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Abstract

A strong turnout of a broad cross-section of the New Orleans population lent legitimacy to a unique public conversation about post-Katrina recovery priorities. Designed and conducted by AmericaSpeaks, Community Congress II brought together over 2500 New Orleanians, linked electronically across five different cities plus smaller satellite sites in 15 diaspora communities across the country. Table observations of 48 deliberative rounds, along with exit interviews, post-event focus groups with participants, and stakeholder interviews are used to address three central questions about the social processes of deliberation: What are the patterns of interaction at the tables across race and gender; how do the participants interpret the meaning of the event for themselves; and what were the outcomes in terms of legitimacy, influence, and social trust? The article contextualizes the event in the unfolding story of the recovery process and culls out the lessons learned for deliberative democracy. Community Congress II demonstrates that inclusive public deliberation does more than provide reasoned public input into difficult policy decisions. It does more than legitimate new public initiatives. It can foster social trust and social healing across the divides of race, culture, and wealth. But the benefits will be sustained only if they are reinforced by an institutional infrastructure of civic engagement.

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