For Communities to Work

Excerpts and illustrations from For Communities to Work, by David Mathews, © the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, posted by permission. To download the complete work click here.

Having spent [several decades] studying communities, the Kettering Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, has discovered an unrealized potential for constructive community change — the power of an engaged public. Lasting improvements are probably impossible without one.

By a “public,” we at the foundation mean a diverse body of people joined together in ever-changing alliances to make choices about how to advance their common well-being. Communities must have citizens who will take responsibility for what happens and who can make sound decisions about their future. By an “engaged public,” we mean a committed and interrelated citizenry rather than a persuaded populace. There is an important difference between the two. Members of an engaged public have decided among themselves on a course of action and are political actors directly involved in making changes; an engaged public owns its problems and its institutions. A persuaded populace has been convinced by leaders to let them implement certain programs. We found we had to make this distinction because the term “public engagement” has been used to describe a form of public relations aimed at gaining popular support for an institution or a cause. Public engagement in community affairs is not just a means of getting support for projects; it is an end in itself. . . . To take an example from politics, deliberative dialogue seems to be intrinsically valuable to citizens. While it produces useful outcomes, people also like this way of talking and relating for its own sake. . . .

You will notice that the word “politics” is used to describe the things citizens do both with other citizens and with governments to change their communities. We recognize that the term usually refers to election campaigns and the activities of governments. We use a broader definition in order to take into account all that is required to sustain a polis, or community. A neighborhood association organizing to keep streets safe is political. A citizens’ forum on ways to improve the economy is political. A coalition working for a better education system is political. And all those concerned about such matters have political interests. So politics doesn’t belong only to officeholders; it rightly belongs to everyone. This book is about how citizens can reclaim politics.

To talk about a public becoming a greater force in community politics is not the same as advocating mobocracy, or government by popular whim. What is public and what is popular are not the same. For example, there is a vast difference between public judgment and popular opinion. Public judgment is shared and reflective. Popular opinion is individual and reactive. To think of politics as a public activity changes the very meaning of politics. It becomes the art of making collective decisions and developing productive relationships, so that diverse people can act together in ways that give them greater control over their common fate. Politics is not simply passing legislation and electing representatives. . . .

We have found that making politics more public is a work in progress. Creating a more effective citizenry requires using different concepts of political possibility to carry out experiments and learn from the results. . . .

What Can We Do?

How might [communities] begin to strengthen the public so that citizens have more control over their future and so that civic life has the qualities people value?
Given what research has shown about the power of small-group decision making in deliberative forums to open the door to change, they might start by creating opportunities for citizens to make choices together on the issues that concern them most. Changing the way people talk can change the way they relate to each other and to their problems — and that can eventually change the community.

Provide Space for Public-Making

Many institutions — schools, libraries, civic organizations, churches and synagogues, colleges and universities — can provide public- making space. This is an essential part of a community’s civic infra- structure, which is as important as its physical infrastructure — roads, utilities, and the like.

One of the distinctive features of a high-achieving community is the amount of effort that goes into building civic infrastructure — finding places to do public work and creating channels of intracommunity communication. At the ground level, numerous ad hoc associations (local development councils, neighborhood alliances) open doors so that people can get involved. Although conventional wisdom assumes there are no voluntary organizations in areas where people are consumed with day-to-day survival, John Kretzmann and John McKnight [see Building Communities from the Inside Out] found more than 300 of them in economically impoverished areas such as the Grand Boulevard community on Chicago’s East Side. Elsewhere, informal associations like those Alexis de Tocqueville found in the nineteenth century provide space for public deliberation. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, a loose alliance of civic, educational, and religious organizations convenes the community to deliberate on one or two issues annually, and has been doing so since 1981.

The next tier of the infrastructure consists of formal civic clubs, leagues, and nongovernmental organizations, which usually have offices with signs on the doors, staffs, and budgets. Some of these groups serve as umbrellas, or boundary spanners, encouraging communitywide exchange, developing a sense of interrelatedness, building networks, and promoting resource sharing. The mission of boundary spanners has been described simply as “connecting people.” One such organization in Arkansas convened assemblies of citizens to work on issues ranging from education to economic development.

Unlike blue-ribbon commissions and coalitions, boundary spanners also differ from advisory committees, partnerships, and advocacy groups:


  • Membership is not necessarily large, but it is open. It is inclusive and diverse but nonrepresentational. Though everyone surely has particular concerns, people don’t participate as delegates from an area, group, body of interest, or point of view.
  • The focus is broad, not on specific issues but on the wellbeing of the community as a whole.
  • The time horizon is long. Relationship builders put a premium on patience and staying power.
  • Problems are viewed as complex and interconnected. These organizations don’t respond with narrowly focused projects; having a comprehensive outlook helps them resist pressure for quick fixes.
  • Building community capacity and strengthening civic infra- structure are seen as legitimate outcomes, or “results.”
  • Involvement is personal. People usually get a chance to “do politics” in a hands-on fashion. Staffs are small to nonexistent, and citizens do most of the work.

