Take a Seat at Oregon’s Kitchen Table: Adapting Targeted Universalism for Broad and Deep Civic Engagement

Back to Winter 2020: Volume 108, Number 4

The world begins at a kitchen table.
-Joy Harjo, United States Poet Laureate

By Wendy Willis

In 2011, a group of Oregon civic leaders and national partners got together to discuss their collective hunch that Oregonians needed and wanted more meaningful opportunities to participate in public decision making. In 2012, they founded and launched Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a statewide civic engagement platform, which they housed in the National Policy Consensus Center in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. The idea was to create a permanent piece of civic infrastructure that combined the best thinking in public participation, community organizing, and deliberative democracy with the online capabilities of campaign software and data management.

As former Oregon Attorney General and President of University of Oregon, David Frohnmayer, put it on the day of the launch: “Instead of loud voices or talk radio, this has been designed with a lot of really scientific architecture. The more people participate, the deeper decision makers can probe into the cross sections of what Oregonians think.”

The theory was that, with the combination of online and in-person tools, Oregon’s Kitchen Table could reach white, college-educated audiences with a light—and relatively inexpensive—touch and that we could spend the lion’s share of resources and attention on reaching and building relationships with historically under-represented communities. Over time, our outreach methods became more and more culturally specific and more and more distinct on a community-by-community basis.

Targeted Universalism
As we were learning in communities, we were simultaneously looking for a philosophical framework in which to ground ourselves and hold ourselves accountable. Around the time that Oregon’s Kitchen Table was founded, Berkeley professor john a. powell1 began to introduce a framework he calls “targeted universalism.” His personal tag line—“expanding the circle of personal concern”—deeply resonated with the goals of Oregon’s Kitchen Table. And targeted universalism, as powell puts it, is a “a much-needed framework for putting belonging into practice—for grounding the idea of what structural belonging and inclusion can look like in its most robust and radical sense.”

powell and his colleagues developed targeted universalism as an alternative framework for policy development and implementation, distinct from either universal programs or targeted ones. To review for a moment, universal policies are policies that apply to everyone, regardless of income or group membership. Think: Universal basic income or free public education, which apply the same way to all people, regardless of need or circumstances. Targeted programs, on the other hand, focus on particular sub-groups that are determined to have enhanced needs. Any program that determines eligibility through a means-test is a targeted program. Think: SNAP or Pell Grants.

powell and his colleagues argue that universal programs may be a blunt instrument, distributing resources where they may not be most needed. Targeted programs, on the other hand, are politically vulnerable and can be a source of humiliation and shame for recipients. As powell and his co-authors, Stephen Menedian and Wendy Ake, put it: “Popular support for social welfare programs has eroded by associating those programs with out-group stereotypes that run against the grain of popular societal values of independence, autonomy, and individual motivation.”

Targeted universalism sidesteps those well-worn arguments by focusing on broad goals followed by specific strategies. powell, Menedian, and Ake describe it like this:

Targeted universalism means setting universal goals pursued by targeted processes to achieve those goals. Within a targeted universalism framework, universal goals are established for all groups concerned. The strategies developed to achieve those goals are targeted, based on how different groups are situated within structures, culture, and across geographies to obtain the universal goal.

In their framework, there are five steps to designing and implementing a targeted universalist policy or project:

  1. Establish a universal goal.
  2. Assess general population performance relative to the goal.
  3. Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal and disaggregate them.
  4. Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group from achieving the universal goal.
  5. Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the goal.

A group applying targeted universalism begins by setting a goal for everyone. It then collectively looks at the community to determine how far off the goal the entire community falls and how far off the goal particular subgroups fall. The group does not make assumptions about why particular communities are falling short of the goal, but rather conducts an assessment to determine both barriers to reaching the goal and structures that support each particular community in reaching the goal.

Targeted universalism is distinct from a traditional equity framework in that the focus is on the shared goal rather than on the most privileged or dominant group. In other words, targeted universalism is not concerned with the how subgroups perform vis a vis each other but rather how each subgroup performs vis a vis the goal. As powell, Menedian, and Ake put it, “It might be more accurate to say that all groups are targeted within targeted universalism, except that they are targeted differently.”

Applying the Targeted Universalism Framework to Civic Engagement
Though it is easy to imagine the application of targeted universalism in social welfare, human services, or educational policymaking or implementation, it needed to be adapted for the work of Oregon’s Kitchen Table.

In our case, we are invited by elected officials or public managers (or sometimes foundations) to partner with them in engaging community members around a particular decision or cluster of decisions. We begin by working with the decision-making body to determine the type of input that would be meaningful for the decision at hand and to set an engagement goal for the community as a whole, either in percentage terms or in raw numbers. Of course, the ultimate goal is to maximize participation, but we set numeric goals in order to create measurable benchmarks. In other words, collectively we decide that we would like to hear from x% of our community members about this decision or we would like to hear from x number of them. That’s the universal part, and in some ways, the easy part.

