The San Diego Dialogue
It started with a community that wanted to know more about itself, a roundtable discussion, and a class of sociology students, standing on the border between San Diego and Tijuana, tapping on the windows of cars to ask the drivers four questions:
What is your nation of residence? Why are you crossing the border? How frequently do you cross in a month? For what purposes do you cross the border?
The research that the students compiled dispelled a number of common misconceptions about border crossings here, at the most traversed transnational border in the world. Contrary to popular belief, nine out of ten crossings were not by tourists or smugglers, but by commuters who were going back and forth as part of their daily routine.
Faced with this new information, community leaders on both sides of the border suddenly realized that the economies and lives of their two cities were intertwined. Policy makers came together to discuss how they could make border crossing easier for these every day commuters. By the time discussion was through, their efforts had been profiled by papers from The San Diego Tribune to The New York Times, and the United States Congress had passed a bill authorizing expansion of the border to make crossing easier.
This small study with large implications provides important insight into democracy. Democracy, ideally, is a system where people come together to engage in civil discourse a process of participating in informed discussion of how their community looks today, and how they envision it looking tomorrow. Unfortunately, community members often don t have access to the information they need to make informed decisions about their community, and there are typically few places in a town or city where people can come together for such discussion.
The San Diego Dialogue, an initiative of the University of California that was the springboard for this cross-border research project, seeks to rectify both of these situations. The Dialogue is the name given to a center based at the university founded to provide the information, public education, and forum for effective civil discourse in the San Diego-Tijuana region.
The Dialogue is led by a group of one hundred regional leaders of industry, government, the media, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations in Mexico and the United States. The group identifies issues of regional significance in three issue areas: regional integration; equity, diversity, and urban development; and globalization. For any particular issue, the progress of promoting civil discourse follows five steps. First, a plenary session is held providing public education and introducing the issue. Second, working groups are formed that include community members interested in the issue. Third, faculty and research fellows from the university provide applied research on the topic to give the working groups information they need to make informed decisions. The fourth key step in the development of civil discourse is the holding of community forums. The Dialogue regularly convenes workshops, roundtables, and community discussions that focus on research findings and regional issues. The group also sponsors a regular forum for discussion of cross-border policy issues that attracts participation from nearly 500 business, government, and academic leaders; and a regular breakfast forum series in which 200-300 business executives and public officials discuss economic issues and trends.
Once discussion of an issue is complete, the last step in the process is the publication of results. These may be published as separate articles available to the community, or as part of the San Diego Dialogue Report, the group s monthly newsletter.
By the time proceedings are published, community members have become involved in the process of sharing ideas that makes democratic communities come to life. Starting with a sociology class that got people talking all over the nation, the University of California, San Diego, has developed a project that has gotten people talking in a much more important venue: their own communities.
From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy
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