Media headlines remind us every day of the challenges that our nation is facing in advancing policy and programs on critical issues, from health care to national security to job creation. While tensions play out in Congress and the media, some of our country’s most influential leaders are coming together behind the scenes to craft a different path forward, with the support of a unique partnership between CBI and Convergence, a nonprofit whose mission is to convene leaders in innovative contexts to jointly address tough policy issues. CBI and Convergence are blending their expertise to work with national leaders on some of the most complex policy issues of our time -- economic mobility, federal budgeting, education, incarceration, and nutrition – and are generating surprising results on topics that many thought were gridlocked.

One such topic is education reform. A few years ago, CBI and Convergence launched an initiative focused on helping national leaders come together to design a different future for education in the U.S. The education field is highly fractured, with advocates demanding drastically different solutions: high-stakes testing, portfolio evaluation, less testing, charter schools, reinvestment in public schools, extended days, less homework, increased teacher pay, performance pay, cuts in funding, expansion of funding, and more. Yet, CBI and Convergence inspired key leaders on all sides of the current divides to come together, in a room in Washington, D.C., to explore what an extraordinary education, fit for the 21st century, might look like for all students.

Through a highly creative, facilitated process, the heads of teacher unions, national leaders in the charter school movement, and advocates for social-emotional learning, on-line learning, and many other strands in the educational debate came to the shocking realization that they in fact share a common vision for U.S. education: empowering every child to take leadership in learning. This concept was so compelling that leaders stopped arguing about how to fix our current system and instead have united to launch a national network of thousands engaged in reimagining education – an outcome that almost none of them could have envisioned emerging in their lifetimes.

This surprising breakthrough was generated through the powerful partnership that CBI and Convergence have been developing over the past eight years, since they initially came together for a collaboration to convene diverse national leaders for dialogue and action on U.S. engagement with Muslim-majority countries. The unique combination of Convergence’s ability to identify critical issues ripe for innovation, convene high-level policy leaders, and manage complicated projects and CBI’s deep expertise in facilitation and mediation has produced some remarkable developments on what have seemed like intractable issues. Through carefully tailored engagements, the Convergence-CBI partnership has helped a wide range of influential stakeholders think differently, build relationships, and explore solutions that emerge from confronting their differences, imagining different futures, and developing ground-breaking initiatives together.

Central to CBI-Convergence approach has been an emphasis on helping stakeholders let go of pre-conceived ideas and creatively work together on what might be possible. In the education project, CBI facilitators partnered with independent facilitator Allan Cohen to guide participants through an exercise to help them shed assumptions, and then role-play their ideal visions for education. As the skits progressed, there was an epiphany moment when leaders began to see a consistent theme emerging: learners at the center of their education, with adults supporting them in innovative ways to reach into their communities and out into the world. This moment stopped participants in their tracks – and recalibrated their focus to working on the realization of this theme.

On the federal budget project, aimed at helping leaders design a more effective budgeting process, CBI and Convergence introduced a similar level-setting process. Instead of debating the merits of acts and procedures that have been adopted over 200 years, CBI facilitators directed participants to the country’s founding document – the Constitution – to examine what is required on budgeting, and what isn’t. This exercise has helped the 25 leaders involved in this process create a remarkably clean slate. Based on a set of principles that they have collectively agreed upon, they are now examining new approaches to budgeting.

CBI and Convergence have also recently launched two other critical initiatives:

Economic Mobility: While there is growing consensus across the ideological spectrum that economic mobility is eroding in the U.S., people are articulating very different analyses and solutions -- and without a common vision, forward progress is stymied. CBI and Convergence have launched an economic mobility initiative to help address this challenging problem, specifically examining how employment in the U.S. could be a more effective engine for economic security and mobility for those in the bottom half of the country’s economic distribution. Thirty leaders representing workforce development, higher education, business, labor, and other sectors began discussions on this issue last summer. Among the topics being explored are: improving job quality, increasing skills, building ladders of opportunity for low-income Americans, reducing barriers to meaningful employment, and providing more stability and economic security for those at the bottom of income distribution.

Improving Reintegration after Incarceration: The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the global prison population, and recidivism rates within five years are more than 75 percent. Given the human and financial costs associated with incarceration, this topic is garnering a lot of attention across the political spectrum. In a recently launched initiative, CBI and Convergence are conducting an assessment to understand challenges and opportunities connected to this topic. Interviews with stakeholders are revealing that people have deeply-held values that influence their views. Some think of incarceration as a form of punishment, others as a means of addressing public safety. There are people who believe that society should help those incarcerated build skills and attitudes to facilitate their becoming productive citizens upon re-entry. Others think it is important to create connections for those returning to the community, to support their integration and application of learned skills. At the conclusion of the assessment, 25-30 individuals will be invited to participate in a 12-18-month dialogue process to develop a set of recommendations.

The CBI-Convergence partnership has presented national leaders with a unique platform for working together and innovating on complex social and economic issues. Our initial successes suggest that the unique and complementary strengths of CBI and Convergence are making a difference on crucial issues -- at a point in time when collaboration seems in short supply in our capital. CBI and Convergence strongly believe that our nation’s leaders can find common when the right people are inspired to come together and build relationships through a highly creative dialogue process. When successful, these dialogues are providing exceptional opportunities for leaders to generate breakthrough results on some of our nation’s thorniest challenges.