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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog today and found myself spending a good deal of time reading through old posts. Excellent writing and many valuable insights here. I also downloaded your Case Foundation white paper and look forward to reading it. Thank you for your fine work.


Scott London