Rob Fersh is the President and Founder of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to promote consensus solutions to issues of domestic and international importance. Immediately prior, Rob served as the United States country director for Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization. While at SFCG, he directed national policy consensus projects on health care coverage for the uninsured and U.S.-Muslim relations.
In the 1986-98 period, Rob served as president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a leading NGO working to alleviate hunger in the United States. Rob also served on the staffs of three Congressional committees, working for U.S. Representative Leon Panetta and for Senators Patrick Leahy and Edmund Muskie. While a Congressional staff member and at FRAC, he was deeply involved in shepherding passage of bipartisan legislation to reduce hunger in the United States.
Rob has held additional positions in the federal executive branch and non-profit sector. He was a 1994 recipient of the Prudential Foundation Prize for Non-Profit Leadership. Rob holds a law degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, where he has served as a guest lecturer and co-instructor of a course on collaborative decision making and public policy. He is married, has four children, and one grandchild.
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Rob says that from very early on in his life he was always the person to find common ground in common situations. He was involved in advocacy on the issue of childhood hunger, but he found that sometimes the organization was too strident in it’s language and tactics. However, he was president of the organization and was able to change the tone to be more inclusive of many opinions. He actually at one point in his life thought that his religion, as a Jewish man, and his desire to be moral actually required that he be liberal or progressive. He kept meeting people of such great decency who came from all different backgrounds and political opinions and he really felt drawn to creating a space where people from all these backgrounds with deep moral concerns could come together and have a conversation and solve problems together.
Fersh felt like he was being set up as liberal to debate and the shaper he was, the media enjoyed it more. The goal of Convergence is to bring together people together on a shared common goal, but have different ideas on how to get there.
Their flagship project on K-12 education has been a huge success in bringing “opposing” actors into the room and they have been able to form their own organization.
His method brings different groups together to learn and obtain new information. This is in a setting where people can just listen and not have to “win the debate.” When you let your guard down in this way, you can open your mind to new ideas without relinquishing your principles.
Susan asks about whether or not Rob works with a lot of American lawyers in his organization, Convergence. They are based in Washington DC where there is a great deal of adversarial models of engagement.
Rob says that he doesn’t generally know the occupations of the people he works with, but people in Washington more generally are trained that they need to win based on their politics. They are unfamiliar, for the most part, with a non-aggressive style of dialogue. The transformation he witnesses in some cases is phenomenal.
He tells the story of two people who came from opposing viewpoints on education. One came from a charter school background and one from a public school background. (Link charter vs public debate) They actually learned so much from each other that they decided to have their own joint speaking engagement and said in front of the group towards the end that they loved each other and loved learning from each other.
Rob tells another story from their economic accountability project. There was a lawyer who was from a watchdog organization and very skeptical of large corporations. Another woman came from Walmart. The lawyer admitted to wanting to hold this woman from Walmart accountable and really watch her in the beginning, but they put their heads together and formed a bond and realize that they really had that same goals for workers and the economy. They came from very different sides of the table, and often had disagreements, but they respect each other and knew that they shared moral values and goals.
This model doesn’t necessarily mean that every issue is resolved, but that there’s higher levels of dialogue occurring because trust has been established.
Susan would like Rob to go into detail about how the method of Convergence really works.
The way that Rob gets people interested is he asks them how their goals are coming along without engaging the other side. How much are they truly accomplishing? He finds that people believe that they have the full truth and they’re on willing to talk with anyone who has a different opinion. They severely limits the impact that their ideology can truly have. This is what brings people to the table.
Next, he identifies a problem that everyone agrees is a problem. This allows people to have a common goal for the problem, even if their approaches are very different. Everyone agrees that there is something better than what’s currently going on on this issue.
Economic mobility (this is key phrasing, it’s not “economic inequality” which would isolate certain political parties) The unifying factor in this particular example is that everyone agrees that people should be able to achieve the American dream if they work hard enough.
Coming from more liberal backgrounds, Rob had to surround himself with people who understood how to bring more conservative people to the table. He discusses a particular advisor who used to work with the heritage foundation, a very conservative think tank based in Washington DC that has a history of promoting conservative policy. It is essential to be able to frame these conversations in a way that both conservatives and liberals can hear them and be drawn to them.
