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"I recently suggested it to my United States Senator!" (CharityChannel.com, 3/12/03)
Using this invaluable resource, nonprofit professionals, concerned citizens, business and civic leaders, public officials and professional facilitators will find pragmatic approaches to collaboration and useful tools that can help revitalize their communities.
"I recently suggested it to my United States Senator!" (CharityChannel.com, 3/12/03)
For more than a decade, political scientists and commentators have argued about the health of the civic culture or civil society in the United States. To put these disputes to rest, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam set out to prove in his recent book, Bowling Alone (2000), that the quality and kinds of civic engagement in the United States have declined substantially over several decades. An extensive search of trends in church attendance, voting rates, union membership, volunteerism, philanthropy, and other areas leads him to conclude that Americans are more isolated and less capable of engaging constructively on public concerns than at any other time in the past fifty years.
Although his evidence is exhaustive and, for many readers, conclusive, Putnam has critics. Some accept his evidence as far as it goes but think he overlooks the phenomenal growth in the number of nonprofit organizations and associations. New and different kinds of associations may have replaced those in decline, like the bowling leagues he discusses. Others find fault with the reasons he gives for the decline in civic engagement. Some of the criticisms seem mere quibbling-more denial than acceptance. It may simply be that graphs and statistics fail to capture the disillusion, disappointment, and despair that many Americans feel about public engagementin their communities. Listening to the stories of civic engagement-or the lack of it-playing out in American communities like Boulder, Colorado, may provide a better place to start.
School board members in Boulder have been fighting over the need for honors classes in middle schools as part of a larger school reform effort for several years. In 1994, the majority voted to halt discussion of the issue because, as one board member put it, "This has been disruptive to our school communities. You don't turn around every time there's an election and say we changed our mind and we're going the other way" (Taylor, 1994a, p. 1). An opposing board member angrily responded, "I am losing the battle, no doubt, but I intend to win the war!" (Taylor, 1994b, p. 1). In 1995, the woman who was "losing the battle" became the new board president when citizens elected a new majority. Exploiting her new position, she pushed to reverse past decisions about middle school policy. After only two years, citizens, dissatisfied with her heavy-handed attempts to impose her views on the community, voted her out of office. Her defeat removed a divisive force; the damage of a community deeply divided could not be so easily undone. Although few citizens doubt the need for fundamental change in education, opposing views of school reform fragment efforts to achieve sustainable improvement. Everyone is losing.
Other subtle aspects of Boulder's civic culture contribute to its inability to engage constructively on public concerns. Known far and wide as a politically active community, the city is often called "The People's Republic of Boulder" because of its tradition of taking controversial stands on social, environmental, and foreign policy issues. The recent Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (Saguaro Seminar, 2001), conducted by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, confirms this history of civic engagement. Boulder ranks sixth in civic engagement out of forty communities studied. This measure, however, glosses over a more troubling statistic. A large number of community activists and grassroots organizers call Boulder home. As a result, the city ranks third, behind San Francisco and Seattle, in terms of protest politics. Boulder's limited repertoire of tools for civic engagement helps instigate the city's "wars."
Virtually every community has similar stories. The details differ, but the dynamics are the same. One side organizes around a particular position and tries to find allies and gain enough influence to have its way. Meanwhile, others in the community organize in similar ways backing opposing positions. Having mastered the capacity to advocate for particular positions or interests, these groups use their skills to browbeat, oppose, pester, pummel, or otherwise beat their opponents into submission. If one side wins, the victor takes all without much grace. If no one wins, each group can, at the least, stop or delay the action.
Experts have turned this practice into an art form. Partisan groups transform the most trivial or transparently self-serving interest into a cause célèbre, as if no other issue merited consideration. This capacity to narrow issues, stake out exclusive positions, and divide citizens obviously diminishes the community and precludes constructive action. Indeed, Peter Drucker describes the current situation in the United States as "battlefields between groups, each of them fighting for absolute victory and not content with anything but total surrender of the enemy" (1994, p. 80).
