Monthly Archives: April 2010

community organizing and public deliberation

Matt Leighninger, director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, has written a wise and inspiring paper called Creating Spaces for Change for the Kellogg Foundation. It is the product of several meetings in which community organizers interacted with people who define their roles as promoting public deliberation. The tensions between these two conceptions of “democracy”–and the potential for melding them–have interested me for many years. I’ve addressed the topic in published writings, e.g., here. But Matt’s report breaks new ground.

Deliberative democracy first arose as a response to a blinkered notion of politics as mere power. The dominant view of political scientists during the 1950s and 1960s was that individuals and organizations want things. They have options, such as to vote, to contribute money, to run for office, to strike, to sue, or to threaten violence, and they make their choices in order to get as much of what they want as possible. Political outcomes are the result of many simultaneous choices.

Deliberative democrats criticized that theory from a moral perspective, saying that we should not be satisfied with policies that arise because individuals and groups try to get what they want. They may not want good things; their power is starkly unequal; and some of their tactics are unethical. Besides, people don’t know what they want until they have communicated with others. So we should talk and listen before we try to get things.

But talk can be very harmful, as when evil dictators talk their followers into murderous action. Thus a crucial second step for deliberative democrats is to define some kinds of communication as better than others and to name the better kinds “deliberation.” Typically, the hallmarks of deliberation include the diversity of the participants, their equality of influence, freedom of speech, openness and transparency, reasonableness, and civility.

There is now a field devoted to organizing tangible public deliberations at a human scale: meetings, summits, “citizens’ juries,” community dialogues, moderated online forums, and various hybrids of these. They all involve convening diverse groups of citizens and asking them to talk, without any expectation or hope that they will reach one conclusion rather than another. The population that is convened, the format, and the informational materials are all supposed to be neutral or balanced. There is an ethic of deference to whatever views may emerge from democratic discussion. Efforts are made to insulate the process from deliberate attempts to manipulate it.

In contrast, activism or advocacy implies an effort to enlist or mobilize citizens toward some end. At their best, advocates are candid about their goals and open to critical suggestions. But they are advocating for something. Many advocates for disadvantaged populations explicitly say that deliberation is a waste of their limited resources. They note that just because people are invited to talk as equals, the discussion will not necessarily be fair. Participants who have more education, social status, and allies may wield disproportionate power. Individuals and groups who are satisfied with the status quo have an advantage over those who want change, because they can use the discussion to delay decisions. (They can “filibuster.”)

Talking with people who hold different views can cause us to temper or censor our sincere views in order to avoid confrontation; and such self-editing reduces our passion and our motivation to act. Social movements that oppose injustice seem to arise when “homogeneous people … are in intense regular contact with each other.” (Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, 1996).

For their part, proponents of deliberation often see organized advocacy as a threat to fair and unbiased discussion; hence they struggle to protect deliberative forums from being “manipulated” by groups with an agenda. One tactic for this purpose is to select potential participants randomly (like a jury), so that it is impossible for an interest group to mobilize its members to attend. Overall, deliberation seems cool, cerebral, slow, and middle-class. Activism seems urgent, passionate, effective, and available to all.

Community organizing is a type of activism. It is concerned with just social outcomes (not just processes). But many community organizers have deep concerns about respecting all voices, including ideologically diverse ones, building trust and networks among fellow citizens, and developing civic skills that include skills of listening and collaborating. Thus the gap between deliberation and community organizing can be very small. After one meeting that Matt describes, Eduardo Martinez of the New Mexico Forum for Youth and Community (a community organizer) remarked, “We may use different terminology and have different local issues, but most of the discussion was about how similar our work is.”

Another organizer, Jah’Shams Abdul-Mumin, nicely articulated the limitations of both fields in making a case for combining them: “The organizing community often treats people in a pejorative manner. Meanwhile, the deliberative democracy crowd includes a lot of extremely intellectual types. Neither group owns up to the things they can do better to relate to people.”

There were, evidently, tough discussions about the value (if any) of neutrality and whether concern for social equality needs to be built into deliberative processes. There were also debates about what to call the whole field that includes both deliberation and community organizing. “Civic engagement” seems too dry; “citizenship” can be understood as exclusive and merely legal. Nobody knows what “deliberation” is, and “community organizing” has perhaps “been stretched so far over the last forty years that it has lost much of its meaning.” But overall, there seems to have been much enthusiasm for the idea that issue advocacy, community organizing, deliberative democracy, and racial equity may be parts of one larger cycle or ecosystem–a “wheel of engagement,” as some called it.

honoring Dorothy Height

(Washington, DC) Today, at the National Press Club, CIRCLE is leading a significant conference on federal policy and civic skills. Some 70 federal officials, academics, and nonprofit leaders will participate, including 25 who have speaking roles as part of an elaborate program. We will also release a detailed new study of civic skills, showing who has skills, who lacks them, how they are changing, and why they matter.

