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November 15, 2007

civic renewal in Bridgeport

The folks at Public Agenda--specifically, Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, and Lara Birnbeck--have published a very important study of Bridgeport, CT. I remember Bridgeport as something of a basket case in the 1980s: the city was literally bankrupt, the leadership had a reputation for corruption, and the population was very hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Bridgeport is now doing much better, to the point (for instance) that its school system was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in both 2006 and 2007. The Public Agenda team makes a strong case that the reason for Bridgeport's renaissance is civic participation.

They start the story with the Connecticut Community Conversations Project, a series of public discussions of the type that John Gastil and I cataloged in The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. According to Public Agenda, the discussions of school reform led to many other such projects; deliberation is now a habit in Bridgeport. Citizens have shown that they are capable of making tough choices: for instance, shifting limited resources from teen after-school programs to programs for younger kids. There is much more collaboration today among businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The Public Agenda report quotes several business leaders who describe themselves as converts to public engagement, whose willingness to invest in the city has risen as they have gained trust in their fellow citizens. There is also a high rate of direct participation--for instance, mentoring.

Everyone feels that they share responsibility; problems are not left to officials. The School Superintendent says, "I've never seen anything like this. The community stakeholders at the table were adamant about this. They said, 'We're up front with you. The school district can't do it by itself. We own it too.'"

Now, if we could only inject such examples into the national political debate.

November 15, 2007 9:26 AM | category: none


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