The Santa Barbara County Action Network  (SB CAN) has been dedicated since its inception to finding common ground between social justice and environmental advocates. We have always believed it possible to build affordable housing and preserve open spaces at the same time; to protect both endangered species and jobs that pay living wages. And we’ve been practicing that belief ever since.

Sometimes, finding common ground is a collaborative process, building coalitions among like-minded organizations to achieve common goals. SB CAN is an active participant in several coalitions, including the Coalition for a Fair Measure D  and the Santa Maria Community Coalition.

Other times, finding common ground means bringing together groups that seem adversarial on the surface, yet in reality have deep common interests. Last year, SB CAN was involved with a diverse group of organizations in Santa Barbara, representing local government, developers, environmental and social justice advocates. We explored ways to build communities that would be both environmentally and economically sustainable. More recently we were invited to help create a coalition among agricultural and environmental groups to work together to preserve and promote local agriculture.

But sometimes finding common ground means bringing together groups with very different ideologies, which view each other with distrust or even open hostility. This is when finding common ground can be the most challenging, but also the most promising. SB CAN was invited to participate as one of the stakeholders on the North County Advisory Committee to renew Measure D in 2008. Even though this is a nonpartisan committee, many of the people at the table have strikingly different partisan viewpoints and interests. In some ways, this was like bringing together reds, blues, Greens and Libertarians and asking them to craft a ballot initiative that all of their respective constituents would support. A challenging task, to say the least.

Finding common ground is never easy, but understanding the following core principles could help pave the way toward success.

1. Common Ground isn’t about ending conflicts, but transforming them. Conflict is a normal part of life, but it doesn’t have to lead to hostile confrontations or bitter stand-offs. Finding Common Ground means “attacking” problems rather than attacking people. It means working to understand each other rather than trying to change each other. It means moving past our obvious differences and finding places where we can agree. In the end, to be successful, we need to see each other more as partners than adversaries.

2. Common Ground is about commitment to a process. Finding common ground takes time. It requires making a long-term commitment to work in partnership with people from various sectors of the community. It means treating each other with respect, and respecting differences. It means learning to trust each other as well as trusting the process. Most of all, finding common ground requires the ability to imagine success. If we go into the process believing that success is unlikely, then we are more apt to focus on our differences than on finding common ground.

3. Common Ground is not about compromise; it’s about creating new possibilities. Neither side has to give up deeply felt beliefs or values. Neither has to move toward some nebulous middle ground or “lowest common denominator.” Finding common ground means generating new alternatives, and finding that “highest common denominator” toward which all sides can aspire.

I think that’s the part I like most about the work I do, whether it’s creating coalitions among like-minded organizations, or attempting to find common ground between two diametrically opposed groups — the potential for creating something new in the world, that all sides agree is good.

Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network  (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.722.5094 or at This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.