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Two Decades of Learning with Communities (Connections 2015)

The four-page article, “Two Decades of Learning with Communities”, by Phillip D. Lurie was published Fall 2015 in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research. This article is about the Community Politics Workshops, which were developed train participants to understand deliberation and democratic public politics, then bring the knowledge back home to their communities. This process over these last two decades has revealed a lot about how communities work together democratically to address their problems. Connections 2015 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here and read an excerpt from the article below.

KF_Connections 2015From the article…

When Communities Work Together

After more than a decade working with community-based teams, it is difficult to capture what we have learned in a few scant paragraphs. Moreover, these efforts have been one part of a larger research initiative, situated within KF’s Community Politics and Leadership program area, so the outcomes reflect the aggregation of data from all of these related efforts. Nonetheless, over the years, we’ve learned quite a bit about how communities work together democratically to address the problems they face.

• Community teams grew in their understanding of the goals and potential of deliberative practices.

As people began to engage in the practices of community politics, they tended to express their goals as either striving toward changing the political culture or making progress on a serious problem. This could be simplistically summarized as those who wanted to convene forums and change decision-making processes versus those who wanted action. However, over time, the thinking of most participants evolved to understand that both goals are intertwined. None believed deliberation was an end in itself, but they took differing views of the role of the convening organization in fostering action. Overall, we have learned that motivated citizen groups can understand the potential of public politics in their community.

• Deliberative practices, as conveyed to these community groups, were labor and time intensive.

One readily apparent problem faced by most teams, especially those that rely heavily on people who volunteer outside of their jobs, is that deliberative practices, at least as shared in the workshops, have been labor and time intensive. In many cases, team members report decreasing their activity because of other demands on their time. Finding ways to allow the public to do its work in ways that are less burdensome and more natural would allow teams, especially those without paid staff, to sustain the democratic practices over time.

• Community teams could frame issues and hold forums but had difficulty making an impact.

Overall, the community teams participating in these workshops could, with varying degrees of success, name, frame, convene deliberative dialogues, network, evaluate their efforts and progress, and, if desired, play a role in fostering citizen action. As a result, most community teams could claim some positive impacts as a result of their work. However, despite years of thoughtful effort, the Community Politics teams acknowledge that, at best, their work resulted in small pockets of change. At worst, some reflect that their efforts (despite being well thought out and labor intensive) had virtually no lasting impact on politics-as-usual or the community as a whole. Confronted with the limitations of largely volunteer teams and the realities of politics-as-usual in their communities, all of the community teams have struggled. Progress, if any, toward embedding and sustaining deliberative practices in the community in any way that really makes a difference or making a dent in serious problems has been uneven at best.

• Community teams often operated in a “parallel universe,” disconnected from politics-as-usual, or faced resistance when confronting politics-as-usual.

Community Politics teams had difficulty developing democratic practices that complement institutional practices. Oftentimes, community institutions used deliberative forums as a means to get input from citizens to justify existing proposals or satisfy a public participation requirement. Sometimes teams faced outright resistance from local institutions, which were hesitant to change. Team members often found that they were not able to bring enough local decision makers or funders to appreciate the need for deliberative public decision making, despite the best efforts of their team and their partner organizations. While the workshop series ended to allow for an internal review of our learning, the research has continued on in other ways. We are still experimenting today with how people in communities solve problems together. The foundation researches the ways that distinct groups attempt to constructively affect the politics of naming and framing problems in their community—as well as how they collectively address them. That is, how do innovations, which are designed to change the nature of the workings of political interactions in a community, work?

Learning exchanges are built around experiments and the practical implications of carrying out innovations. We are interested in learning more about:

1. how innovations can be initiated;
2. the potential barriers to trying new ways of solving problems together in communities;
3. assuming that innovations occur, the political outcomes of the innovations in practice, which includes changes in interactions regarding particular problems; and
4. the development of self-consciousness among citizens of key democratic practices and ways to make them citizen-driven.

We are studying how political entrepreneurship can be done with democratic intent.

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/Lurie_2015.pdf

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