Thursday, April 5, 2007

Blog Slog?

I was reluctant to start this blog for a number of reasons. Serendipitously, a witty op-art artist helped me explain one reason why in today's New York Times...

Seriously, though, are those of us who love technology and its potential to democratize the world (yes, I count myself as one of them... but still...) taking ourselves a bit too seriously? Are blogs in danger of becoming the next bastion of elitism, with a handful that are "names" read by many but most ignored? Do people really take the time and read others' blogs or have they become another vestige of a narcissistic culture in which we all bloviate what we think just because we love to hear our own voices?
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Monday, April 2, 2007


Welcome to a blog on all things citizen-centered.

What does “citizen-centered” mean? Good question. An answer can be found in a white paper I wrote—with lots of input and ideas from a wide array of terrific people and support from the Case Foundation—Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement.

A lot of folks have asked why this paper was written... No, it wasn’t the result of some interminable planning process or huge academic research project—you know, the things that most foundations like to fund.

It emerged from a rather casual conversation with Ben Binswanger, CEO of the Case Foundation, in Washington, D.C. last summer. That casual convo started with a rather difficult question: Millions and millions of dollars have been funneled into a slew of service and civic engagement programs and projects, but have they made a difference in whether Americans are involved and engaged in civic life?

Yikes. But good question. And it's one that's a bit glossed over in service and civic engagement circles where it’s often assumed that the good intentions and deeds of some people will fuel a massive transformation in our society. I like to think that it will, but the skeptic in me and many others who have never heard of Americorps would like to see some evidence that all these efforts will lead to the sum of something greater than its parts.

That something is a deeper cultural ethos—one in which civic engagement is not only expected of citizens but is embraced by them as a fundamental part of their daily lives. That’s tougher than figuring out how many trees were planted, rivers cleaned up or people who voted. But it’s equally important, especially if we want to make sure those kinds of efforts expand and grow in communities. So, has that happened? To find out, I interviewed a slew of people who’ve been writing about service and civic engagement, thinking about it, and doing it in real communities.

We found that although there's a deep tradition of service in America, many people still feel that it’s difficult to affect even the most basic quality-of-life issues in their neighborhoods and even more powerless when it comes to having an influence on larger issues such as the quality of their schools or decisions about land use. Americans also express despair over what appears to be the country’s drift away from its democratic and civic values toward a culture of celebrity, division, materialism, and isolation.

If we’re honest, I think most of us can relate to this feeling. I know I can.

So what to do? The paper offers some starting points. Of particular importance, according to our respondents, is giving citizens the chance to connect with one another—including those with whom they may disagree or have major differences—and figure out how they can work together to take action and address the issues or problems in their communities that they feel will improve them.

This kind of citizen-centered and citizen-created cultural approach is a subtle, yet powerful, shift from asking people to just plug into official programs or campaigns whose goals, agendas, and outcomes have been identified by others, usually experts or outsiders. Instead, it encourages people to come together in new civic spaces that help enhance a sense of connectedness and of being able to make a difference together as a community working toward the common good.

"Yeah, sure," you say. But guess what? It’s happening all across the country.

The problem is that it tends to take place a bit under the radar because it’s not easily categorized as something that’s Left or Right, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, rural or urban, or black or white. And it's tackling a panoply of issues, too—from school reform and the environment to graffiti and urban sprawl.

What would happen if all of these people working on all these issues in all these communities came together….became connected…..learned that they’re part of a larger trend…and then worked to make sure this kind of public work became part of every community in the country? Now, that would be a real shift in Americans’ attitude to civic engagement.

Making it real will first require a bit more exploration about what citizen-centeredness is, what it means, and how it works. This space will hopefully help in that process.

So, read the paper (well, ok, skim it or skip to the insert that states pithily what citizen-centered approaches are and what they’re not). Scroll down and skim some of the provocative questions I've posed to try to get you to weigh in. Walk the talk of “citizen-centered” deliberation and see if it works for you.
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Sunday, April 1, 2007

About Cynthia Gibson

I do lots of things... write, research, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, communicate, and educate. And I've worked with all kinds of organizations. Right now, I'm doing all that under the auspices of my own consulting firm, Cynthesis Consulting, which specializes in public policy research and analysis, program development, strategic planning, marketing, and communications for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations across the country.

Previously, I was a program officer for Carnegie Corporation of New York where I helped to develop and implement programs in "Strengthening the Nonprofit and Philanthropic Sector" (focused on enhancing the nonprofit sector's capacity-building and management infrastructure)and "Youth Civic Engagement" (focused on improving K-12 civic learning). Earlier, I was an independent consultant on nonprofit and philanthropy strategic planning, research, and communications for a variety of foundations and organizations, including: The Rockefeller Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Planned Parenthood Federation, Open Society Institute, Citizens Committee for Children of New York. There's a lot more, but too numerous to list here.

Little-known fact: My first job was monitoring the ultrafundamentalist preachers (Falwell, Robertson, for People for the American Way and summarizing any/all outlandish comments they made and then distribute these to the public. Those comments, all of which were taped, became grist for several videos I made with TV producer (and PFAW founder) Norman Lear that raised millions for the organization.

I've also published and speak quite a lot about about nonprofit strategy, citizenship, education, philanthropy and social policy. Although I'm not technically an academic (more of a pracademic), I teach sometimes at the New School University’s Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy and currently am a a senior fellow at Tufts University. I'm also on the boards of Public Allies,, and the Center for Voting and Democracy.

For those who care about these kinds of credentials, I have a B.A. in psychology from Pennsylvania State University (Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude); an M.S.W. from Catholic University of America; and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. My dissertation focused on nonprofit advocacy, membership, and representation (“In Whose Interest: Do National Nonprofit Advocacy Organizations Represent the Under-Represented?”)

I live in New York, but my favorite place in the world is Maine.
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