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Kettering’s Evolving Understanding- and my Own (Connections 2015)

This three-page article, “Kettering’s Evolving Understanding- and my Own: Reflections on Three Decades of Involvement with Democracy and the Foundation that Studies What It Takes to Make It Work as It Should”, by Ray Minor, was published Fall 2015 in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research. Minor shares his experience working with Kettering for the last thirty years and how KF’s research has helped to strengthen the democratic process.

He tells of the network of individuals who started the Birmingham National Issues Forums, which would later become the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI). Then goes on to tell of the effort to develop civic capacity in Alabama, which would lead to a series of forums that would shape the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. Below is an excerpt from the article. Connections 2015 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

KF_Connections 2015From the article…

I learned over time that Kettering studies democracy from a citizen-centered perspective—the sense that ordinary citizens desire to control their daily lives and that this desire defines what the foundation means by “democracy.” The foundation’s primary research question—what does it take to make democracy work as it should?—derives from this idea and the underlying assumption that democracy is working as it should when citizens “self-rule.”

Democratizing Alabama
In the early 1980s, when I first became involved in this work, a broad network of individuals in Birmingham, Alabama, was convened by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Urban Affairs and supported by the UAB Office of Student Affairs. This group was on the ground floor of what later became the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI). The core group of individuals leading this effort included Odessa Woolfolk, Rebecca Falkenberry, Wanda Madison Minor, Peggy Sparks, and myself. Wanda Minor organized this group after several conversations with David Mathews in 1982. This group operated under the name Birmingham National Issues Forums (BNIF) and annually convened a series of forums on national issues with hundreds of citizens and many organizations representing a cross-section of the community.

A Center Grows in Alabama
Still intrigued by the work of the Kettering Foundation, I worked with Bob McKenzie and Cathy Randall to found the Alabama Center for Civic Life, a 501(c) (3), nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, which was incorporated and received tax-exempt status in 2005. The center’s purpose is to conduct research and training on citizenship, democracy, governance, and democratic practices. Since Mathews was the inspiration for establishing the center, in 2008, it was renamed the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. The center was established on the premise that democracy works best when enlightened citizens engage in the affairs of their towns, cities, states, and nations. A small group of Alabamians decided to fill a void in the public sector by establishing an organization that would equip citizens with the skills and knowledge necessary for engaging in public life.

Looking back, I have come to realize that Kettering’s work is important for several reasons pertaining to strengthening democracy. Perhaps paramount among the others, Kettering’s focus on the six democratic practices provides a lens through which citizens from all parts of the world can come to see themselves as key actors on public problems and see connections between their work as citizens and the work of people from widely differing circumstances. This recognition of the work of citizens by citizens themselves may well be Kettering’s most important contribution to democratic life.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2015 issue, edited by Kettering program officer Melinda Gilmore and director of communications David Holwerk, focuses on our yearlong review of Kettering’s research over time.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn.

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Minor_2015.pdf

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