Boundary-spanning organizations play many roles. They are reservoirs for collecting political will as well as channels for moving civic energy from one issue to another and from one group to another. By bridging historic divisions, they build a civic infrastructure that strengthens the political fabric of the community.

Become a Learning Community

The spirit in which community change is undertaken seems to be as important as what is done. Time and again, Kettering researchers have heard about a promising new venture, have called to find out what happened, and have learned that “there were some dis- appointments and we quit.” In other cases, communities teach them- selves to fail intelligently, that is, to use their experiences to decide what to do next. Since they are learning, the prospect for long-term change is favorable. A spirit of experimentation and learning seems to be critical to sustained effort.

As might be expected, there are obstacles to developing such a spirit of experimentation and learning. One is a preoccupation with measuring success; another is the common practice of copying model programs from other cities and towns. Just as rushing to fix the most obvious problems interferes with changing a community, so does imi- tation.

This is not to say that people can’t learn from looking at what works elsewhere; high-achieving communities are constantly studying others. They are voracious learners, like students who read every- thing the teacher assigns, go to the library to see what is there, and then bring two new books to the next class. Yet they don’t search for models to replicate. Some community leaders warn that “imitation is limitation.” It interferes with the civic learning that is essential to a community’s success in adapting to changing circumstances.

Politics as usual often precludes such civic learning. Community leaders may take months to study issues and make decisions among themselves yet allow the public little opportunity to learn. They spend their time amassing facts that will convince people of the merits of their proposals, and they put their energies into doing a “real selling job.” It seems obvious that less-informed people aren’t going to arrive at a decision more quickly than the best informed. Perhaps civic leaders who use this strategy assume that citizens will readily accept conclusions reached by those in positions of authority. If so, it is an assumption worth reconsidering.

Learning to Redefine Problems

Citizens in a community that has organized itself to learn come to see their problems in a different light. For example, many economic development programs have begun by trying to attract industries to a given area because the community problem is initially defined as a need for jobs. Later, however, after much reflection, some civic leaders recognize that they really want greater prosperity, not just more jobs (which may or may not bring prosperity).

Still other communities . . . have learned that the community itself is an economic resource. Even though they may not be aware that patterns of social interaction (transactions) are a major determinant of prosperity, they understand that, if the community works as a community, so will the businesses located there. They redefine their economic problem as a need for community development.

Relearning Interests

Conventional politics makes much of self-interests, as well it should. Although we might like to believe that these can be displaced by a nobler common interest, they usually aren’t. And maybe they don’t have to be. Not all self-interests are selfish; and, what is more, self-interests change over time. As our sense of self evolves with experience, so does our self-interest.

In the process of making choices, for instance, citizens often reconsider and broaden the definition of their self-interests. Studies have found that, when faced with a difficult decision on a complex issue, people don’t try to simplify the matter, as is usually assumed. They do just the opposite. They expand their focus and look for connections; they reexamine many of their concerns as they take into account their varied experiences. This is the way they learn.

As one participant in community choice work explained, “You begin to see your interests as broadening in relationships with other people, particularly as you begin to have serious conversations and you begin to identify with other people’s experiences.” When others have been asked what stimulated them to broaden their interests, they have told similar stories — of a neighbor who shared her concerns about water rights, of a young person who asked tough questions about the environment, of a relative stranger in a public forum who added a different perspective on a matter that many participants considered inconsequential.

Draw on the Work of Others

There are workshops on deliberative forums and related topics at Public Policy Institutes (now Centers for Public Life) across the country, where you can meet people with a public perspective on politics. Go to the National Issues Forums website and check out the list of network partners for an up-to-date list of these institutes centers and then get in touch with one near you.

Ed. note: Check also the Kettering Foundation’s website for examples from the KF Learning Exchanges and its vast network of networks.

About the Lead Author

David Mathews
David Mathews
David Mathews was elected to the Kettering Foundation’s board of trustees in 1972 and became its president and CEO in 1981. Prior to his work there, David served in the Ford administration as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), where he worked on restoring public confidence in government and reforming the regulatory system. From 1965 to 1980, he taught history at the University of Alabama, where he also served as president from 1969 to 1980, an era of significant change and innovation, including the integration of the institution. David serves on the boards of a variety of organizations, including the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, National Issues Forums Institute, Council on Public Policy Education, and Public Agenda. He has received numerous awards, including a citation as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in the Nation, United States Jaycees; member, Alabama Academy of Honor; Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Silver, Columbia University; Educator of the Year, Alabama Conference of Black Mayors; and the Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was inducted into the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame in 2004 and into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2007, the Alabama Center for Civic Life was renamed in his honor as the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. He is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees. David has written extensively on such subjects as education, political theory, southern history, public policy, and international problem solving. His most recent book, The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014), focuses on how the work of democracy might be done to put more control in the hands of citizens and help restore the legitimacy of our institutions. For more on the book, visit

The Latest

The Story of the Clouds and the Forests

There’s a story one often hears in conversations about systemic transformation that goes like this… We are headed in the...


More Articles Like This