How committing to a process of observing, interpreting and intervening can help us recommit to democracy in the wake of divisions over a constitutional amendment on abortion.

I find myself swept into unrest, I am struggling to slow my heartbeat, to deepen my breath, to reengage my thinking brain. How can it be that I am floundering as I try to put my thoughts into words? When it comes to the Aug. 2 vote in Kansas on the constitutional amendment  on whether access to abortion is a right, I cannot deliver on the practices of dialogue I have spent my career emphasizing. I struggle to observe, interpret, and intervene.

To observe, to interpret, to intervene, these are foundational practices of leadership on adaptive challenges. The observe, interpret, and intervene cycle (OII) is a process and practice for decision making and for learning. As a leadership educator, I have lesson plans and time teaching students to manage their mental, physical, and emotional responses to engage disruptive issues meaningfully. In class, we practice this cycle. This – to develop capacity to work alongside others and to make progress on issues we collectively struggle with, and care about, in Kansas, and globally. Yet here I am, preparing to discuss the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and I am unable to practice this skill.

I am untethered grappling with the Aug. 2 vote and impending legislative decisions. Don’t the yard signs and bumper stickers tell me everything I need to know about my neighbors and colleague? No, but they do build a wall, making it easy to avoid the practices of dialogue core to democracy.

Our families, our faiths, and our political institutions have made us experts at opposition. But opposition without intentional dialogue undermines democracy.

This issue is adaptive. Dialogue about it is tough. REALLY tough. I cannot untether this dialogue from my view that human beings should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and health. To me, the loss of a right to an abortion denies others’ rights to their body and flies against the values of our democracy. It is a rejection of the principle that each person has unalienable rights, a foundation of the U.S.

My grandma agrees. Each person has rights. This drives her work to protect life. Hers is a voice I can hear, one that cuts through the nonsense and invites me to understand another outlook on rights in democracy. With Grandma Rose, I can seek to understand. For her, this fight is about protecting rights even for the unborn. The work doesn’t end with birth. It is about fortifying a nation and an infrastructure that provides for and protects life at all stages. Her view stems from a deep belief in the dignity of every person.

I too believe deeply in each person’s dignity and rights. This is what makes this work adaptive. Our values, our beliefs, and our laws and rights are deeply entangled.

This discussion requires us to interrogate our values, our opinions, the ways we live. And YES, it should. Our democracy is worth this discomfort. Our responsibility to one another – to preserve human rights – even and especially when they challenge our values. So where to begin with Aug. 2 here?

Let’s start by asking better questions. By mapping factions carefully to appreciate our diverse values. We can become students of the Observe, Interpret, Intervene Cycle.

OII: A Practice and Process for Democracy

Observations, the first part of the cycle, is about observing the current state. Observation is about identifying things that anyone looking into the situation could see regardless of personal feelings or opinions. Practicing observation with students, I ask them to set the issue in the middle of the room, like an object they can pick up, observe, taste, touch, see, smell, and hear, and describe that thing based on those pieces of hard data. Observation is simpler when we examine the issue at hand objectively.  What can we observe about our commitment to human rights? How do those values shift when we discuss abortion?

To make interpretations, we use observation data to develop an understanding of what might (or might not) be happening. The thinking comes from a variety of perspectives.  In class, making interpretations is how students unpack the stories they tell about their motives and how they take an alternative perspective. But with complex issues like abortion, perspective taking becomes fraught. Health is deeply personal, so much so we established protections like doctor-patient privilege for our privacy. Trying to make my own interpretations about the Aug. 2 vote, I am concerned that it is so personal that I have lost my capacity to dialogue. And, I don’t think I am alone.

One interpretation is that we have lost our capacity to talk with our friends, neighbors, and communities about the full extent of our communities’ needs around reproductive health and wellbeing. That the personal nature of this topic has created a cultural taboo that we are struggling to breakthrough. In my case, the singular voice I could hear, to understand another view, was my grandma, someone with whom I share a lifetime of trust and respect and a faith background. We are of the same ilk; therefore her voice cuts through. Can I parlay that approach to hearing to others?

Interpretation also allows us to reframe the issue. Let’s try.

What if we take a systemic approach and ask what challenges exist in our system? When it comes to abortion if we focus on individuals as solely responsible, we excuse the system of healthcare. We excuse the politicians and corporations that set healthcare policy. If this issue starts and ends with individual choice (or absence of) then we as a community are absolved of our responsibility to care holistically for women, for infants, for one another. Motherhood is challenging. This vote does not change how we care for mothers and families or how we ensure reduction of those challenges (education, health, economic, and otherwise). What would this vote look like if it was about the work beyond gestation and birth?  How do we care for people throughout the lifecycle? Can we explore our mutual obligations as a community? Can we shift from me to us? We can remember our responsibilities to each other. We can stretch the boundaries of where those responsibilities begin and end.

The final stage of the OII cycle before is to intervene. Intervention is an act of leadership. It is a risk. We risk too if we do not act. Intervention means we ask what we will do with this information and how we will exercise leadership on this issue. An intervention on this issue is to remind myself that democracy requires us to exist and engage in grey spaces. To preserve one another’s rights to occupy those spaces even when they are not what we would choose for ourselves. We can intervene publicly by re-complicating this issue. Let’s give it the full weight of its due. We have become good at oversimplifying – on both sides. Stripping the nuance and simultaneously, the worth of one another on this issue. Oversimplifying the argument distracts and undermines our collective intelligence.

Looking Back to Go Forward

We have a history in Kansas of grappling with tough issues. We are the state where Brown v. Board defeated school segregation. People fought for equitable access to education, to secure rights. What can history teach us about how we did this work?

We are not strangers to grappling at the front lines of tough issues.

Regarding Aug. 2, let’s approach this tough issue head on. Kansas can model a new way forward. A way that reflects compassion, empathy, pragmatism, and exploration of issues of faith, healthcare, poverty, economic justice, education, and so much more.

This vote is a call to reflect on our commitment to community and democracy. Can we practice curiosity and consider the whole over the individual? Admittedly, I struggled to do this. If lose my capacity to engage others, have I also failed in my commitment to community and democracy? The OII provides us with a process to engage as we practice holding our democratic values. The OII is not a promise of agreement, but of practice.

So how will we, collectively, intervene? What will our discussions at work, with our neighbors, families, and friends look like on August 3? I imagine they will remain fraught. But leadership is fraught, and our democracy is worth the effort.

Trisha Gott is an assistant professor and associate director at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University. She lives In Manhattan with her partner Ben, a middle school teacher, and three sons.

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