When Carolyn Lukensmeyer got the call, she knew that this would be no ordinary meeting.

Her client was the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, a coalition of more than 100 of New York City's leading civic, business, environmental, community, academic, and labor groups. Her job: to organize the first citywide conversation about rebuilding downtown New York, a meeting of 500-plus people to be held right near the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

And she had just two months to pull it off.

Hit the Ground Running

“They'd already set the date for February 7,” recalls Steve Brigham, COO of AmericaSpeaks. “So we came into this about seven weeks out — a much tighter time frame than we usually work with.”

AmericaSpeaks is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that Lukensmeyer founded. It is known for designing and facilitating large-group public discussions on policy and civic concerns. But from the start, the event, dubbed Listening to the City, was no ordinary discussion.

The pair hit the ground running, scouring the area for a meeting place. In early January, they settled on South Street Seaport's Pier 17 building — a big shopping mall with an open food court on the third floor, which they proceeded to convert into a site.

Planning proceeded on a number of tracks. “We made sure decision-makers would be at the meeting, including representatives from the mayor's office, the Empire State Development Corp., and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is charged with rebuilding the World Trade Center site,” says Brigham. “We wanted to ensure that this was a meeting where people's voices would be heard and what they said would have an impact.”

They also had to get word of the meeting out to a wide range of constituents: families of victims, downtown residents, rescue workers, and racial and ethnic minorities within New York's five boroughs. “We contacted organizations in the communities we were trying to reach, did phone banking, produced flyers in different languages, used e-mail listservs, and posted announcements on the Web and around the city,” says Brigham. A registration database enabled more than 500 participants to sign up in advance online, and about 20 percent more people registered the day of the event. The total number of attendees: 650.

AmericaSpeaks also played a major role in creating the meeting's agenda. It put together an eight-page participant guide that laid out the events of September 11, their effects on the region, and the main planning categories — economic development, public transportation, security, infrastructure, quality of life — along with suggestions for future planning.

The architecture of the event — the appropriate questions, discussion times, use of technology — was a collaboration between the sponsors and AmericaSpeaks. A week before the meeting, they held a focus group with 10 people, including rescue workers and a family member of a victim, as a test run.

Lukensmeyer brought in Ruthann Prange, an independent consultant, to recruit 60 volunteer facilitators — no small challenge with just a month's notice. Despite the fact that the facilitators were being asked to volunteer and would have to pay for their own transportation and lodging, the response was overwhelming. “Every facilitator who signed up came, from 13 states and Washington, D.C.,” says Prange. “What I heard over and over was, ‘I've been wanting to do something for New York, and now I can.’”

Prange communicated every detail to this group, from the vision for the meeting to what to wear and how to use public transportation — “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” as she puts it. Facilitators were encouraged to visit Ground Zero before the meeting “to start centering ourselves and get a feel for the tone of the city.”

Lukensmeyer, along with Prange and Daniel Stone, another consultant, held a two-hour orientation for the facilitators the day before the meeting. “We emphasized that they must follow an absolute structure,” recalls Prange. “They also had to be very skillful about allowing people to tell their stories about September 11.” A grief specialist discussed how to recognize the signs of grief and deal with such situations. “They had this thing so well scripted it was like a ballet,” says Patrick Parker-Roach, president of ThoughtRoads Inc., Groton, Mass., and one of the facilitators.

The Day Arrives

The scenario that greeted Parker-Roach and his colleagues on that cloudy Thursday morning was a room with a stage and podium, two large TV projection screens, and 65 round tables, each accommodating 10 participants and a facilitator.

At each table, the facilitator used a networked wireless laptop computer to record key ideas generated by the group. That data was instantly sent to a five-person ‘Theme Team’ of Civic Alliance and AmericaSpeaks staff at a central location in the room. The staff's job was to identify the strongest patterns that emerged from the tables and to report back on them, using the big screens, at strategic points during the day.

The team also asked questions of the entire group, and participants used polling keypads to respond. Because the organizers had gathered demographics on attendees before the meeting, they were able to break out the answers based on where people lived as well as their race, gender, and age.

The day began on a somber note. After participants had been seated randomly at tables, Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corp., told the audience that “our diverse communities [must] remain united … so we may act and achieve great things for this city, this state of New York, and this nation.” Several other officials spoke, and Lukensmeyer laid out the day's agenda. The group observed a minute of silence in honor of those who had been lost September 11.

