"What we seek - at every
level - is pluralism that achieves some kind of coherence, wholeness
incorporating diversity. Diversity is not simply "good" in that
it implies a breadth of tolerance and sympathy. A community of diverse
elements has greater capacity to adapt and renew itself in a swiftly
changing world." - John Gardner
The fire and brilliance of a beautiful
gemstone derives from the angular arrangement of its many facets
reflecting upon each other. Similarly, the vibrancy of civic life
in America emerges from the interactions of its many diverse facets.
Today, these facets are unique citizen movements, taking sustained
action towards measurably improving human well-being and community
quality of life.
Known by scores of names (Healthy… Sustainable…
Livable… Safe… Whole… Loving… Learning… Resilient… Smart… Slow…Integral…and
dozens of other descriptors) identifiable clusters of locally-driven,
deeply inclusive, change efforts comprise a phenomenon that can
be best described in whole as a communities movement.
These collaborative, participatory, multi-sectoral
initiatives are multiplying and thriving -- addressing a diverse
array of pressing issues facing society. Seen synergistically,
they are a natural evolution of democracy's promise, and define
a greater movement that is only now coming into focus and prominence.
The communities movement is a working model
of what John Gardner calls "a community of diverse elements",
which truly have the power, flexibility and intelligence to meet
our greatest challenges. Together, they have the potential to
deliver on what Dr.'s Len Duhl and Trevor Hancock called for early
in the Healthy Cities / Healthy Communities movement. That is,
to be "continually creating and improving those physical and social
environments, and expanding those community resources which enable
people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions
of life and in developing to their maximum potential."
The roots of a movement
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French count visiting
the United States in 1831, reflected in his work, Democracy
in America, a distinct image of local structures, activities
and relationships. He wrote of deliberation and decision-making
at every level by common people. He highlighted self-determined
groups framing issues, offering solutions and organizing themselves
to carry out desired change. He chronicled the existence of inclusive
and conducive social spaces -- both forming the center of authentic
community, and performing its most vital functions.
170 years after De Tocqueville's keen observations,
American civic life remains robustly populated with associations
of community members driving change and conducting the affairs
of a healthy society. And this current manifestation of citizen
democracy is a powerful force for positive change. While it may
be poorly understood by policymakers, and trivialized or ignored
by mass media, it has the power to revitalize our democracy at
every level. It is "under the radar screen" of most pundits because
it has unfamiliar structures and leaders. Yet it in great part
defines the social space within which today's leaders engage diverse
stakeholders to address the issues of the day.
A collaborative explosion
Since the early 1960's in the United States, literally
thousands of public-private partnerships have been formed to work
for economic development, educational improvement, environmental
protection, health care, social issues, better land use and other
core issues. The best of them bring together the usual suspects
with those not traditionally at the table of decision-making.
They are engaging a new wave of voluntarism across sectors, generations,
perspectives, cultures, and parts of town. Such diverse groups
as Chambers of Commerce, United Way's, governmental agencies,
hospitals, community colleges, health departments, neighborhood
and community-based organizations (CBO's) and places of worship
convene these new partnerships. It's less about who they are than
how they practice what civic educator Gruffie Clough calls facilitative
leadership. The most successful among them cross boundaries and
work across lines only rarely transcended in previous eras.
Many of these partnerships have been initiated
and/or funded by national, conversion and community foundations
-- stemming from bold missions, activist agendas and in many cases
swelling coffers. Some are by formed by citizen leaders, social
entrepreneurs, who regardless of background (grassroots, non-profit
or corporate) and with varying resources behind them, bring a
new emphasis on risk-taking, outcomes orientation and sustainability
into the civic sphere.
