Recently, I came across the term “civic agency” which in many ways is closely related to the term “co-creative power” that I’ve coined with my colleague Ann Svendsen. “Civic agency”, according to Harry C. Boyte, the founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and author of Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life, is “the capacity of human communities and groups to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems across their differences of view. It involves questions of institutional design (that is, how to constitute groups, institutions, and societies for effective and sustainable collective action) as well as individual civic skills. Civic agency can also be understood in cultural terms, as practices, habits, norms, symbols and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.”
The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute has developed a framework for building civic agency based on their theory of public work, which they define as “a sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process”. The public work framework moves away from the dominant paradigm model of one-way expert interventions, to a citizen-centered approach that taps and develops diverse talents, and also away from the illusion that professionals can – or should – control processes and outcomes. Five key elements that underpin the public work framework include:
- Surfacing the irreducible plurality of interests and ways of seeing the world which is part of the human condition, and understanding that at times interests can be integrated while at other times, merely mitigated.
- Conceiving of the citizen as a co-creator of a democratic society – a problem-solver and co-producer of public goods, which is a far more robust definition than volunteer, voter, protestor, client, or customer.
- Rooting action in the life of places and reconnecting it to mediating local institutions like schools, businesses, congregations, unions, and non-profits with local communities.
- Re-conceptualizing the role of professionals from service deliverer and outside expert to collaborator, organizer and catalyst (on tap not on top), and recognizing that knowledge is co-produced by diverse groups, not simply academics, with the purpose of helping to animate the public world, and not mainly securing commercial gain or communicating to other academics.
- Shifting the definition of democracy – so that it is not mainly about elections, laws, and institutions but rather about a society, a lived cultural experience; “not just out there in the public sphere”, “but in here, at the very soul of subjectivity,” and re-conceiving government not as prime mover but as catalyst and resource of citizens.
Tom Atlee of The Co-Intelligence Institute and his daughter Jennifer Atlee, have initiated a very interesting conversation through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation listserve on how to convene strategic conversations around emerging social and environmental crises to enhance how consciously our societies evolve, even as: 1)impacts arise faster than our understanding; 2) action lags behind understanding; and 3) time to think about issues — and resources to address them — decline as disasters increase. “How, they ask, “do we rapidly evolve models of inquiry to meet demands of the time?” or, from an evolutionary perspective “How can we enhance the potential evolutionary power and wisdom of conversation in times of crisis and catastrophe?” This conversation is worth following, and will hopefully lead to some tangible action on the part of the dialogue and deliberation, Nexus for Change, Art of Hosting, and 0ther related communities.
As an organizer of the 2007 C2D2 Vancouver Nov. 12-14 conference – Facing Complex Issues Together, I wasn’t sure how much inspiration and new insights I would be able to take away. To my delight, two opportunities presented themselves for me to interact with and learn from Adam Kahane. Here are some of the ‘golden nuggets’ I retained from his talks:
- Sun Tze in The Art of War teaches the importance of solving tough problems without destorying the system, or ‘taking whole’.
- Co-creating a better future requires both love and power. Love is the act of listening from a place of deep attending, compassion, and empathy – as if what is being spoken is sacred. Power is the capacity to achieve purpose and to act together. The most important outcome of a multi-stakeholder meeting then, is for people to find and commit to what they have energy and will to act upon together. (For an in-depth elaboration of his new thinking representing the last 15 years of his work, replete with case examples, see Adam’s article, The Language of Power and the Language of Love, in Fieldnotes.)
- Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
- We can deceive ourselves with easy answers such as, “we’re sure this is doing some good”, “talk is work”, and delay taking action until later when we hope all will see what we need to do. As long as we’re not acting, says Adam, then we can imagine that we are in agreement. It is not until we actually start to ‘do something’ to transform and change current reality that we can actually determine whether there is in fact sufficient will to act. Action is the litmus test of whether we’ve had “good talk”. The imperative then, especially in the face of complex issues like climate change where Mother Nature (and not humanity) is in charge, is to act together much sooner, learning by doing and by prototyping, in an ongoing process of action and response.
- The important questions to guide how we design our work in facing complex issues include: 1) How can we work systemically, generatively and participatively? 2) How can we move from downloading (what we know); debating (our positions) to reflective dialogue and presencing for real learning and understanding? 3) How can we put our purposes together first then decide on our ideas for acting together? 4) How can we become bilingual in the language of love and power?
E.F. Schumacher, renowned economic thinker and statistician (author of Small Is Beautiful; A Guide for the Perplexed) pointed out that there are two types of problems: those for which there is a right answer (e.g., why is my engine leaking oil?), and those for which there is no one right answer (e.g., why are we running out of oil?). The more we learn about complex issues, the more we understand as Schumacher and Peter Senge (MIT Professor, author or The Fifth Discipline) say that “there is no right answer for a complex system”. To find our way through complexity, we need to be willing to invite, and enter into, learning conversations with a broad diversity of people who each contributes a partial view, from which a wholer view emerges.
Openness and curiosity help us probe beneath familiar assumptions and territory to explore multiple perspectives in the promise of achieving a more expansive view. “This”, says Senge, “is easy to say but extraordinarily difficult to do”. Eventually, the wise path towards greater wholeness requires not only that we open our minds, but also our hearts to see how we, and not just them, are part of the problem. One more thing is need of true leaders, the courage to act upon this broader understanding.
See: Systems Citizenship: The Leadership Mandate for this Millennium, Peter Senge, Reflections.Solonline.org
Out of despair and extreme tragedy, new patterns of engagement are providing citizens with meaningful opportunities to be involved in the most important public decisions that impact their lives (see New Orleans and World Trade Center events below). What if this level of citizen engagement became the norm? What could we accomplish say, on the issue of climate change, by creating a collective agenda to bring together not just politicians, but also the various experts, side by side with citizens in all the regions of the planet, to learn together and coalesce the global will to act?
- “Displaced New Orleans residents gather to discuss how they’d like their city to recover, in an Internet-linked gathering that allowed for a conversation among some 2000+ of the city’s current and former residents who are now in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and New Orleans. The participants focused on neighborhood stability; education; affordable homes and rent; roads; transit; utilities; health services; and other vital public services following a methodology designed by AmericaSpeaks.” NPR http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6944978.
- Listening to the City – In 2002, AmericaSpeaks was honored with the responsibility of providing thousands of New Yorkers with a meaningful voice in the process of rebuilding the World Trade Center site. “I would be tempted to call it a turning point in the story not only of the World Trade Center, but of American planning in general. … Thousands and thousands of people talking seriously about urban design is something I never thought I would see.”New Yorker Magazine architecture critic, Paul Goldberger.