Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space

Cormac’s post is an adaptation of the Introduction to his just-published book, Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space.

Abundant Community readers can buy the book at a 40% discount by contacting Wipf and Stock Publishers at orders@wipfandstock.com and quoting the following coupon code: REKIND. To read reviews of the book, visit the Nurture Development website at https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/rekindling-democracy/ and Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53820032-rekindling-democracy

One day several years ago, Carin stepped out of her travel trailer and walked a few minutes into the community she would soon fall in love with: the Voorstad-Oost neighborhood in the Netherlands city of Deventer. Although still hurting from a difficult divorce, her natural curiosity about the people and place where she found herself meant it did not take long for her to hear the rumours that the old neighborhood school was being sold off. Within days of hearing this news, she found herself working with her new friend Lotte and a band of other residents getting organized to save their school. City developers had looked at this old building and seen an apartment block, but the Voorstad-Oost locals saw past the husk of its red bricks and grey mortar, and its financial potential, to envision their own community center.

And so began the adventure. It turned out that saving the building was the easy part. Having succeeded in gaining a permit from the municipality to turn the old school into a community center, they then had to figure out how to transform this forlorn structure, with its empty classrooms and echoing corridors, into a vibrant community center, and to do it without external funding.

Carin and Lotte, like the other members of the group, appreciate the power of openly asking for what they want. In a directness typical of the region, Carin and Lotte turned to each of their neighbors and asked, “What would you like to do to help create our community center? We have no money right now, so whatever you do will be a gift to your community.” They discovered that people were just waiting to be asked. Over time, as money came in, they paid local craftspeople whenever and whatever they could, ensuring investment in the local economy. But in those early days it was down to what the people in the neighborhood were prepared to contribute.

Carin, Lotte and their neighbors might not have used the term but they were operating within a “gift economy.” So much so that today most locals can walk by that former school building and say: “I helped to transform that into the beautiful community center you see there.”  The sense that “my neighbours and I made this” is of incredible consequence: the sustainability of such an endeavor can be measured by the number of local fingerprints found on the walls and the furniture of the place. The more fingerprints, the more collective ownership; the more shared ownership, the more investment in sustaining it and, more importantly, in creating the future expressions of the community’s gathering place. Indeed, most people do not simply walk by the building; they walk in and contribute.

Besides having a powerful origin story, the Voorstad-Oost community center is distinct from many other centers I’ve seen around the world. First, it is completely managed and run by local people. Second, although it provides services, such as childcare for example, they do not feel like “services.” The ethos that pervades the center is one of family, not factory; of covenant, not contract. While there, you see the children mixing freely with the adults from the community; the playground is reminiscent of a village square, with young and old playing, talking, and laughing together. It is a far cry from the fortress-like environments of many modern childcare facilities, where the rooms are softened and child-centered, but the steel railings around the perimeter send a clear message to the community: stay away, these youngsters are the private property of their parents, who have paid us to “care” for them. The message to children in those facilities is clarion also: the people who care for you are your family and the people they pay; your neighbors are strangers, and potentially dangerous.

Voorstad-Oost and similar stories stand in stark contrast to how most modern Westerners experience their childhoods. People who are more than fifty years old can perhaps still remember the care of the village, growing up under the watchful eyes of neighbors, but those under thirty-five will have mainly experienced the care of parents or extended family and the professionally run kindergarten and school. In Voorstad-Oost they still believe it takes a village to raise a child and they are doing something about it. Here people hatch and catch their neighbors and, in a beautifully reciprocal motion, are themselves opening up to life’s possibilities and flourishing from inside out.

Meanwhile, Over in Michigan

Another story is being played out in Strange, Michigan, where Brenda Hydon teaches eighteen students, ages five to twelve, in a one-room schoolhouse. There you see one teacher and a teacher’s aide demonstrating the possibilities of a learning site built on a community rather than a corporate model. If not new, it is utterly unusual. And it’s working.

The Strange School has operated in its current building since 1879, but its history and longevity are not the story here. What’s important is that the teacher teaches the older kids, the older kids teach the younger, and the younger ones learn at their own pace by listening in. What’s more, the art of community is learned by in-school experience; the kids learn to be the productive keepers of a public place and are distanced from the huge diversion from learning that is competitive sports.