While some of these partnerships are narrow in
theme, tackling a specific problem or vexing complex issues, others
are broader in scope. Some are at their core convening entities,
attempting to successfully address a root of civic decline that
Peter Drucker speaks of in Leading Beyond the Walls. "All earlier
pluralistic societies destroyed themselves, because no one took
care of the common good. They [civic groups] abounded in communities,
but could not sustain community, let alone create it." In contrast,
these new civic convening entities, like the Citizens League of
Central Oklahoma founded in 1992, play a catalytic role on behalf
of the greater community - whether framing issues in forums for
public deliberation, or hosting long-term planning processes that
serve to create a sense of direction, shared leadership and resource
alignment around top priorities.
Among the legacies of this era of cooperation
and collaboration (collaboration implying a greater sharing of
resources), is an explosion of community-based organizations and
multi-sector partnerships. A renewed civic vitality, and a new
generation of social inventions. Many of these community partnerships
have flourished, and generated tangible positive outcomes. Indeed
much of the population health, community revitalization, and quality
of life gains in recent decades can be attributed to their leadership
. A number, indeed plenty, have floundered. But seen in the light
of any entrepreneurial and creative process (and drawing on an
intense national search for what works) - failure generates the
possibility for active learning for the next round of future design,
risk-taking, patience and timing. Failure goes with the territory
of new inventions!
A more mature leadership mindset now serves as
a foundation for citizen democracy's next expression. As one hospital
CEO said recently at community-wide project launch: "Lets get
clear on what we all share as values. Lets learn what works -
and uncover the best practices. Lets engage greater diversity
of participation in taking ownership for results. And lets invest
wisely in generating and tracking tangible outcomes. If we do
this, count on me -- I'm in all the way! It's essential for the
survival of our hospital, and the vitality this community. We
rise and fall together."
Seeing yourself in the others reflection
Signs of civic vitality abound. In the U.S. today,
well more than 30,000 citizens' groups, non-governmental organizations,
civic partnerships and foundations are addressing the myriad issues
of health and quality of life -- economic, ecological, human and
social sustainability in the broadest sense. Globally, the number
is greater than 100,000.
Businessman and Natural Capitalism co-author Paul
Hawken recently took a "30,000 ft view" of this activity for the
Utne Reader. "If you ask these groups for their principles, frameworks,
conventions, models or declarations, you will find that they do
not conflict. Never before in history has this happened. In the
past, movements that became powerful started with a unified or
centralized set of ideas (Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism)
and then disseminated them…[this] did not start this way." Len
Duhl describes the movement as a "pseudo-anarchic organization
that spontaneously connects, emerges, and changes as people help
each other and conditions change."
Hawken and others are observing that while wholesale
concurrence on top priorities and specific strategies does not
exist (and probably should not exist in a dynamic democratic process)--
there is an overall sharing of values. In part its the "cultural
creatives", identified by sociologist Paul Ray and others. Ray
is tracking some 25% of the U.S. adults who says are "living in
their values and are socially engaged" - people he sees on both
sides of the political aisle who care about civil rights, the
environment, jobs and social justice, gay and lesbian rights,
alternative health care, personal growth, and are deeply suspicious
of the effects of globalization on local community.
But cultural creatives are not alone. Indeed,
the leadership drivers of this movement are from all sectors and
all parts of town. It's a modern face of de Tocqueville's view
of our democracy -- leadership arising from every culture, ethnicity,
race, faith, and preference. And while it's never easy or smooth
(indeed by nature it's a messy process) it's about bringing together
folks with very different economic, education and social experiences
to do the work that must be done for the commons. This approach
requires a whole systems mindset. It is sparked by the same kind
of realization we all had when seeing the first photograph of
earth from space. We live in one socio-ecosystem, there is no
"away." What effects one, on what Buckminster Fuller called "Spaceship
Earth", affects us all. These systems-thinking leaders are bringing
their core values and beliefs into alignment with the way they
want to live, and are developing social inventions that can transform
what ails us.
