experiments and possible actions with other co-conspirators.

If I’m using the Collective Story Harvest, or other participatory design, Cynthia’s staircase is a good reminder to check what rung are we on and if we might move one more step to increase the participation, as long as it is making the project better.

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