Archives for category: civic engagement

A friend tells the story of a time he was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital. He was bedridden for a long time and was going to have to work very hard just to walk again. At one point, his doctors cleared him to try to move around. But they were concerned he might overdo it, or hurt himself. They gave him a pushbutton and said: “Use this to call someone if you want to try to walk.”

My friend is a grandparent, and the grandchild was learning to walk. My friend thought about the pushbutton and instructions he had been given, and compared his own situation to that of his grandchild — nothing was going to stop the child from learning to walk, and nor were his parents hovering over him to “support” him in this natural human endeavor.

The story came to mind when I read about recent research exploring a new concept, “civic deserts,” especially in rural America. The concept refers to “places characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement, and without institutions that typically provide opportunities like youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Underlying this concept, citizens are seen to need opportunities to learn and engage politically . . . which leads to a need for (often institution-delivered) programming. Such opportunities and programs are important and more are needed.

But there is another way to look at the kind of politics that takes place on a neighborhood, local level. This kind of politics is already happening, as people recognize shared problems and act. In thinking about improving the way politics in some local place functions, we might ask this question: How is it that people come to see themselves and act as citizens? It is the citizens doing the acting here. And about the worthy programs, we might ask to what extent such “opportunities” foster the insight in people that I am a citizen. (By “citizen,” of course, I do not mean “someone with documents,” but instead “someone who recognizes their shared role in solving local problems.”)

Of course, it stands to reason that if there are more such opportunities around, people in a community (youth and others) may potentially be more likely to act as citizens. But existence of such programs does not guarantee it, nor are such programs required. Many of the communities in whom one can see a robust community politics might in fact end up on the “desert” list.

I think of the difference between my bedridden friend, awaiting the delivery of “walking services.” What if he ignored the button, and got up and walked? That is what he did. “No one was going to stop me from walking,” he told me.

This, then, would be a study of citizenship: What spurs people to get up and start walking — and how is it that people come to see all the ways they already are and have been doing so all along?

Photo: Roberto de la Parra

Many ways to express citizenship, an incomplete list (add your ideas):

  • Read reputable news outlets
  • Examine the sources of news that you come into contact with
  • Read news outlets you disagree with
  • Read LOCAL news outlets
  • Talk with a friend or family member about their views; share yours
  • Attend civic and community meetings
  • Vote
  • Encourage others to vote
  • Protest
  • Protect others from injustice when you see it
  • Participate in dialogue programs on issues
  • Serve on a jury
  • Sign a petition
  • Discuss current events with your family
  • Read candidate web sites
  • Write opinion pieces and letters to news outlets
  • Start a blog to express your views
  • Volunteer as a poll worker on election day
  • Attend local government or school board meetings
  • Sign up to participate on a volunteer board or commission in local government
  • Run for office against someone whom you disagree with, or for an open seat
  • Learn about how your local government works
  • Donate funds to a candidate or issue
  • Talk to neighbors about a local problem or issue
  • Work with neighbors to improve local conditions
  • Volunteer for a political candidate or issue campaign
  • Start or participate in Neighborhood Watch
  • Attend local civic commission meetings

There are so many ways to act with others for the good of our local areas, our states, and our nation.

Also see: Civics ‘TQM’

There is a memorable scene in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. It is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Jim Harper and Hallie Shea: Harper is a national network TV news producer and Shea is a correspondent-turned-blogger. In the 3rd season episode “Contempt,” Harper and Shea are arguing over whether Shea was right to publish (on the blog, “Carnivore”) an account of a personal fight between them.

“Your problem isn’t with me and with the site, it’s with the audience,” says Shea. “You don’t like that they like what they like because you need them to like you. . . . I think you’re threatened by technology. . . . I want to be part of the digital revolution.”

“I’m not talking about the apparatus!” Harper interrupts, exasperated.

This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is such an odd thing to exclaim. I think of this scene often when trying to describe the way I think about political systems. To me, politics is ecological, emergent.

