January, 2002
Tyler Norris Community Initiatives, LLC.

Civic Gemstones: The Emergent Communities Movement

(Reprinted with permission from the National Civic Review, of the National Civic League, January 2002)

"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 business enterprises.

Emergent Patterns

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 fully.

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.

Design Principles

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 development."

  • 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 democratic process.

  • 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 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 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 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 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 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 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