| Essays on Civic Renewal |
The New Citizenship Movement
In his Washington Post article on the new citizenship movement in November 1994, David Broder pinpointed the central question confronting American politics today: will "cynicism and apathy or citizenship and participation prevail at the grassroots?" Citizens in communities across the country are answering this question by their constructive actions every day. Cynicism is an affront to the civic heritage upon which our democratic republic was built. Apathy cannot solve our common problems.
The new citizenship movement is diverse in its approaches, emphases and organizations. But it is in general agreement on one overriding principle: "We believe that we as citizens must reclaim responsibility for and power over our nation's public affairs." This is how the Civic Declaration, which was signed on December 9, 1994 in Washington, D.C. by civic leaders from many diverse communities, organizations, and political perspectives, put it as they committed themselves to working together across their differences.
The new citizenship movement focuses on practical problem solving and collaboration. It seeks to renew the vitality of our civil society and associational life, which have always been the foundation of our democracy. It builds upon a long history of community action and civic education in America, but it draws especially upon the innovative methods of many working at the grassroots in recent years.
These include groups, such as East Brooklyn Congregations and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, which have continually refined the methods of community organizing and community development, and have now become capable of complex partnerships with banks, city and federal agencies. They include long-established organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, which over the past two decades has created new partnerships among citizens, businesses and regulatory agencies in protecting the groundwater of communities across the country. They include grassroots Health Decisions groups that over the past decade have brought tens of thousands of citizens together in a common dialogue about their values in health reform, and have helped shaped policy making in their states.
There are also those who have brought new methods of community dispute resolution to conflicts as diverse as youth violence, economic development, and forest management. The Common Enterprise uses collaborative strategies in a growing number of cities to address highly charged issues such as censorship in public schools and rapid demographic shifts. The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice has helped bring together in respectful dialogue and collaborative work both sides in the highly polarized abortion debate.
The National Issues Forums of the Kettering Foundation and Public Agenda now include several thousand community-based groups engaged in public deliberation about difficult community issues. In professions as different as journalism and occupational therapy, practitioners have begun to reinvent their civic mission and ask how their work can help empower people.
Youth projects, such as AmeriCorps, Public Allies, and Public Achievement, have reinvigorated the spirit of public work and civic leadership development in communities and schools across the country. Intergenerational programs, such as Generations Together and the Brookdale Center, increasingly stress mutual civic education and common work among elders and youth in service to the community.
Trade associations and businesses in the printing and chemical industries have begun to develop their own civic capacities to reduce pollution voluntarily and have learned to work collaboratively with communities, environmental justice groups, and regulatory agencies. Various labor unions, such as the Harvard Clerical and Technical Workers Union, have taken the lead in reorganizing work to empower employees, enhance service, and ennoble labor with the dignity that it deserves in a commonwealth of citizens.
Many in government have been exploring ways to enhance the capacities of communities themselves to solve problems from the bottom up, instead of trying to solve them by bureaucratic methods from the top down. State Extension Services in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Alabama, and a broad range of nonprofit service organizations, such as the YMCA and National Easter Seal, have begun to reconceive their missions as helping to develop the skills of increasingly diverse communities to problem solve together.
In the summer of 1994, the Alliance for National Renewal and the American Civic Forum were founded to provide a larger framework for this rapidly burgeoning citizenship movement. CPN emerged as a project of the American Civic Forum, in cooperation with the Alliance for National Renewal.
The American Civic Forum brought together leading practitioners and academics, as well as some of the major conservative, liberal, and progressive proponents of new civic approaches. Together they fashioned the Civic Declaration to help chart a path that can take us beyond the stale and polarizing positions that dominate politics and policymaking. And in December 1994, liberals, progressives and conservatives from both parties joined civic leaders in Washington to pledge to work together on this common agenda.
Some also worked with the White House Domestic Policy Council in the Reinventing Citizenship Project in order to bring more consistently civic approaches into the federal government. The central theme of this project in 1994 was that "we cannot reinvent government unless we also reinvent citizenship."
To reinvent government will take more than streamlining, and even more than "serving the customer." It will take building citizen problem-solving skills and capacities, and empowering citizens and civic organizations to take upon themselves the everyday work of public life as full partners with government. One of the key recommendations of the Reinventing Citizenship Project, funded by the Ford Foundation, was for a Civic Partnership Council to catalyze such efforts across federal agencies by systematically building upon the best cases in community problem solving that have evolved in recent decades. (For the text of the recommendation, see Can the White House Help Catalyze Civic Renewal?)
The Alliance for National Renewal (ANR) is an initiative involving over 170 national, state and local organizations working on innovative approaches to community problem solving. Stakeholders believe that success depends on:
- individuals working together to meet shared community challenges
- recognition that diverse voices add vitality to common purpose
- collaborative efforts by the public, private and nonprofit sectors to revitalize communities, and
- removing barriers to individual growth and fulfillment.
CPN is working in collaboration with ANR to develop mutually supportive online stories, cases and other resources for civic renewal and community problem solving.
Convened by the National Civic League, ANR extends far beyond any one organization. Some of the organizations that have helped create this effort include the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the National 4-H Council, the Points of Light Foundation, the National Alliance for Business, and Habitat for Humanity International. ANR supporters see evidence of a growing, if unheralded, stirring of problem-solving energies at the grassroots level that cover virtually every relevant topic. ANR brings attention to this progress and encourages more individuals and organizations to become involved.
The conservative Bradley Foundation has also launched a New Citizenship Project to strengthen the "mediating structures" of civil society against the encroachments of the state. Its broad themes are presented in William Schambra's By The People: The Old Values of the New Citizenship. Groups such as the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, the Empowerment Network, the Institute for Contemporary Studies, the Commonwealth Foundation, and Empower America, embody much of this approach, as well.
There are many other such efforts at the national and grassroots levels too numerous to name in this introductory essay, and we hope that all of them will collaborate with us in sharing their work through CPN.
We are committed to a pluralist and nonpartisan presentation of civic renewal projects and approaches. We see this as the best way to encourage useful cross-fertilization and respectful dialogue among them. And we will work with you to ensure that your group's civic stories and practices are presented in a way that not only contributes to the larger public conversation, but also serves the specific interests of your own group.
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