Especially when I am talking about what community politics consists of, and what it might mean to foster a more deliberative politics. I think about the ways “the apparatus” can intrude and occlude what I am really trying to talk about.

For instance, when I describe efforts to encourage deliberative discussions on community issues — it seems that often people hear “I am promoting NIF forums.” When I describe the idea of framing issues so that the things held valuable that are in tension are made clear — people often seem to hear “writing NIF issue guides.” When I describe framing an issue so that things commonly held valuable are made clear — people hear “three strategies.” When I describe strengthening civic capacity — people hear “civic infrastructure.” When I describe institutions aligning their routines with how citizens do their work — people hear “promoting participation.”

The Concept

All of these share a common feature. They mistake the apparatus for the the concept.

This is not to say it is wrong to talk about the apparatus. It is important and a worthwhile discussion. But this is also a challenge, because talking about the apparatus can get in the way of talking about the underlying ideas. I have come to believe it is not surmountable simply by “saying it the right way.” There is something, I believe, about the element of mechanics that short circuits the ability to see and talk about the underlying ideas.

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Indeed, the very word, “system,” can become problematic. While it is the correct term to describe the ecology, dynamics and interrelationships of all the disparate actors that make up a “community,” it is easy to mishear. By “system” I mean that set of interrelationships described above. But often, the term is taken to mean something built, mechanical. It’s the same with “network.” To me, that term means a disparate and interlocking set of relationships between and among people and other entities. Networks, in this understanding, emerge. But when the term is commonly used, it is often understood in the way computer networks are understood: as built artifacts.

As I try to explain what an ecology of political life in a community might look like and consist of, people will nod and affirm, “You are talking about systems. Networks. Yes. I get it.” But as we talk, it becomes clear that they think of systems and networks as built things. (They are thinking in machinebrain terms.)

And thus the conversation turns to the apparatus, which pushes out the concept I am trying to get at.

This is an area of research for me where I work. We often talk about it as a linguistic or technical problem: “How can we talk about these ideas in such a way that they are understood?” But even these articulations let the apparatus (of language) get in the way of the idea.

It is really a fundamental question. How is it that the insights of deliberative politics can come to be understood? What blocks this? What encourages it? (Note the passive construction, which is on purpose. Not how can I say them. But how can others understand them.)

This question is articulated throughout our research program and its strategic basis in more and less direct ways. The challenges we face in this area, though, are persistent.

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.

 

I study democratic politics and I mean both of those terms in the most fundamental way possible. I understand “politics” to mean “the way people who live in a place make choices and address shared problems and opportunities, where there are disagreements about what should be done.” And by “democracy” I mean “people collectively deciding how to exert control over their future.” In this way of understanding, democratic politics is not the same thing as “organizing.” Politics involves tension. Something is political if there are tensions about what we should do.

Note that this is a much deeper sense of both words than the ones in which they are normally used. For instance, “elections” are not themselves democracy. They are a mechanism for choosing representative leaders. And having representative leaders is a strategy for acting democratically. One challenge in studying democratic politics in the way I describe is that it can be hard to see — or perhaps better put, other related things are easier to see. In democracies that include elections, you can see elections. You can see how many people vote, for whom, and how open or inclusive the voting is. It is also easy to see institutions such as government. Often, in trying to see and examine democratic politics, these and other easily visible things occlude the whole of politics. But describing and understanding a government is not the same thing as understanding politics. (This is not to say that such institutions are not a part of politics — they are. And they are important. But looking solely at institutional structures provides an incomplete view of politics.)

One level of democratic politics I am quite interested in is the community level — community politics. What does it look like? How can you see it?

