The Art of Democracy helps facilitate an Affordable Housing Task Force Forum. Photo courtesy of Michael Arnold Mages

When you think of startups coming out of Carnegie Mellon, you tend to think of robots or software or something high-tech.

“It’s quite fun to think of this coming out of the philosophy department,” says The Art of Democracy’s Selena Schmidt.

The Art of Democracy is a CMU startup that was initially based on making community forums more diverse and democratic but the concept has since grown bigger.

“It’s about people who are looking to make a decision or create a policy or have a problem where those answers will be enhanced by more diverse viewpoints,” says Schmidt. “It’s almost like interactive crowdsourcing where participants inform each other and then give input toward a solution.” Civilly, of course.

Too often public forums or large groups turn uncivil when some attendees get loud or domineering and others aren’t able to get their voices heard and people leave in frustration without getting anything solved.

The Art of Democracy’s three founders think they’ve found a better way, called Deliberative Community Forums. It entails active listening to diverse viewpoints and voices and then continuing the conversations en route to more effective policy. They’ve literally written the book on it: A Handbook for Deliberative Community Forums, with a foreword by Mayor Bill Peduto.

To conduct an effective forum and inform participants, The Art of Democracy includes basic background materials, moderated roundtable discussions, question and answer sessions with a panel of experts, small-group discussions, and exit surveys.

A lot hinges on recruiting a diverse group of participants, who genuinely get exposed to other perspectives. In a forum for WQED addressing “Guns in a Free Society,” this involved getting the League of Women Voters to talk with NRA members from local gun clubs about how to promote gun safety as a cultural norm.

“Most people can be trusted to make a good decision,” asserts Schmidt who adds that giving the public the knowledge and the opportunity to help make important decisions doesn’t just make things easier for them. 

“Politicians and people who are used to being attacked in a public setting, just relax,” she says. “Their body posture totally changes. Activists, too.”

The city of Pittsburgh has applied The Art of Democracy’s approach to programs like the Affordable Housing Task Force and local implementation of the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program.

“We helped work on the process that brought (former Pittsburgh Police Chief) Cameron McLay,” says Schmidt. “We know the process was good . . . but the emotion shown (by the community) as he left really validates the process.”

The Art of Democracy helps facilitate an Affordable Housing Task Force Forum. Photo courtesy Michael Arnold Mages.

The Art of Democracy grew out of Carnegie Mellon’s Program for Deliberative Democracy, which is directed by philosophy professor Robert Cavalier.

The three co-founders’ very different backgrounds, unsurprisingly, is something they see as a strength. Schmidt is a social entrepreneur and the National Engagement Lead for PBS Kids. Tim Dawson is a writer and theater artist and a doctoral candidate in the English department at CMU who helped develop Deliberative Theater as a method of public engagement. Michael Arnold Mages is founder of the design consultancy Think Make Do, and a doctoral candidate at CMU’s School of Design.

“We’ve worked with the city, county, charter schools, foundations,” says co-founder Tim Dawson. The goal? “We want to make Pittsburgh a center for Deliberative Democracy.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...