The movement grows as a spontaneous, natural expression
of people in communities rising to the occasion of the issues
they confront in living their lives. No one is in charge, there
are few limits, and no one is holding anyone back. And while there
are national and global organizations spurring their development,
and large networks forming rapidly via the web, at its core it
remains a locally-driven phenomenon. Few of these are traditional
organizations where hierarchy defines the sources of change. And
spreading like active T-cells attacking a virus -- the more profound
the disease, the more people come to meet the challenge.
This is a vital and evolving way of doing the
public's business. No one claims to have all the answers. Indeed
the "experts" role is transformed into a supporter, not a driver/prescriber.
There is lots of learning to do - and lots being done. There is
no one model, and the best of them are highly nimble and flexible,
not surprisingly mirroring the dynamics of the most profitable
There are distinct patterns embedded in the most
effective of these community-based partnerships, collaboratives
and local movements. Despite their focus on diverse issue and
themes - these cross cutting patterns to a great extent defines
their relationship. Future students of democracy, looking back
on this era, will perhaps be able to see the patterns even more
Some years ago, Trevor Hancock, an early inspirator
of the Healthy Cities movement, and I compared notes on the dozens
of community visions we had been involved in helping generate.
We were powerfully struck by how remarkably similar they all were
across neighborhoods, cities, cultures, and even nations. Sure
we all have our uniqueness, but generally people aspire to very
much the same things. Dynamic local economies, healthy ecosystems,
vibrant downtowns and social systems, inter-generational exchange,
less cars, more bike trails etc -- even to the specifics of what
a compelling neighborhood would contain.
Identified via community analysis and a nationwide
series of local dialogues conducted by the U.S. Coalition for
Healthier Cities and Communities, these patterns identify an ecological
approach to solving problems and an "upstream determinants" focus.
The patterns demonstrate community's renewed commitment to shaping
their own local and regional futures, and practicing collaborative
resource sharing methodologies to get there. They highlight a
desire to engage and build the capacity of leadership from all
corners of society, and model inclusive dialogue and broad-based
engagement practices. They point to deliberate work being done
to create an enriched sense of community, and an increasing use
of indictors to measure progress and the impact of investments.
A role of today's agents for change is to look
at these patterns of what works -- and apply them creatively in
their own local context. But if there is any one major lesson
- its that it all starts with human relationships. The keys to
success are not just about having the dollars or structures, though
these are important. Its about building norms of trust, reciprocity,
cohesion, networks of civic engagement - what Robert Putnam has
recently popularized in his work, Bowling Alone, as "social capital."
It takes a lot of work and commitments met, to build authentic
social capital - and it starts with the same "common man" and
woman about which de Tocqueville spoke. This is democracy in action.
There are a series of defining characteristics
of the most effective community-based, multi-sectoral change initiatives
spanning the civic landscape and comprising the communities movement.
These are drawn from participatory learning in over 400 change
efforts addressing a wide array of human, social, ecological,
health, economic and quality of life issues . They can be used
as design principles, or promising practices and used to guide
future efforts. Those that create and sustain positive outcomes
- Use a broad definition of "community" - Communities
can be defined by interest, sector, faith, perspective, profession,
as well as being determined by geographic lines. Some of the
most promising definitions pair communities of place and interest
such as "neighborhood to region" and "youth assets to workforce
- Create a compelling vision from shared values
- A community's vision is the story of its desired future. To
be powerful and inspiring, a community's vision should reflect
the core values of its diverse members. A vision is not bullet
points on the wall - it is a living expression of shared accountability
to priorities. In the words of Suzanne Morse of the Pew Partnership
for Civic Change, "a community vision must include the ability
to deliver a tangible product that is needed, usable and creates
- Embrace a broad definition of "health" and
well-being" - Health is more than the absence of disease. Health
is defined broadly to include the full range of quality of life
issues. It is an optimum state of well-being: physical, mental,
emotional and spiritual. It recognizes that most of what creates
health is lifestyle and behavior related. Other major factors
are genetic endowment and the socio-economic, cultural and physical
environment. Health is a by-product of a wide array of choices
and factors - not the simply the result of a medical care intervention.