We then turn to census and other demographic data to determine who is living in the community. From there, we set numeric participation goals for each demographic subgroup in the community and then conduct an assessment to determine how specific subgroups have or have not participated in the past and what the specific barriers to participation are. In many cases, we set goals that exceed census numbers for historically under-represented communities because we often hear from those communities that vulnerable populations are undercounted and that they have been left out of traditional public decision-making.

Next, we identify organizers and other connectors in the targeted communities. We turn to local organizers who have deep relationships and who work in the community, sometimes in formal roles, often in less formal ones. This may mean that large organizations that tend to play gatekeeper roles are less central to the process.

That is the targeted part. And that is where relationships, communication, tracking, and accountability are essential. Once we have built a team to reach the whole community, we design a process that typically lasts anywhere from two weeks to a month and usually consists of a combination of online surveys, paper surveys, one-on-one conversations, and in-person deliberations, all engaging with the trade-offs presented by the public decision at hand. Our materials are reviewed by a plain-language interpreter and then translated into anywhere from two to seven languages, depending on the makeup and needs of the community. Organizers work in the field, encouraging online participation, distributing paper surveys, conducting one-on-one conversations and facilitating small deliberative meetings.

Overcoming Barriers to Participation
There are many questions to consider in assessing barriers to participation and in designing targeted outreach and engagement. Below is a non-exhaustive list that is highly dependent on the circumstances of the community.

Language – Language is often one of the first barriers to participation that local governments consider. Of course, reliable translators and interpreters are essential to making both the printed materials and in-person events more accessible. We have learned that many immigrants or children of immigrants will choose to participate in English, but part of what persuades them to participate is that they are invited to do so in their native language. It is also important to note that even if a person can speak or understand a language, it does not mean that they are necessarily comfortable or fully conversant in that language. We often ask people to identify the language they swear, dream, and pray in. For example, in one community where we worked, many of the Guatemalans worshipped at the Baptist church, while many of the Mexican residents worshipped at the Catholic church. Most of the Guatemalan people could speak Spanish but were more comfortable in Mam, which is an indigenous Mayan language. We held deliberative conversations in Spanish and English at the Catholic Church and in Spanish, English, and Mam at the Baptist Church.

We also recognize that it is often overwhelming for local government officials when they fully realize the number of languages that are spoken in their communities. Even if it is impossible to hold full deliberations in all the relevant languages, it is important to understand some of the most serious barriers to participation. That knowledge also gives local leaders a full picture of their community so that future engagements can become increasingly inclusive.

Literacy and Reading Level – Closely related to language is the issue of literacy. In most communities, there are many people who struggle to read in any language. In addition, even among people who are technically literate, there are significant numbers of people who find it difficult to participate in public processes because the language government uses is beyond their reading and comprehension level. And sometimes, the language is just too technical or jargon-laden for lay people to penetrate.

Though we continue to struggle with text-heavy materials, we do use a plain-language translator to ensure that our English materials are written at an eighth-grade reading level or below and that our Spanish materials are written at a third-grade level or below. It is important to remember that translation, no matter how carefully done, will often add complexity in the translated language.

Race – Because the history of many American institutions—including government institutions—is steeped in white supremacy, communities of color often face serious barriers to participation in public processes. Schools, city halls, community centers, etc., have often been unwelcoming—or downright dangerous—spaces for people of color, making them unsuitable places for inclusive public deliberations. At the beginning of a project, we often spend a significant amount of time trying to understand the particular history of public spaces in the community and then contract with culturally specific organizers who assist in hosting or co-hosting events in culturally and historically appropriate locations.

Religion – Religious beliefs can play out in many different ways in public life. For example, some religious denominations believe that their members should not interact with government at all. Other members of religious organizations are willing to participate, but face obstacles. For example, we have frequently worked in communities with a significant Somali population, which is largely Muslim. In those communities, several of the women have indicated that they are unable to participate if there are men other than family members in the room, so we have held separate deliberative meetings for men and women, each one in Somali and English.

Gender identity and/or sexual orientation – In some communities, men and women gather in very different places, so it is important to ensure that we understand that dynamic. For example, in one community where we worked, many Mexican and Mexican-American men gathered at a western wear store to visit after work and on the weekends, while the women got together after a Zumba class at the church. In the case of the men, the owner of the western wear store became a de facto organizer, engaging nearly every customer who visited his business. In the case of the women, they held several conversations after class, which eventually led to the group self-organizing additional outreach.

In other instances, asking about issues like gender identity and/or sexual orientation—to ensure broad and representative participation—is very sensitive in some communities because admission to either a non-binary gender identity or to a sexual orientation other than heterosexual could lead to persecution, or even execution, in some immigrants’ home countries. Though we have not found a perfect solution to this issue, it is important to recognize places where historically marginalized groups may have differing interests.