One way to see community politics (any politics, really) is to look for evidence that the things that make up politics are happening. And if you are looking to find democratic politics on the level of community, you might look for evidence about how these practices are taking place. So:

  • Where is there evidence of people trying to understand what the problem is?
  • Where is there evidence that people are exploring options?
  • Where is there evidence that people are choosing deliberately from among options of what they might do?
  • Where is there evidence that people are trying to identify resources through which to act?
  • Where is there evidence that they are taking action, and to what extent are these actions complementary or not?
  • Where is there evidence that, seen collectively, the community is learning from its experiences?
A Real Life Example: #Blizzard2016

2016-01-25 11.10.27The area where I live, in a suburb of Washington, DC, recently had an historic blizzard. Thirty-five inches of snow were dumped in my neighborhood. The snow removal resources of every government entity, and indeed of every business, were severely taxed. My street is a dead-end that inclines away from the nearest through-route, which itself is not a major street. So on dig-out day, everyone on the block was pretty much stuck, and we weren’t going to get plowed out for quite some time.

As people do, we all began our digs. And here is where we began to see politics.

Just responding to a crisis is often not really that political — it is clear what must be done and there is no real choice to be made. You just do what must be done. But this was not quite a crisis and it was not clear exactly how we should move forward. We each had our own interests: we wanted our driveways cleared and to be able to reach the outside world. But “reaching the outside world” was also a collective interest. And there were some elderly neighbors who did not have any means of moving their own snow — what should be done about their situation?

Furthermore, we all had varying resources available, and some of those were communal. Most of us had snow shovels and at least one person willing to use it. But some of us also had small snowblowers. One neighbor had actually purchased a very large snow blower a few years back, and regularly made it available to neighbors. Furthermore, eventually we would get plowed out by the city.

In figuring out how to respond collectively to this problem, we were doing politics in exactly the way described above. Our approach was to begin our resources — which is often how it happens on a community level. Who has what? What can we use? The neighbor’s snow thrower could not take care of the whole problem for us, but it was up to the task of clearing sidewalks and helping cars get dug out from under snowdrifts. Some neighbors with four wheel drive trucks went to get gas for the snow thrower, while another truck owner started driving back and forth through a few deep drifts to mush the snow down and make it a little passable. Someone shoveled the elderly neighbors’ drive.

To be clear, this was not “organized” in the way you might imagine. It was loose. It was not like a barn raising. We were mostly tending to our tasks, but we were doing so mindful of the whole. We were acting in complementary ways.

During this work, we stopped occasionally and assessed what the problem was we were tackling. (Again, informally.) Is it that we all had our cars stuck? Or was the problem that we couldn’t even walk anywhere safely? Or was the problem that some of our vulnerable neighbors were truly up a creek? Was it that we had not prepared well enough in advance? Did someone leave their car in a place that made it worse for everybody?

Similarly, we addressed our options. Should we unearth cars first? Sidewalks? Should we just wait for the city, as they would eventually come by? Should we think about buying a small tractor with a snow blower, and splitting the cost, for future snowfalls? We decided to try to clear all the sidewalks and driveways, and somevpeople would go beyond that individually (for instance I dug out a separate parking space for myself).

We coordinated what we would do. Some neighbors dug a space for one car, and then were able to use that “extra” parking spot as a staging area while digging out other cars. It was arranged who would do what: snow blow, dig, drive. We didn’t all agree and we had to work through tensions between the various possibilities. For example, everyone who had parked on the street wanted their car dug out first — but only one or two could get freed up that first day. Though we all wanted our own vehicle moving, the work van of a neighbor who needed it for his livelihood took priority.

Over the years we had also learned what some of the best things to do for our particular stretch of the street in big snowfalls was, and we added to that learning this time. Some of us, acting on previous learning, had parked their cars up the street, in the road at the top of our small hill. The reasoning was not to get stuck. But this snowfall was so large this turned into a liability — when the city plow finally came, the cars that had not been unstuck yet were really socked in under almost insurmountable walls of gunk. We agreed that in future the best call would be to keep all cars in our driveways so city plows could plow curb to curb.

None of this was formal. It unfolded over the course of the day, bit by bit, and you could see it in a building series of conversations between different neighbors. All very casual. Politics does not have to be serious, even when it is solving serious problems.

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[Updated (twice!) to fix some typos and clarify some points.]