Civic health embraces the skills, processes and relationships
that form what Chris Gates, of the National Civic League, calls
"civic infrastructure." Essentially, the capacities to get good
- Address quality of life for everyone - Healthy
and sustainable communities strive to ensure that the basic
emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of everyone in the
community are attended to. Equity is a foundation of vital democratic
- Engage diverse citizen participation and widespread
community ownership - In healthy and sustainable communities,
all people take active and ongoing responsibility for themselves,
their families, their property, and their community. A leaders
work is to find common ground among participants, so that everyone
is empowered to take direct action for their well being and
can influence community directions.
- Focus on "systems change" - This is about changing
the way people live and work together. It is about how community
services are delivered, how information is shared, how local
government operates and how business is conducted. It's about
resource allocation and decision-making, not just doing "nice"
projects. Today's most vexing issues can find their full solution
in the actions of no single organization or sector. Addressing
complex topics ranging from healthy youth futures to urban sprawl
to growing a dynamic local economy, requires leaders from multiple
sectors each bringing their creativity and resources to the
- Build capacity using local assets and resources.
This means starting from existing community strengths and successes
and then investing in the enhancement of a community's civic
infrastructure. By developing an infrastructure that encourages
and invests in the natural gifts, talents and aspirations of
people and their formal and informal associations, fewer resources
will need to be spent on "back end" services that attempt to
fix the problems resulting from a weak community infrastructure.
- Benchmark and measure progress and outcomes.
Communities committed to quality improvement over time use performance
measures and community indicators to help expand the flow of
information and accountability to all citizens, as well as revealing
whether residents are heading toward or away from their stated
goals. Timely, accurate information, translated into tangible
action is vital to sustaining long-term community improvement.
A fresh look at movements
Authentic democracy is rooted in the values and
expression of individuals and families nested in communities.
Truly healthy communities help unleash human potential. They provide
the foundation for trust and relationship. They bestow a sense
of place, identity and belonging. They mobilize creativity and
resources towards a shared vision for the future. Healthy communities
both call for and nurture inspired leadership. They seek and reward
diverse voices and sustained action for common good.
Across the generations, change makers worked both
within and outside of established systems to bring about desired
results. Oft initiated by protest and aspiration for the possible,
movements for change have first challenged and then later defined
the civic landscape. They have driven new behavior, practices,
policies and approaches to resource allocation.
A legacy of individual courage, given face by
extraordinary people "leading" historic movements for change is
both essential and potent. But the deeper force for sustained
change cannot be defined by the campaigns of individuals working
alone. Bring to mind the movements for human rights, suffrage,
civil rights, peace, health and reproductive rights, environmental
protection, community renewal and most recently for bio-genetic,
economic, cultural and ecological sustainability in a world marketplace.
It is in the context of millions of daily choices made by individuals
in communities of interest and place that these movements are
fostered, grow and make their impact. To the extent that hearts,
minds and policy are changed - ordinary people, in their communities
of interest and place, cultivate cultures within which behavior
and practice are both reinvented and reinforced in homes, neighborhoods,
businesses, places of worship and in the policy arena.
An understanding from the historic work or movements,
translated into tangible action for today's issues is needed more
now than ever - both in the US and globally. The chronicling of
complex issues confronting humanity are well described daily in
communications ranging from scholarly journals to mass media.
To wit: Improving the quality of our education
system, creating more vibrant local economies, promoting more
ethical leadership behavior, ensuring that jobs that pay livable
wages for families, sustaining a healthy environment, assuring
access to adequate and affordable housing, mobility and transit
and access to primary care and preventive services. Promoting
a dynamic and mutually respectful faith community, supporting
more effective and responsive governance, nurturing stronger families
and support networks, engaging all residents in a practice of
active citizenry, investing in early childhood development, celebrating
diverse cultures, ensuring opportunity for recreation and artistic
expression, stimulating active lifelong voluntarism, and building
livable, walkable, safe neighborhoods that promote land use minimizing
sprawl and preserving a sense of place. On virtually every front,
there is much work to be done.
