The Ecology of Democracy and the Work of Centers for Public Life

Recently, those most associated with the West Virginia Center for Civic Life—its board of directors and many of the most committed champions of civic engagement throughout the state—came together with a very intentional goal: to explore the challenges, the opportunities, and, most of all, the underlying lessons of our various efforts to promote and engage in citizen politics in our communities.

During this same time period, I was a mentor and faculty member (and most often a co-learner) in the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing work with centers for public life. During this time, twenty emerging centers for public life—some connected to higher education, others functioning as community-based organizations—joined with five established, long-standing centers to explore a very similar line of inquiry. In-depth discussions among team members from these centers yielded deep insights into the nature and applications of the civic power of citizens.

The Ecology of Democracy fully captures these emerging insights of centers for public life in ways that underscore and illuminate the powerful potential of these civic efforts. It will spark fresh thinking and sharpen insights among those who have been trying to strengthen connections between the formal, institutional structures in their communities and the organic, informal work of citizens. It challenges centers for public life to move beyond the familiar terrain of naming, framing, and deliberating public issues into the less tangible, but ultimately more impactful, democratic practices of working in communities to move from public dialogue to community-based action.

Centers for public life around the country have positioned themselves to engage with community members—those who reside mainly in the “natural wetlands” as well as those who staff the formal institutions of public life—to address a key problem clearly outlined in The Ecology of Democracy: people not joining forces in civic work. The role of centers in encouraging the joining of public forces is illuminated in the book’s description of the public missions and democratic practices embedded in the citizen politics they embrace.

On a foundational level, civic innovators who create centers for public life understand that public knowledge is socially constructed; they believe that self-rule requires self-organizing; they realize that connectivity is more important than scale; they demonstrate that owning a problem is a potent source of energy for civic work. As practitioners, they help create public space to make public choices; they make powerful connections with the things people care about. Their work illustrates the belief that “the best strategy for combatting the rampant loss of confidence and legitimacy in institutions may be in strengthening civic agency.” They attempt to strengthen civic agency in a myriad of ways, most focused on embedding habits of public participation and on impacting the quality of public life in their communities.

There is an important distinction between the involvement of a center for public life in an issue-based initiative and the work, for example, of a coalition of citizens and organizations that might form to address a community problem. Even though very good work with similar outcomes might ensue from each initiative, undergirding the involvement of a center for public life are intentional, even strategic, interactions with citizens and organizations designed to build the capacity for the community’s future work on other public issues. Their work is often directed at building relationships that will create an ongoing, long-term foundational resource for sustained civic action.

Because centers are interested in developing habits of democratic participation, they work with individuals and organizations to create supportive networks of civic practitioners, ongoing communication processes within communities, and the space and time for citizens to learn together from their common work. They most often do this within the framework of the democratic practices that allow a community to effectively and inclusively address an authentic, deeply embedded public problem.

Many centers for public life have developed highly effective ways of working with communities to name and frame public issues and to convene and facilitate deliberative dialogue. While these practices are complex, they are fairly tangible. Partly because of our comfortable familiarity with these practices, and partly because these practices allow us to keep a safe distance from “non-neutral” community actions, it has been tempting to support communities in their efforts to name, frame, and discuss public issues, with the hope that participation in these practices would spur citizens and organizations to take actions that positively impact life in the community.

I can certainly say this was the case for a number of years with the WV Center for Civic Life. Often individual and group actions did follow deliberative dialogue—buoyed by the public energy created in individuals or groups through the dynamic civic interaction of deliberative dialogue. Too often, however, while we were hoping for spontaneous combustion, what often occurred was a gradual dissipation of the public energy that was so palpable during the dialogue.

In recent years, however, West Virginia and other centers for public life have learned much more about the kind of democratic practices that are most likely to lead to greater impact—practices related to identifying community resources, organizing for public action, and learning together. We have worked in more supportive and comprehensive ways with coalitions of citizens and organizations to address community problems. In West Virginia, we have seen a far greater degree of community change when this full range of practices is acknowledged from the outset of a civic initiative and when transitional elements between stages are considered and constructed.

A major contribution of The Ecology of Democracy to the work of centers for public life is that it illustrates this full spectrum of citizen politics. It propels us forward in our efforts to help communities develop practices that lead from inclusive public dialogue to positive community actions.

Betty Knighton has been the director of the West Virginia Center for Civic Life since its founding in 1998. A primary focus of her work has been building a network of public dialogue in the state through collaborative partnerships with educational, civic, faith-based, and governmental organizations.
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