This is more than just funny. It is a wonderful example of the predominant institutional-centered thinking when it comes to communities. Watch this, and take every word deadly seriously — this is what I am delighted to try to undermine daily, by propagating a greater sense of agency by people in communities.
One of the things that gets in the way of making sound collective judgments is that, too often, we avoid facing the tensions inherent in the problems we share. When we sit down to talk about what to do about some community problem, we avoid tensions and indeed we actively seek to remove them when they crop up. There is a whole field devoted to “conflict resolution.”
Unproductive conflicts between people and groups should indeed be reduced, diminished, and healed. But when we need to make collective judgments about what we should do about some community problem we share — how to produce public safety, how best to educate our young ones, how to create more wellness, how to address economic change — we need to lean into the tensions inherent in these goals.
For example, if I want to live in a community where people are safe, there is a tension between group security and individual freedom. The more security I have, the less freedom I may experience. And there is a similar tension between personal freedom and being treated fairly. A great deal of freedom may result in my being treated unfairly.
These community problems are so difficult because such tensions are embedded and unavoidable. We cannot choose between them, they are not binary. There will be no “solution” but instead a collective judgment, for now, of how we will live with these tensions. The answer we come to today may not hold tomorrow.
Further, the tensions are not tensions between groups of people — they are within each of us. All at once, I want to be secure, to have freedom, to be treated fairly. This is how we are wired as human beings who live in groups.
Sometimes when I talk to people about community problem solving, and I raise the idea of tensions between these things that all hold valuable, I get the sense that what is being heard is “tensions should be reduced.” One hears it quite clearly these days: many see the healing of divisions as the clearest path to improvement.
Certainly tensions between people that develop into conflict need to be mitigated. But the tensions within issues need yet more attention. We may, for instance, heal relations between members of marginalized communities and institutional police forces. But we will still have the collective challenge of living in a safer society and how we ought to do that — and in making that decision we will have to face up to the tensions within that question.
It is in clearly looking at, and accepting, these tensions within issues that we can make sound judgments.
The National Conference on Citizenship today released a new report, “Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenges,” by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine. It is an important, and wide-in-scope, analysis of the long decline in a range of civic health indicators across years and decades. To learn of this decline will not be a surprise to many, but this is a comprehensive look and it is sobering.
One aspect of the research, from which the piece takes its title, is that there are increasing numbers of places that can be characterized as “civic deserts:” where the formal opportunities to take part in public life are few and disappearing. The work of citizens solving problems in community is necessarily driven by people, and in another piece I have cautioned against stopping at simply identifying such deserts. But it is true that the structures that used to foster a connected citizenship are dwindling, and their lack makes any movement towards civic renewal more difficult.
Peter Levine, in his article announcing the research, aptly puts it this way:
The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.
This is an important report for anyone who cares about the civic health of this nation.
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
- Encourage others to vote
- 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.”
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.
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.
I 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.