This antagonistic approach to public engagement has significant negative consequences. It cannot produce sustainable change because of fickle alliances and shifting majorities. It divides citizens one from another and alienates many from public life. And it sets up future conflict on issues yet to come. No one can argue with the need for progress in addressing complex public issues, but the means to do this have become unproductive and divisive. The way we decide is destroying civility and the fragile bonds of community that bind us together.
The Civic Challenges
Several disparate factors converge to incite confrontation as the emerging civic norm. Many more people with a stake in public problems demand a voice in the political decision-making process. The problems themselves are complex and systemic and not amenable to expert or top-down solutions. Few people agree about the precise nature of the problems, so few agree on solutions. Lack of shared vision or values prevents concerted action. Distrust and mistrust pervade the relationships between sectors, races, and other disparate groups and interests. Most of these groups do not know how to work with others.
These conditions present unprecedented challenges for America's governing institutions, civic leaders, and citizens and raise a set of critical questions about the future of America's communities and regions:
With the increasing diversity of citizens in virtually every American community, will we be able to create opportunities for all citizens to participate in the public life of their communities without inviting chaos?
Given the tradition of adversarial politics and increasingly strident public discourse, will communities be able to develop constructive and effective means for addressing public concerns that engage citizens rather than alienate them?
As the population of communities becomes more diverse, will we be able to build relationships of respect and tolerance across the dividing lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class?
With the increasing impact of human activity on the natural environment, will human action be congruent with a healthy and sustainable environment?
As family, school, and community problems magnify, will we be able to meet the basic personal and social needs of citizens necessary for a healthy and fulfilling life?
As tensions over educational goals and curriculum increase, can we provide education necessary for civic and economic life in a democracy to all citizens?
With the increasing pace of change in a global and technologically driven economy, will we be able to build and sustain healthy and effective institutions and organizations?
As the discord between race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class intensifies, will we be able to effectively address issues of social justice and equity?
The future health and well-being of America's communities and regions depends on how we answer these questions and how we go about searching for these answers.
New Standards for Civic Engagement
This foreboding analysis does not mean that Americans are not troubled by the way they make public decisions. Citizens and civic leaders alike seek to improve public decision making in a variety of ways, but with little success. Rather than more haphazard efforts at political reform, America needs new standards for civic engagement to guide political innovation. Adopting standards such as these would once again make politics a source of hope rather than despair:
Any response to the emerging political challenges must produce tangible, substantial, and sustainable results. Civic practices and governing institutions must be capable of constructively addressing the real concerns of a community or region, especially in circumstances involving diverse groups with competing values. Public conflicts commonly juxtapose arguments about differing technical or bureaucratic responses to complex problems when, in reality, different perspectives and experiences, disparate and competing values, and a diversity of interests keep citizens apart. Current civic and governing practices supported by the best of expertise fail to cope with this complexity. Quick fixes and shallow solutions offer only the illusion of real change. Fickle alliances and changing political tides bring only temporary and unstable results.
Responses to emerging political challenges must bring people together in ways that heal rather than divide. Civic practices and governing institutions must bridge the dividing lines of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, interest, and sector in ways that help address the needs of the community or region as a whole. Citizens and civic groups everywhere express exasperation at the lack of appropriate tools for working across these lines. When asked by USA Today ("Meeting Race Relations Head On," 1993) what troubled him most about race relations, Cornel West, author of Race Matters, said, "We're living in Balkanized spaces mentally as well as physically. There seem to be few spaces where human interaction can actually take place across the races, and that prohibits a coming together which for me is requisite for revitalizing democracy" (p. 11A). This balkanization makes it nearly impossible to focus on the broader concerns of communities and regions. Adversarial politics has left a legacy of anger, distrust, and alienation.
Responses to emerging political challenges must engage citizens in new and deeply democratic ways in the process of defining visions and strategies for their communities and regions. Civic practices and governing institutions must provide avenues for citizens to take an active and substantial role in public life. According to political researcher Richard Harwood, "Citizens say that politics has evolved into a 'System' made up of various institutions and political forces that have seized control of the political process and driven a wedge between citizens and politics" (1991, p. 19). They feel "cut off from political debate: they neither see their concerns reflected in the way current issues are discussed nor believe there are ways to participate in discussions on those issues" (p. 11). Any new response to emerging political challenges must reengage citizens in public life in order to restore confidence not just in governing institutions but in democratic governance itself.