Participants were then given 40 minutes to get acquainted. “We asked questions such as ‘Where were you when it happened? What did it mean to you?’” says Parker-Roach. “We heard people talk about how they saw smoke from their kitchens, or stood in front of the World Trade Center watching the plane hit. It helped me as a facilitator to know what kinds of sensitivities there were at the table.”

Then the tables got down to work. The morning questions focused on participants' vision of the future of the downtown area and issues that need to be addressed in the rebuilding. At lunchtime, as people ate, the Theme Team reviewed the morning's data and identified eight major themes, which appeared on the screens. The entire group was polled on three top issues. A consensus emerged that downtown Manhattan should be rebuilt as “a vibrant, 24-hour mixed-use community”; that “a seamless transportation hub” should be created; and that “a memorial should be integrated into the total picture.”

The afternoon was devoted to defining that memorial. After viewing a video montage of various memorials of historic disasters around the world, plus those commemorating September 11 that had sprung up around the country, attendees were asked three questions around which to frame the discussion: For whom are we creating the memorial? What is the essence of what we want to honor, remember, and memorialize? What should the memorial be?

Parker-Roach's table decided that the memorial should be dedicated to those who hadn't been born yet, and that the people who had lost their lives should be the ones memorialized. As for the memorial itself, his group wrote that it should be “a timeless place to find peace, to encourage dialogue around why and how this happened.”

“I was blown away the way people rose up,” says Parker-Roach. “There were people at my table who saw the plane enter the building, and others who had to mobilize the rescue efforts. I heard so many moving conversations from them.”

As a way of wrapping up, each table was asked to write a headline that would reflect what had happened at the meeting. Microphones were passed around, and someone at each table stood up and read their group's statement. “Ours was, ‘We Came, We Spoke, Will They Listen?’” Parker-Roach recalls.

People left the meeting with a preliminary six-page report of the event, complete with statistics and analysis, that had been produced by AmericaSpeaks' staff during the headline-writing exercise. “That was very impressive,” says Prange. (The final report is available online at www.americaspeaks.org.)

For Parker-Roach, almost as powerful as the meeting itself was the debriefing that followed. “It was a strict rule that we were not allowed to voice our opinions throughout the day, so this gave us a chance to take off our facilitator hats and share our experiences. A lot of thoughtful comments came back. They almost had to kick us out of the place. We didn't want to leave!

“The most profound thing that struck me was that I saw no outward signs of anger during the day,” he adds. “What I heard was people dealing with their grief and looking toward the future — picking themselves up, dusting themselves off with a tear in their eyes, and saying, ‘Let's get to work.’”

Behind the Meeting

AmericaSpeaks (www.americaspeaks.org) creates 21st-century town meetings, enhanced by technology, for hundreds to thousands of people. Its mission is to bring citizen's voices to government at every level.

The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York (www.civic-alliance.org) was created after September 11 to seek consensus strategies for redeveloping lower Manhattan.

In addition to the Alliance, meeting sponsors included The Center for Excellence in New York City Governance, a part of New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; the Regional Plan Association; NYU's School of Law; and New School University's Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy.

A second meeting is being planned, probably for July, for about 5,000 people, to consider specific alternatives for the future of lower Manhattan. For more information, contact AmericaSpeaks at (202) 299-0126, or at info@americaspeaks.org.

What Should the Memorial Be?

When discussions turned to the details and design of a World Trade Center memorial, many participants sketched out intricate plans on sheets of paper or even napkins. The group's shared vision was of a memorial that would:

  • contain names, images, and biographies of all who were lost.

  • acknowledge those victims whose names we do not know.

  • function as an interactive, educational museum, one that would not only tell the story of September 11 but would also teach nonviolence and encourage tolerance.

  • be a quiet place for prayer, reflection, and remembrance.

  • honor American ideals and values, including liberty, community, and democracy.

  • include elements that "breathe life" into the space, such as a reflecting pool, gardens, or perhaps a tree for each victim.

  • Integrate light and illumination, as did the Tribute in Light.

  • include a section of the facade or some of the debris from the WTC.

  • be placed where the towers stood.