A call for convergence
Common Cause founder and former NCL Chairman John
Gardner speaks of the need to grow "networks of responsibility"
in all parts of the community. A civic feature where each brings
their treasure, their gemstone, and its unique facets to the whole.
It's about creatively assembling and connecting the diverse and
essential parts in alignment with a shared vision and shared aspirations
of the community. Then collaboratively growing both the capacity
and sense of responsibility to take action on what's missing.
This is far from the "blue ribbon panel" methodology of gathering
the anointed, or seeking the ephemeral white knight or hottest
consultant with the new magic bullet. This is an issue of leadership
for the whole community, not just those in positions of traditional
Aristotle reminded us "a city is a partnership
for living well." Architect and developer James Rouse called the
city a "garden to grow people in." These understandings are fundamental
to community-based leadership and sustained positive change.
Given the many facets - indeed assets -- of the
communities movement, a challenge for the early 21st century is
one of convergence. It is time for a deliberate focus on shared
learning, an alignment of networks and resources, and a galvanized
leadership agenda across the individual movements. We must create
a synergy that draws on the core competencies and objectives of
each, and can accelerate the personal, organizational and public
policy change sought by all.
Each facet of the communities movement has its
favorite issues and founding sector (e.g. health care, environmental
organizations, land use planners, social service agencies, inter-faith
groups, economic developers, downtown promoters etc.) But while
each is a necessary part of the solution in themselves, each is
insufficient to create the changes to which each aspire. We cannot
fix schools and improve educational outcomes by addressing just
the teachers. Nor health outcomes by just fixing hospitals, nor
crime by just re-orienting police. The recent lessons demonstrated
by the well intentioned, but mostly ineffective DARE program to
stop drug use in schools makes this point brilliantly. Perhaps
analogous to the formulas determining the cut of facets on a gemstone,
and their angular arrangement to each other -- each diverse facet
of the communities movement must be understood and tapped to meaningfully
address any of these issues.
John Kesler, Executive Director of the U. S. Coalition
for Healthier Cities puts it this way: "The communities movement
entails an effort to link the various community-based movements
while maintaining the integrity of each in order to further benefit
communities by building on what these movements have in common
and highlighting their unique and valuable differences. There
is an emphasis then, on integration not merger, on collaboration
and synergy toward the common goal of community transformation."
Perhaps an essential community leadership function
is to seek greater discipline in pursuing this synergy from disparate,
and valuable local assets. America's civic landscape today is
one of both intense cooperation - but also fragmentation where,
there is much talk, but little collaboration between the collaboratives.
For example, if the healthy community people aren't working with
the livable community people - we will keep building cities and
transportation approaches that unwittingly promote sedentary lifestyles
and cardio-vascular disease. Via cross-sectoral collaboration
- can't we help the developer, architect and transportation planner
contribute as much to "health" as any physician? Multi-faceted,
integrated approaches like these must become a norm, not the exception:
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): providing
great organic produce to urban areas, while sustaining rural
lands and a pastoral way of life.
- Micro-credit: making very small loans to aspiring
entrepreneurs while strengthening neighborhoods, growing the
income that provides one of the single greatest predictors of
population health status.
- Transit-Oriented Development (TOD): building
new housing developments, and rehabilitating old neighborhoods
next to transit links. Doing so cuts pollution, saves commune
time, and creates vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods.
- Sector-specific, community-wide workforce development
strategies: creating partnerships - e.g. with healthcare providers
and hard to place workers/populations to meet workforce shortages
in the health industry while employing those struggling for
a living wage.
- Voluntary simplicity: minimizing unnecessary
consumption, and energy and materials waste -- while attacking
the source of work-life stressors driving physical, mental,
emotional, spiritual and family-life disease.