Voorstad-Oost and Strange, Michigan, are just two images of what’s in store should we get serious about rekindling democracy: we see a future where local citizens rely on one another to cope with the limits of the industrial model for everything, including the classroom and the community center.

In this book, you will read dozens of such stories, most of which have little to do with schools or clinics or other such institutions. Instead they are centered on what happens when people collectivize around a shared vision that they have created themselves. If it were possible to view these disaggregated, local, highly particular creative efforts in the aggregate, what you would see is democracy, in all its glory.

Democracy Redefined: Shifting from Institution-Centered to Citizen-Centered

In a democracy, effective central and local governments and not-for-profit institutions function as an extension of civic life and serve to protect it. When institutions begin to replace civic life—doing things to or for citizens that they can do themselves or with each other—a shift from a democratic to a technocratic way of life takes hold. Technocratic governing relegates citizens to second place; it turns them into clients and consumers of government services, and positions “experts” and “officials” as superior to the people they serve. Over time five unintended consequences of this arrangement become evident:

  1. People who need support due to economic isolation or fragility become defined as problems to be fixed, not as people to be valued and connected, people who possess the assets and resources that are critical to addressing their challenges.
  2. A significant portion of the money intended to support those who are economically marginalized goes to paid service providers, not to the economically marginalized people themselves.
  3. Active citizenship begins to retreat in the face of ever-growing professionalism and expertise. People not credentialed by a professional “guild” become increasingly more dependent on institutional services to do what previously was done by participating in community life.
  4. Economically marginalized communities begin to internalize a map—a map drawn by outside experts—that defines them as helpless people populating hopeless places. Not surprisingly, the people who live in communities that have been defined by others as backwaters of pain and suffering come to believe that the only way things will get better is when someone, with the right resources and expertise, comes in from outside to make them better.
  5. Citizens begin to believe that a good life is not to be found in interdependent relationships at the center of community life, alongside near neighbors, but in services and programs at the edge of their communities, provided by salaried strangers.  Many of those who are surrounded by a wide range of such services have been exiled from community life into “serviceland,” the environment within which services and programs dominate. They are no longer known as a sister, brother, son, daughter, friend, or neighbor; they have been redefined as a service user, a patient, someone endlessly waiting to be fixed. The accumulation of services coalesces to form a new environment around the person which transposes their role from citizen to client.[/NL 1-5]

In most parts of the world these consequences are combining to erode the social and political foundation of everyday life. This adds up to a creeping crisis which may be thought of as a rip in the social fabric of our collective lives, evident in ever-increasing disconnection.

What is the solution? Community.

Today, the most pressing challenge facing people and their governments in the Western world, and indeed in those countries that are rapidly becoming Westernized, is to reverse the developments of the last fifty years that have turned active citizens into satisfied or dissatisfied clients and passive consumers. Reversing the trend is about showing up more in our own and other people’s lives as active citizens, which is to say as the primary producers of a more satisfying shared future. I consider this to be at the heart of the democratic challenge. While it is a perennial endeavor, the urgency of rekindling our communities and rebooting democracy could not be greater than it is today. We will never reclaim the community spirit of times past, yet we certainly can find and connect the current cultural ties that enable us to bind collectively in the world as it is to re-create the world as we wish it to be.

Challenging the Institutional Assumption

Getting to that world is not about reforming our systems; it is about re-functioning our families and neighborhoods and our human service institutions, so that they can re-orientate themselves towards their primary function: to support citizenship and community building. The current assumption that services and programs will be sufficient to address our biggest challenges is as ubiquitous as it is misguided. Placing the provision of services and programs in a more proportionate role alongside support for citizenship and community building is critical to the future of local democracy. The evidence clearly shows that it is not services and programs but our community assets that primarily determine our well-being—that is, the extent to which we are well and how quickly we recover when unwell. Of course, institutions have a role to play in supporting our well-being, but it is a supplementary one.

