"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
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
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
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 business enterprises.
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
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 tend to:
- 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 new value."
- 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 work done.
- 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
- 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 table.
- 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
- 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
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
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 power.
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
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 they support.
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
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 are entrusted.
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