Responses to emerging political challenges must enhance the civic culture of the community or region. Civic practices and governing institutions must build and sustain a civil society. Political scientist Robert Putnam (1993) documented the necessary relationship between what he calls the "civic community" and the performance of governing institutions. In a thoroughly researched comparative study of the twenty governing regions of Italy created in 1970, Putnam discovered that the degree to which trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement pervade the social fabric of the region-not the usual measures of prosperity such as wealth, level of education, or access to natural resources-determines the relative success or failure of each region. His findings were unambiguous: "Civic context matters for the way institutions work. By far the most important factor in explaining good government is the degree to which social and political life in a region approximates the ideal of the civic community" (p. 120). Civic practices, like those characterizing the civic community, must develop the capacity of the community or region to address future issues rather than subvert it.
Imagine if standards like these became the norms for how we make public decisions. The stilted, archaic language of governance would be replaced by a living language of stories and experience. Citizens would be legitimized and valued for the perspectives and values they bring to public life rather than alienated and discounted. The experiences that shape their values would inform public decisions as much as abstracted, analytical information. Governance would become a learning process where needs are understood and ideas shared in place of unilateral, unequivocal edicts. The outcomes of the public decision-making process would be responsive to both time and place rather than constricted by an obsessive focus on politics and jurisdiction. Citizens would be engaged in a process of dialogue with the primary intent of discovering the best interests of the community or region instead of a contest between a few powerful groups over narrow ends.
Evaluating Alternative Responses to Civic Challenges
In the American tradition of innovation and adaptation, citizens and public leaders continue to experiment with new ways of responding to emerging political challenges. Some approaches attempt to restore confidence in existing institutions, while others seek revolutionary change in governance systems and civic values. The more reactionary, knee-jerk responses to the failure of traditional practices often lead to unintended and devastating consequences. Many of these responses fall short of meeting new standards for civic engagement. Without reflective analysis, no one knows which of these responses work and which should be cast aside; no one knows which of these responses is the more effective and enhancing of democratic governance.
Recent congressional and presidential elections set new highs for money spent and new lows for mud slinging. Coupled with disconcertingly sluggish election turnouts, these statistics pointedly mark citizens' lack of confidence in representative democracy. David Mathews, the Kettering Foundation president, says citizens find the skyrocketing costs of campaigns particularly abhorrent: "It reinforces the sense that money rules" (1994, p. 20). Citizens want effective ways to cope with the distorting influence of money on election results.
Excerpted from The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook by David D. Chrislip Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: The Power of Collaboration||1|
|Pt. 1||Meta: The Importance of Collaboration||5|
|1||America's Civic Challenges||7|
|2||Civil Society, Democracy, and Collaboration||20|
|3||Building the Civic Community||29|
|Pt. 2||Macro: Premises and Principles of Successful Collaboration||39|
|4||Essential Concepts of Collaboration||41|
|5||A Framework for Collaboration||49|
|Pt. 3||Micro: Practices of Successful collaboration||61|
|7||Setting Up for Success||71|
|9||Moving to Action||113|
|10||Developing Networks of Responsibility||120|
|Pt. 4||Stories and Examples of Successful Collaboration and Civic Leadership Development||131|
|11||Joint Venture Silicon Valley||133|
|12||Transforming Civic Culture: Sitka, Alaska 1999-2001||159|
|13||Neighborhood Action Initiative: Engaging Citizens in Real Change||170|
|14||Equal Partners, Shared Vision: The Colorado Partnership for Educational Renewal||187|
|15||Scenarios: Catalysts for Civic Change||200|
|16||Building Civic Leadership in Portland, Maine||218|
|17||Building Leadership Capacity in a Socially Emerging Community||230|
|App. A||Learning from Research and Experience||246|
|App. B||Institute for Civic Leadership Curriculum and Agenda||258|