Invisible vs. Visible Products

Robert Stains

Program Director, Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What are the most common obstacles to the success of your work?

A: Overall, as a culture, I think, there's a great product orientation. I think that the products that are valued are the products that are observable. So being able to see, even at the dialogue conference, often when people made the delineation between dialogue and action, even there, I felt that it was the manifestation of a product-oriented approach, as if dialogue, shifting understanding, and shifting one's own mental framework was not action because it is not visible. We talk about invisible and visible actions. We tend to trade much more in invisible actions, but our culture prizes visible actions. That's a really big barrier, especially to funding, where we are trying to describe the effects of what we do, and how the world is going to be a better place, and so forth.

Q: So you were saying that you have a long line of people coming to ask you to intervene. Do they understand that difference between the product and the visible and the invisible?

A: Yeah, the people that seek our services out understand us pretty well. They tend to be involved in conflicts where the cost of the conflict is so high that just getting people into the room for a conversation is a worthy enough goal, because it's to that point in the conflict. In some instances we've been involved in people have spat on each other, physically pushed each other around, and that's the extent of their interaction. Just to get them to have a respectful conversation is pretty cool.

Q: After the abortion doctor's murder here in the Boston area, I'd be willing to venture that there would have been any number of organizations that would have been willing to throw money to some sort of initiative that would work to assuage the tensions at that point. I'm wondering if you think that it's almost a reactive thing that people aren't willing to put money into proactive programs that don't have visible outcomes, but they're more willing to do it after a terrible thing like violence or a murder takes place?

A: Yeah, I think that's true in a lot of areas. Before I came to PCP, I was working for National Homelessness Foundation, which was sort of a pass through for money. We found that when there was a death, like a homeless person would starve to death, or freeze to death, people were more willing to fund a project, and then it would die down. I think that we're just subject to the same sort of cycles that other public service organizations are.

Q: Do you think that cycle makes it look like these projects are less valuable because they are always done after the fact? I mean, if you could do your work and be proactive and get initiatives before a crisis erupted.

A: Right, but it is hard to find a funder. For a while, Hewlett was funding a lot of initiatives like ours. They were funding us for infrastructure development and that kind preventive work. It was really great that they were doing that work. Its tough to find a funder that will pay for something, the outcome of which you cannot describe, or even guarantee that there's going to be any change.