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Ships Passing in the Night

The 20-page report, Ships Passing in the Night (2014)was written by David Mathews and supported by the Cousins Research Group of the Kettering Foundation. In the article, Mathews talks about the two major movements in civic engagement; one in higher education and the other found growing among communities able to work together. He uses the analogy of the wetlands, like how life thrives in the wetlands, it is in communities that can come together, where democracy thrives. Because it is these opportunities for people to discuss details and issues of their lives, that people will become more engaged in the issues that matter to them.

Mathews explores the question, “Why, though, are these two civic movements in danger of passing like the proverbial ships in the night? More important, how might these efforts become mutually supportive?”

Below is an excerpt of the report and it can be found in full at the bottom of this page or on Kettering Foundation’s site here.

From the guide…

kf_shipspassingThe Shaffers of academe are one of the forces driving a civic engagement movement on campuses across the country. Not so long ago, the civic education of college students was of little concern. Now, thanks to educators like Shaffer, that indifference is giving way. Leadership programs are common, and students are taught civic skills, including civil dialogue. There are also more opportunities to be of service these days, which is socially beneficial as well as personally rewarding. These opportunities are enriched by students’ exposure to the political problems behind the needs that volunteers try to meet. University partnerships with nearby communities offer technical assistance, professional advice, and access to institutional resources. Faculty, who were once “sages on the stage,” have learned to be more effective in communities by being “guides on the side.” All in all, there is much to admire in the civic engagement movement on campuses.

Another civic engagement movement is occurring off campus. At Kettering, we have seen it clearly in communities on the Gulf Coast that are recovering from Hurricane Katrina…

People wanted to restore their community—both its buildings and way of life—and felt that they had to come together as a community to do that. The community was both their objective and the means of reaching that objective. This has been the goal for many of the other civic engagement movements in communities that are trying to cope with natural disasters, economic change, and other problems that threaten everyone’s well-being.

Interestingly, a year or so after Katrina, a group of scholars studying communities that survived disasters validated the instincts of Don, Mary, and their neighbors. These communities were resilient because they had developed the capacity to come together. And the resilience proved more important than individual protective measures like well-stocked pantries.

People with a democratic bent like Don, Mary, and their neighbors don’t want to be informed, organized, or assisted as much as they want to be in charge of their lives. And they sense that this means they need a greater capacity to act together despite their differences. That is why they say they want to come together as communities to maintain their communities. Unfortunately, they often have difficulty finding institutions that understand their agenda.

Nongovernmental organizations, according to a recent Kettering and Harwood study, are often more interested in demonstrating the impact of their programs than in facilitating self-determination and self-rule. Even citizens may be uncertain of what they can do by themselves and want to put the responsibility on schools, police departments, or other government agencies…

The Wetlands of Democracy
We don’t have a name for what we are seeing, but the more we see, the more we have come to believe that we are looking at something more than civil society at work, more than revitalized public life, and more than grassroots initiatives. We don’t think we are seeing an alternative political system like direct democracy; rather, we are looking at the roots of self-rule. Democratic politics seems to operate at two levels. The most obvious is the institutional level, which includes elections, lawmaking, and the delivery of services. The other level is underneath these superstructures, and what happens there is much like what happens in the wetlands of a natural ecosystem.

We have been experimenting with a wetlands analogy to describe what supports and sustains institutional politics. Wetlands were once overlooked and unappreciated but were later recognized as the nurseries for marine life. For example, the swamps along the Gulf Coast were filled in by developers, and the barrier islands were destroyed when boat channels were dug through them. The consequences were disastrous. Sea life that bred in the swamps died off, and coastal cities were exposed to the full fury of hurricanes when the barrier islands eroded. The wetlands of politics play roles similar to swamps and barrier islands. They include informal gatherings, ad hoc associations, and the seemingly innocuous banter that goes on when people mull over the meaning of their everyday experiences. These appear inconsequential when compared with what happens in elections, legislative bodies, and courts. Yet mulling over the meaning of everyday experiences in grocery stores and coffee shops can be the wellspring of public decision making. Connections made in these informal gatherings become the basis for political networks, and ad hoc associations evolve into civic organizations.

In the political wetlands, as in institutional politics, problems are given names, issues are framed for discussion, decisions are made, resources are identified and utilized, actions are organized, and results are evaluated. In politics at both levels, action is taken or not; power is generated or lost; change occurs or is blocked. We aren’t watching perfect democracy in the political wetlands because there isn’t such a thing. But we are seeing ways of acting, of generating power, and of creating change that are unlike what occurs in institutional politics.

Why the Disconnect?
It would seem that two civic engagement movements, occurring at the same time and often in the same locations, would be closely allied—perhaps mutually reinforcing. That doesn’t seem to be happening very often. Research reported by Sean Creighton in the 2008 issue of the Higher Education Exchange suggests the connection is quite limited. Even though academic institutions have considerable expertise and a genuine interest in being helpful, they don’t necessarily know how to relate to the self-organizing impulses of Don, Mary, and their neighbors…

This is an excerpt of the report, download the full guide at the bottom of this page to learn more.

About Kettering Foundation
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.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: ships_passing_in_the_night

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