Epidemiology (the scientific study of what determines human well-being) is clear that the five determinants of well-being are:

  1. Personal capacity
  2. Associational life
  3. Economic status
  4. Environmental conditions
  5. Access to health and allied services

Over the last five decades, in the areas of health and well-being, education, local economics, environment, justice and public safety, the role of community assets has been relegated to second place, treated as irrelevant to the primary concerns of social, political, and economic change. Institutions have replaced citizens as the primary inventors of the solutions to social and political problems. At the same time, institutional leaders have forgotten that their institutions were hatched from associational nests, and yet their institutional machinery often acts as the instigator of so many of the so-called problems they were established to resolve, and regularly albeit unintentionally can cause such conditions to prevail or worsen. Accordingly, health—which is primarily a social and political matter—has come to be thought of as a medical one, and technocratic solutions have come to be considered as more desirable and trustworthy in all instances than the tacit knowledge of citizens and communities. No longer is the home the place where we are born and die, where we learn and work. Institutions are widely considered to be benign, and the notion that institutions might sometimes be counterproductive is often viewed as a fringe position, propagated by troublemakers and crackpots.

Indeed, across a wide range of issues, from gang crime to dementia, the dominant assumption is that where a social problem exists, generating a solution is the primary responsibility of one institution or another (and more recently a cluster of institutions working in concert in pursuit of collective impact). Yet the evidence clearly shows that this approach is not only out of whack with what science tells us, it is also counterproductive when it comes to rekindling democracy. Instead of precipitating collective citizenship and neighbor to neighbor interdependence, this process increases dependency on institutions and decreases interdependency in community life. Ultimately, it defines democracy as institution-centric, instead of citizen-centered.

Rekindling Democracy

In the final analysis, institutions are not benign; their gravitational pull will draw them back time and again to doing things “to the people,” “for the people”—and only on occasion  “with the people.” Time and again they will do things that belong in the domain of citizen-to-citizen work done by the people. Clearly there are things best done by families and communities; in such instances, government does well to create a dome of protection around them and ensure adequate space for them to blossom.

There are also things that are best done with citizens in the lead, but with support from outside agencies or the marketplace. Here government does well to ensure those partnerships are well governed and benefit communities most. Communities at the same time must ensure that such social contracts are collaborative and democratic, and dissent when they are not.

And finally, there are things that governments and people with specialized expertise are best placed to do; in such instances government does well to support those specialists to do that work collaboratively, affectively as well as effectively, and transparently.

The approach laid out in Rekindling Democracy shows how the reboot that’s needed for all of us to live more satisfying lives, while walking lightly on the planet, can begin. I also set out some of the primary steps for taking this approach from concept to enduring and authentic action.

The consistent thread is the asset-based community development perspective. It is through this lens I look out at this cross-pressured world of ours and consider how best to vitalize our communities and rekindle democracy. I say “rekindle” for two reasons. First, because the embers have not gone out: we have what we need to build community and reimagine democracy, if we connect what we have. Second, the word lends itself to playful interpretations—for example it contains other words, such as kin, kind, elder, and so on—and it also reminds me of the German word Kinder (child), which immediately brings to mind the adage that it takes a village to raise one.

It is time to rekindle democracy. In our work in the citizen space, we must cheer on and stand shoulder to shoulder with savvy civic and institutional leaders as we seek to resource, support, and gently challenge them in their work to ensure an authentic and effective shift from institution-centric, top-down approaches to more citizen-centered, bottom-up approaches.

Adapted and posted with permission from Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space, by Cormac Russell (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020). Copyright © 2020 Cormac Russell. All rights reserved. Image: Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana

About the Lead Author

Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. In January 2011 Cormac was appointed to the Expert Reference Group on Community Organising and Communities First, by Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society in the UK which he served on for the term of the Group. Examples of recent work include: Leading all national sporting organizations in Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Council for Ethics in Sport, to adopt a shared vision as to how sport can become an asset for community building. This is effecting significant changes in the structures of major sporting organizations but also at a local community level in terms of community empowerment and citizen driven development. Advising I&Dea in the UK on the development of an asset based approach to health and on addressing health inequalities in low income communities as well as how an assets approach can improve community health and well-being. Partnering with Youth Work Ireland on a national program involving hundreds of youth practitioners and thousands of young citizens to develop a strong culture of youth led initiatives. Working in partnership with the University of Limerick and Atlantic Philanthropies in Ireland to infuse an ABCD approach across the entire city of Limerick. Part of this process involved organizing an entire neighborhood to address issues of loneliness, fear and intimidation and to support citizen driven development. The long-term vision is of a city that puts citizens and communities in the driving seat, through processes of neighborhood organizing and bottom up planning and where services are organized in the way in which community is organized. 

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