Rob discusses the process by which they come up with new conversations to have. One of the biggest parts is that he has to present the organization as a truly bipartisan group with the main goal of sharing goals and moving forward together— the organization can’t lean to one political party or the other. They spend a great deal of time learning from both sides how to frame each issues. They decide what stakeholders need to be involved to try to be as representative as possible on the issue.
Rob says that in his day-to-day work, people believe him to be neutral or they believe him to agree with their side because he is truly listening to them. While he doesn’t hide the fact that he has a more liberal background, he is committed to uphold neutrality and building trust from people from all different opinions because he needs this trust in order to get his job done.
Before any of the process can begin, they have to do their homework. They hear opinions from all different stakeholders and all different sides of the issue.
Rob discusses the issue of funding. When an organization or union or business group decides to fund a project like this, they have to understand that that funding has no strings attached to the results of the project. There is an issue in the financing of these projects because most people only want to fund results, and they don’t think too much about the process that goes into those results. Many times, the process of building consensus or takes much longer than the funders originally anticipated.
Rob says that once they have an idea that they think is going to work, they will spend about six months researching all different opinions on the issue and the various stakeholders that would need to be involved. When the group finally comes together, they try to make their activities together last at least two days so that people have time to debrief, sleep on the conversation, break bread together, etc. The dialogues they have are intentionally more than just dialogue.
Rob worked on a project as before starting Convergence on US-Muslim relations. In this context, he had Madeline Albright at the table, several American Muslims, the former director of AIPAC. This was a high-level meeting and they were able to go to a beautiful retreat center. He believes that that kind of atmosphere can support this kind of dialogue, but when you are a nonprofit and don’t have a lot of money, the atmosphere of trust can be cultivated in any space.
The process: Most of the projects meet for a day and a half every three months for approximately 1 to 2 years. There is some flexibility here. He says that it takes approximately two years to have an impact on an issue, but he can accelerate this process in an urgent situation.
Rob describes the work as a “dialogue leading to action model“. He would like to say that if it is also a “dialogue leading to impact model“ but he can’t always guarantee this. It is up to the participants to determine where their impact and action will be. Sometimes he assumes that a group will tackle a certain issue based on the conversation, but the energy behind that issue isn’t there and the group ends up wanting to do something else. He can’t guarantee in the very beginning what the impact or action will be.
We gather the people that have the collective knowledge, experience and influence to have an impact if they can make progress on the issue. People are also included when they have a stake in the issue because they have lived experience, but may not have the influence to make an impact.
Generally, after the one and a half/two years,, the group will have developed a plan of action going forward. All of them will have developed this together. Sometimes this action plan will get handed off to a different organization or, in the case of education, become a fully independent organization.
He says personally, he’s excited about the work he does but he’s also sober to buy how challenging it is to really make an impact. Even if he has the right people in the room and they have a great deal of influence, and even if those influential people come to an agreement, there might not be change in policy or an action. There is also always the struggle of being a nonprofit and wanting to have enough money to really scale their impact. However, he knows that this organization is cutting edge. He knows that it’s having an impact. Some people call it the most transformational professional experience of their lifetimes. He knows that they’re onto something and he believes that with sustained practice, there will be an impact. People see the need for this work.
American politicians are in a very difficult place now because media and donors uphold people who stick to party lines and they are skeptical of politicians who choose to cooperate. Even if the space was created for them to cooperate and engage in real dialogue, this might prevent their reelection, if they were seen to cooperate with the other side. Their needs to be incentives for working across party lines. Many of our systems are broken. People can’t even entertain that people from outside their political identity have legitimate political concerns and opinions.
Polarization isn’t only from the US Presidential election of 2016-- it goes much deeper than that. Most people want real answers and solutions to their problems; they want to raise their children morally. People mostly have the best intentions-- the trouble is scaling these morals and intentions to a societal level.
We need to encourage people to be committed to something bigger than just winning a debate with their opinion.
Convergence not only takes on their own projects, they are committed to helping other people and groups engage in this kind of work-- Rob invites listeners to get involved and learn more.
Rob struggles with a title that reflects the work that he does -- Creative, collaborative problem solver.
Susan brings up the issue of balancing power dynamics in a group that has very diverse levels of power. Rob works really hard to ensure that every voice counts. Facilitators look for people who haven’t contributed. Not every voice has to be one of a big influencer, but together they have the power to have an influence.
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