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April 6, 2011

harnassing institutions to serve communites' knowledge needs

These are some notes for my talk at an MIT conference tomorrow. Most in the audience will be librarians, joined by various practitioners and scholars of new media.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation got its money from newspapers. The Knight brothers were in the newspaper business, and the Foundation has made substantial investments in the profession of journalism. But journalism (as we once knew it) is in crisis, and the Foundation realizes that the public interest is best served not by trying to save newspapers or reporters, but by finding the most effective means to meet the real needs that newspapers, at their best, have served. Hence in 2007 the Foundation launched The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

In turn, the Commission was wise enough to realize that "information" is only a piece of the problem. Information is inert: all by itself, it doesn’t produce judgment, motivation, decisions, actions, or power, let alone wise decisions and beneficial actions. Already in 1934, T.S. Eliot was asking prophetically:

Today, information is available in such profusion that our chief problem may be TMI, too much information, not too little. According to a recent article in Science by Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, if all the information created so far by human beings were entered on high-density compact disks, the pile of disks would reach past the moon.

I acknowledge that some important information is unavailable, either because no one has invested in producing it or because powerful elites are keeping it secret, and we still need to fight for information. Librarians and journalists are among the people who wage that fight on the public's behalf. But access to information is far from our only need. As the Knight Commission found:

I think that when people "engage," some of the things they do include:

I start with the bias that we need institutions for these purposes. I am open to the idea that we need institutions less than we used to, because now we have virtual networks (like Facebook, or the Internet itself) that cut the costs of discussion collaboration. But I see no evidence that these networks have yet revived our democracy. And I think the tough questions to ask are:

There was never a golden age of American democracy, but we did once have pervasive institutions that recruited members, got them interested in public affairs, digested and interpreted information for them, encouraged them to talk and reach their own conclusions, and brought their members into conversation with people who were different. In the 1970s …

The various streams of civic life didn't flow together often enough, but there were times when unions and chambers of commerce, priests and rabbis, journalists and politicians, met and talked with one another within their own communities.

But all of these institutions have fallen on very hard times, shedding most of their members and resources. So we need to leverage new institutions for similar purposes. Here are three ideas, derived from the Knight Commission report but expanded by me:

1. A Communications Corps.

Literally millions of young Americans are involved today in structured community service programs, whether service-learning classes in their schools or universities, after-school programs like 4-H and Campfire Girls, or the full-time positions supported by AmeriCorps. This is a powerful infrastructure.

Young people tend to have relatively strong skills for using digital media, which they could contribute to serve their communities. But, being young, they have relatively narrow knowledge of public life. Thus they have much to learn by serving their communities' information needs.

Existing service programs range in quality, but some are insufficiently challenging. The programs would educate better if they had more ambitious learning objectives.

The Knight Foundation recommend a "Geek Corps": college students would serve nonprofits by providing IT support. I would amend that proposal in two ways. I would open the corps to non-college youth, recognizing that only about one quarter of our young adults really have the four-year college experience, and their peers (including the one third who drop out of high school) also have much to contribute. In fact, given limited resources, I would focus on young adults who have never attended college.

Second, I wouldn't make it a "geek" corps, implying a focus on setting up servers and tweaking software. I would make it a "communications corps," with a heavy emphasis on making videos, writing text, interviewing neighbors, and facilitating online discussions. Corps members would still be assigned to local nonprofits, but their job would typically be to produce videos for the website, not to get the office network running.

One model is a free-standing corps, parallel to YouthBuild, City Year, Public Allies, ViSTA and the like. I would be more inclined to infuse the communications work into the programs of these existing "corps," while employing a relatively small number of youth as full-time trainers and developers who would serve the rest of the service world.

2. Universities as Community Hubs

Higher education is a big sector, with $136 billion in annual spending and $100 billion in real estate holdings. But it is not just any big business. Its fundamental mission is the production and dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of dialogue and debate.

But universities need to dedicate themselves to their own communities' knowledge needs, not only in abstract statements, but as a matter of real investment. Providing timely information of local relevance and with input from neighbors trades off against other intellectual pursuits. Overwhelmingly, rewards and prestige flow to scholars whose work is original and generalizable. Communities need work that is true, relevant to them, and accessible to them. Universities can produce some of both, but they cannot add more local work without subtracting a bit of something else. Creating community information hubs within higher education requires at least a modest shift of priorities.

Universities must also aggregate the scattered knowledge produced by their professors, students, and staff. One of the advantages of the traditional metro daily newspaper was its format--a manageable slice of information every day, with the top news on the front page, a few hundred words of debate in the letters column, and space for the occasional in-depth feature. In contrast, a great modern university produces a flood of material for an array of audiences. Universities need to think about common web portals that accumulate and organize all their work relevant to their physical locations.

They must adopt appropriate principles and safeguards. You can do good by going forth into a community to study it, to portray it, and to stir up discussion about it. Or you can do harm. Much depends on how you relate to your fellow citizens off campus. Relationships should be respectful and characterized by learning in both directions. In this context, "research ethics" means far more than the protection of human subjects from harm; ethical research is directed to genuine community interests and needs and builds other people’s capacity for research and debate. Like faculty, students must be fully prepared to do community service well, and held accountable for their impact.

3. Sustained Face-to-Face Dialogue in Communities

Face-to-face discussions of community issues have been found to produce good policies and the political will to support these policies, to educate the participants, and to enhance solidarity and social networks. They turn mere information into public judgment and public will. I am still moved by the Australian participant in a planning meeting who said, "I just can’t believe we did it; we finally achieved what we set out to do. It's the most important thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, I suppose."

Hampton, VA, the fourth-place winner in the international Reinhard Mohn Prize for the best civic engagement process in the world, exemplifies what sustained, embedded deliberation looks like. Hampton did not just invite citizens to participate in one high-profile discussion that was somehow linked to policymaking. Instead, Hampton has a mosaic of school counsels, neighborhood councils, police councils, a Youth Commission, public city planning processes, Participatory Budgeting (where large groups of citizens allocate capital spending). It also provides relevant training opportunities, including civic education in the schools and a suite of courses for adults called "Diversity College."

I would draw the conclusion that is also implicit in the title of Carmen Sirianni’s recent book, Investing in Democracy. You can't get community dialogues on the cheap. They take a long-term effort and resources that are normally a mixture of money, policies, and people’s volunteered or paid time.

There must be some kind of organizer or convening organization that is trusted as neutral and fair and that has the skills and resources to pull off a genuine public deliberation. Libraries and universities are among the institutions that can play that role.

People must be able to convene in spaces that are safe, comfortable, dignified, and regarded as neutral ground. Again, libraries and universities can help.

There must be some reason for participants to believe that powerful institutions will listen to the results of their discussions. They may be hopeful because of a formal agreement by the powers that be, or even a law that requires public engagement. Or they may simply believe that their numbers will be large enough--and their commitment intense enough--that authorities will be unable to ignore them. In the terms of John Gaventa's Power Cube, the discussions cannot be "invited." They must be "created" or "claimed."

There must be recruitment and training programs: not just brief orientations before a session, but more intensive efforts to build skills and commitments. Ideally, moments of discussion will be embedded in ongoing civic work (volunteering, participation in associations, and the day jobs of paid professionals), so that participants can draw on their work experience and take direction and inspiration from the discussions. There must be pathways for adolescents and other newcomers to enter the deliberations.

April 6, 2011 8:47 AM | category: none



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