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June 20, 2005

the civic renewal movement

In three consecutive posts this week, I plan to argue that there is a strong, coherent, interconnected movement for civic renewal in America. This first post simply describes some major elements of that movement. In no particular order, they include:

deliberative democracy work

For some thirty years, people have been organizing groups of citizens at a human scale (say, five to 500 people) to discuss public issues, with background materials and some kind of moderation or facilitation. Major organizations in this field include the National Issues Forums (self-selected adults deliberating face-to-face, with published guides), Study Circles (a similar process, but usually more embedded in community organizing), Deliberative Polls (randomly selected citizens who meet for several days), and online forums such as E-The People. Models and practices are proliferating; in fact, my forthcoming book, co-edited with John Gastil, describes more than a dozen in detail. Most of the relevant groups have come together in the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Work on deliberation shades into conflict-mediation efforts, inter-group dialogues (which usually involve discussions of identities and relationships rather than issues), and even new mechanisms that governmental bodies are using to "consult" the public. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation is a broad forum for all these practices.

community-based wealth generation

Deliberation also occurs within non-profit corporations that aim to create jobs and income, and that are formally tied to neighborhoods or to specific rural areas. These corporations include co-ops, land trusts, and community development corporations (CDCs), among others. Community is a good clearinghouse of information. As I argued last week, capital-mobility is a major challenge for democracies, because citizens must do what companies want or else investments will move away. Creating corporations that are tied to communities is a promising solution, and there are more of these corporations every year.

democratic community-organizing work

The Industrial Areas Foundation (which has created and worked with many CDCs and other neighborhood corporations) represents a form of community organizing that builds poor people's political capacity as well as their wealth. Instead of defining a community's problems and advocating solutions, IAF organizers encourage relatively open-ended discussions that lead to concrete actions (such as the construction of 2,900 townhouses in Brooklyn, NY), thereby generating civic power. IAF is a major force in this field, but not the only one. A related stream of practice is Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which emphasizes the importance of cataloguing and publicizing the assets of any community as a prelude to development. The aim is to shift from thinking of poor communities as baskets of problems, and instead recognizing their intrinsic capacities.

civic education

From the 1960s through the 1990s, most scholars argued that explicit civic education had no lasting effects. In the same period (although not only because of the scholarly naysayers), schools tended to abandon civic courses and curricula. Nevertheless, a set of nonprofit organizations continued to provide textbooks, programs, and seminars for teachers. These groups included the Center for Civic Education, the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Streetlaw, and the Bill of Rights Institute, among others. Their programs have usually combined focus on perennial democratic principles with the investigation of immediate issues relevant to students. They also tend to combine experiential learning (e.g., debate, community-service, advocacy) with reading and writing.

Since 1999, these nonprofits, traditionally fractious, have come together to create the National Alliance for Civic Education and then the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The Campaign is a coalition of the leading organizations that specialize in formal civic education, plus major organizations that have pledged to support their agenda, including the American Bar Association, both national teachers' unions, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 35 more.


A particular strand of civic education involves combinations of community service with academic study of the same topic. Service-learning is popular not only in k-12 schools (about a third of which now offer it), but also in colleges. Much service-learning is non-political; it involves acts of charity and service, such as cleaning up a park or visiting elders. Often the underlying theory derives from experiential education (i.e., kids learn best from doing) and doesn't have much to do with civic or political values. However, within the large field of service-learning, there is avid discussion of how to engage young people in solving social problems--as a pedagogy.

community youth development

Much of the best civic education takes place not in schools but in youth groups that are concerned primarily with healthy adolescent development. Increasingly, adults in 4-H, the Scouts, and urban youth centers believe that engaging teenagers in studying and addressing local social problems is a good way to develop their intellects and characters and to keep them safe. Much like proponents of asset-based community development, these people want to treat their subjects (in this case, kids) as partners and assets, not as bundles of problems. They also emphasize local geographical communities as excellent subjects for youth to study and as venues for youth work. The Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development and the Forum for Youth Investment are important hubs in this movement. The Coalition for Community Schools brings a similar set of values to its work with k-12 schools.

work to defend and expand the commons

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is the tendency of any resource that isn't privately owned to be degraded as people over-use it or fail to invest in it. The Tragedy is real: consider the collapse of global fish stocks due to over-exploitation. However, many un-owned resources actually flourish for generations or even centuries. And robust new "commons" are developing: above all, cyberspace (understood as a whole structure, not as a series of privately owned components). Scholars like Elinor Ostrom, working closely with communities, have begun to understand the principles that underlie effective commons--whether they happen to involve grasslands or scientific knowledge. Practical work to protect and enhance commons is underway within the American Libraries Association and in the environmental field. Since the keys to robust, sustainable commons include public deliberation and the wide dispersal of civic skills and attitudes, commons work is closely related to civic renewal.

work on a new generation of public media

When we hear the phrase "public media," we may think first of publicly subsidized organizations that produce and broadcast shows to mass audiences. Indeed, within the constellation of PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NewsHour Productions, and the state PBS affiliates, there is some interesting work going on that could support civic renewal. The Center for Social Media recently received a large Ford grant to explore the future of public media. People at that Center recognize that "public media" is much broader than CPB; it should include any use of any communications medium to promote the creation and sharing of ideas and cultural products relevant to public issues. So defined, the most compelling public media today originates from thousands of grassroots groups that are creating websites, email-based discussions, and audio and video segments. J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, represents a hub for this work.

There is also relevant work inside newspapers. In the 1990s, many professional journalists were interested in writing the news in ways that would better support public deliberation. That movement--variously called "civic journalism" or "public journalism"--has run out of steam as a political force, but it has left an important residue in newsrooms. Furthermore, because of the Internet, newspapers are desperate to become more "interactive." Although interactivity can be a mere gimmick or a way to enhance an individual's experience on a website, some journalists are experimenting with interactive features like blogs for democratic purposes. Jay Rosen keeps track of them.

Public media work and work to defend the commons come together in the field of positive hip-hop. Youth of all races are now producing music and poetry that confronts serious social problems and that depicts themselves as three-dimensional human beings, not as thugs. Hip-hop usually involves borrowing, quoting, and parodying snippets from the mass media. This is a powerful democratic activity, but it can violate over-restrictive copyright laws--which is why the idea of a commons is relevant. Young people in the hip-hop world are increasingly aware that they have a stake in dry issues like copyright.

development of social software

I mentioned blogs in the last section. They are one example of a new behavior that is enabled by software. Many developers are working on other software to enhance discussion and collaboration. Examples include "real simple syndication" (RSS), wikis, and "content management" systems that allow many citizens to create public documents together. (A great example is a whole newspaper, the Bakersfield, CA, Northwest Voice, that consists entirely of material submitted by citizens.) While some of this frenzied innovation is driven by purely technical interests and goals (and by the prospect of making money), there is also a strong subculture of "hackers" who are committed to the commons and to democracy.

the engaged university

Some universities are playing central roles in civic renewal work, as they move from service to partnerships; as they rediscover the importance of the geographical communities in which they are located; as they reflect on the democratic potential of their power as employers, builders, and consumers; and as they conduct sophisticated research that requires learning with and from non-academics. Minnesota (see the Council on Public Engagement), Michigan (see Imagining America), Penn (see the Center for Community Partnerships), and Maryland (see the Democracy Collaborative) are leaders. Campus Compact is a major hub.

Posted by peterlevine at June 20, 2005 08:12 AM


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