Relationship to government – As mentioned above, many people of color have a justifiably strained relationship with government, making them unlikely to want to participate in a public process. In addition, many immigrants and refugees have fled countries with authoritarian governments. As a result, fear of—or at least avoidance of—government is widespread. When those issues are identified, we often rely on organizers to design and execute deliberative processes without staff from Oregon’s Kitchen Table or the client jurisdiction in the room in order to increase participants’ sense of safety. The organizers then provide us with a summary of the deliberation, ensuring that there is no personally identifying characteristics associated with any answers or comments made by individuals.

Age — age is often a barrier to participation in that the very young are often not asked to participate and that the very elderly often have less access to technology, as well as limited mobility and other barriers. Oregon’s Kitchen Table has often conducted interviews, deliberations, and outreach in both schools (through trusted teachers, youth leadership councils, etc.) and senior and community centers. Moreover, it is worth noting that there are often important generational differences within immigrant groups, both with regard to preferred language and relationships to technology.

Geographic location – Location can have a powerful impact on community members’ ability to participate in public processes. While opportunities to participate online may make it possible for many more people to give input, particularly if they are geographically isolated, it is important to remember that there are significant gaps in most states’ online access. Limited digital access makes it doubly important to identify physical locations that serve as community gathering spaces. In one Oregon’s Kitchen Table project, a small, family-owned grocery store became the hub of engagement and organizing in a rural county.

Intersections – As you can see above, there are multiple ways in which these factors intersect. For example, religion and gender identity intersect in myriad of ways, as well as race and relationship to government, and language and age, etc. Those intersections can cause some of the thorniest barriers to participation and should be considered together.

When it comes to applying targeted universalism, the goal is universal, but the targets are very community-specific and can become very narrow. Each community has its own, very particular set of barriers and needs. At Oregon’s Kitchen Table, we put the bulk of our attention and resources into addressing those needs. As powell, Menedian, and Ake put it: “Targeted universalistic interventions undermine active or passive forces of structural exclusion and marginalization and promote tangible experiences of belonging. Out-groups are moved from societal neglect to the center of societal care at the same time that more powerful or favored groups’ needs are addressed.”

At the end of each Oregon’s Kitchen Table project, each organizer prepares a memo documenting the themes, shared values, and points of divergence from each conversation or deliberative meeting and then returns them to Oregon’s Kitchen Table staff. The staff then synthesize the findings, aggregating the data with survey data where appropriate and pointing out differences in values and opinions between particular subgroups. We then share a report with the decision-makers and with everyone who participated in the process, as well as sharing the results through traditional and social media. We also encourage decision makers to circle back to the participants at some future point to let them know how their input influenced—or at least informed—the outcome.

What’s Next
There are two loose ends that need to be addressed. First, it should be pointed out that in most cases, individual deliberative meetings are relatively demographically homogeneous. Because we are working to meet very specific needs and remove very specific barriers, it is rare—though not unheard of—that we will host large, heterogeneous events. That is not to suggest, of course, that the values and opinions of each group are homogeneous. They are most certainly not. It is only to point out that we have placed value on maximizing participation amongst all groups, particularly those that have been traditionally left out of public decision-making. That value has the consequence of creating many culturally specific events rather than larger exchanges across demographic differences.

Large heterogeneous, multi-lingual, multi-cultural deliberations that truly balance power amongst participants and meet the needs of everyone are the next frontier for engagement based on the principles of targeted universalism. But because they are resource-intensive and difficult to execute in a way that authentically meets the needs of the most vulnerable community members, we have undertaken them only in very limited circumstances, typically when there is a need for a very fast turn-around because of a disaster or externally imposed deadline.

Second, there is work to be done in considering how the “universal goal” is established. In the case of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, the universal goal is a participation goal. But that begs the question with regard to the underlying policy goal—or even question—that is usually set in advance by elected officials or public managers. In an ideal setting, however, a more robust and inclusive process would have the community play a part in developing both the substantive and participation goal in the first place.

For those of us interested in broad, deep, and authentic community engagement, targeted universalism provides a promising framework that takes its eyes off the majority culture as the benchmark in favor of a goal set to serve everyone. The targeting strategy then becomes a question of how to meet the needs of and overcome the barriers confronting each community. According to powell, Menedian, and Ake, two of targeted universalism’s “meta-goals,” are: 1) to “reclaim government so it serves the people;” and 2) to “build places for public debate, influence, and service—building the capacity for people to exercise collective agency.” By adapting targeted universalism to inform our thinking about civic engagement, public involvement, and deliberation, we inch a bit closer to meeting those meta-goals and improving our democracy, one conversation at a time.

Wendy Willis is the founding director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. She is also the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the author of These are Strange Times My Dear, and a member of the National Civic League Board.

1 Professor powell uses lowercase letters in spelling his name because he sees himself as “part of the universe, not over it, as capitals signify.”

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