Signs of progress: leaders focused on health,
human development, crime and social issues are increasingly implementing
service patterns that reflect engagement of the "target" of the
intervention in the creation of, and ownership for the solution.
Youth are now in voting roles on every board and commission in
the City of Boise (not just tokens on the parks and recreation
committee). Driven by business, governmental and philanthropic
leaders, collaborative funding practices and participatory governance
structures are now becoming more common than their single-sector
approach predecessors. United Ways and community foundations nationwide
are driving new ways of investing in, and tracking ROI from initiatives
New measures for health and wealth
The development of community indicators and quality
of life report cards hold serious promise to accelerate positive
change. Communities are looking for fresh approaches, and pioneering
methodologies for increasingly tracking their performance. Rather
than simply gathering secondary data from institutions that only
know how to measure certain forms of value (financial, disease
states etc) or mostly measure inputs and outputs, and not outcomes
-- its time to redefine and measure authentic community wealth.
Increasingly, we'll have the tools to hold ourselves and our leaders
more accountable to desired outcomes.
Whole wealth embraces natural, economic, human
and social capital. It's a fresh expression of a capitalism that
considers the genuine worth of all resources and their flows to
people, communities and ecological systems. A skilled community
capitalist would seek only transactions, practices and policies
that show positive return on investment (ROI) to all forms of
capital, not just one or two.
This new thinking on ROI is essential to sustainable
progress for institutions as well as for communities and nations.
It also opens vast opportunities for innovation in products and
services. In the future, these re-definitions and new accounting
will use emerging technologies to create Community Electronic
Performance Support Systems (CEPSS) for whole community wealth.
In turn, these will help drive convergence between diverse people,
initiatives and movements -- as narrower, single sector, "quick
fix" projects and solutions perversely demonstrate their lack
of efficacy on the tougher issues.
In Colorado, "Denver Benchmarks" (resourced and
lead by public, private, and non-profit entities working together
with neighborhood residents) will soon allow anyone with a modem,
a computer and an interest in improving her community to type
in her address and get social, health, economic and other quality
of life data at her neighborhood level. She'll be able to compare
her neighborhood data with your neighborhood and national data
-- or that of her city, county, and metro region. Then she'll
be able to do gap analysis with a mouse click, and be pointed
to targeted, evidence-based, best practices about what she and
her neighbors and colleagues can do to create positive change.
The system will then keep track of interventions and build a real-time
local and national database of what works!
These kinds of social inventions will fill the
missing links in the field to date - serving everyone from policy-makers
to grassroots organizers (who can then in turn be empowered as
citizen policymakers.) Imagine a middle school teacher using this
kind of CEPPS system for social studies classes -- and then linking
it to service learning projects in the community!
Making it happen
At the heart of community change is how each of
us rises to the occasion of being members of the communities in
which we live, work, play and worship. Our actions either build
relationship, connection, and wholeness or they don't. There are
no easy answers, rather a reliance on our creativity, our best
intent, and each other.
Aristotle defined a citizen as "one who participates
in power" -- the power to shape civic purposes and act in alignment
with their values. Discovering what are shared values, and then
acting upon a shared vision for the future is the foundation upon
which a healthier community is built. This practice both strengthens
our communities and revitalizes our democracy.
Let us weave together the multiple strands and
unique genius of the communities movement. Let us make whole the
civic gemstone, and heal the gulf between the conversations we
have around our kitchen tables and the formal processes of governance,
policy-making and resource allocation from which many feel so
removed. Let us connect the wisdom and capacity of our neighborhoods,
with the thinking and strategies emerging from Washington. Let
us gather the disparate and untapped human and social resources
around us (the ones policy usually talks about, and not with)
and generate the next chapter of the American story for a future
de Toqueville. Above all, let us make this story complete with
tangible community outcomes worthy the democracy with which we
We will ever strive for the ideals
and sacred things of the city,
…both alone and with many
We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty
We will revere and obey the city's laws
We will transmit this city not only note less
But greater, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us
- Athenian Oath