I think that Dorothy Height’s funeral will be exactly simultaneous with our conference. The President and other luminaries will eulogize her across town while we are in the National Press Club. I am sorry that we have lost Height, yet it seems appropriate to discuss civic skills on a day devoted to celebrating her life. No one among the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement–and perhaps no one in American history–better understood the importance of our topic.

As early as 1952, when Height was invited to teach in India, she described her expertise as “the philosophy and skills of working with people in groups.” A decade later, she led mixed groups of white and African American women in Mississippi who deliberated and worked together to address injustice. This is only one example in a lifetime of such difficult and successful work.

Height knew that the main purpose of activism and service was not to benefit those served, but to strengthen the capacity of the servers for democratic self-governance. As she said, “Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.”

She also understood that opportunities to develop civic skills are highly unequal (a form of injustice that we describe in today’s release). She said, “We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system. But also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity.”

Height’s lifelong institutional home was The National Council of Negro Women. In her words, its “great strength is that it builds leadership skills in women.” She launched the Dorothy Height Leadership Institute as part of the Council, and today it keeps her light aflame by developing the civic skills of young people.

Civic Studies, Civic Practices Conference

Please join Tisch College and CIRCLE for this two-day gathering of educators and activists to explore the theory and practice of citizenship. Through interactive sessions, we will focus on “citizenship” as creativity, agency, and collaboration–not as a form of membership that separates those who are in from those who are out.


We invite proposals for 90-minute “learning exchanges,” which may include short panel presentations with plenty of time for conversation, moderated discussions, workshops, readings, planning sessions, or other types of events. A list of potential topics is below, but we welcome all proposals that fit broadly and creatively within the key theme of the conference, Civic Studies, Civic Practices.

Please use this this form to submit your learning exchange concept. Once you’ve submitted your proposal, we will be in touch to discuss your proposal, answer any questions you might have, or help you flesh out your concept. Proposals should be submitted by a group of at least two people. Teams of scholars and practitioners are preferred.


Citizens and Citizenship – What sort of citizens do we want? What knowledge, actions, and beliefs are important for strong citizens? What actions have citizens taken to actively engage in democratic practices? What institutional structures promote meaningful and engaged citizens? What knowledge, skills, and attitudes could transfer to global citizenship? Which may not? How does in-group and out-group status both define and limit citizenship?

Scale – How can strong/successful civic practices be scaled up and out? Is this a useful focus for civic work?

Civic Studies – Is this a useful field? What are its characteristics, boundaries, and limits? What is its potential theoretically and practically?

Political Reform – What changes in laws and policies are needed to strengthen active citizenship? What should we do to achieve those changes?

Civic Practices – Sessions on particular practices or methods, which may involve – for example – community organizing, media production, deliberation, reflection, or service.

Civic Education – How can we begin to address civic education in an era of education spending reduction, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?


Scholars, students, activists, educators and others interested in this topic are welcome to use this form to register or to submit a presentation proposal.


July 23, 10 am through July 24, 4 pm


Participants are responsible for their own lodging. Tufts dormitory rooms can be rented by the night in the summer. Please use this link to reserve a room


The Civic Studies, Civic Practices Conference concludes the second annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tisch College. This intensive, two-week interdisciplinary seminar brings together advanced graduate students, faculty and practitioners from diverse fields of study for challenging discussions about the role of civics in society.

an extra’s perspective

Last Thursday night, I boarded a flight from LA to Baltimore. I was coming from Seattle, where I had been meeting with veteran civil rights activists and community organizers, mostly young African American and Latino leaders from big cities. I was on my way to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where I would have conversations with William Kristol and Charles Murray, among others. The LAX-to-BWI flight was my chance for a little sleep between meetings.

Two young people recognized each other as they walked down the jetway to the plane. They had attended the same high school in Baltimore around the same time. The woman asked someone to switch seats so they could sit next to each other. That was bad news for me, because she ended up eight inches behind my head. But it was good news for them. They had so much in common–as I learned during the next five-and-a-half hours. Apartments not far apart, in the general vicinity of Culver City. Jobs in the media industry. Recent breakups. Jewish ancestry. Several drinks later, they were sharing their deepest hopes and dreams. As dawn broke over the east coast, they left the airplane holding hands.

It makes you think about how neat and happy stories feel to the people on the margins, those who are meant only to swell a progress, start a scene or two. The Fatted Calf was not so happy to learn of the return of the Prodigal Son. For every tearful reunion at the top of the Empire State Building, there are dozens of people in the elevator who are just trying to get on with their day. I didn’t begrudge this new couple my night–it was more important to them than to me. But I wished their romantic comedy could have begun elsewhere than in seats 16C and D.

using technology to cut the costs of college

Anya Kamenetz has a good article in The American Prospect about the need for colleges and universities to cut costs. The problem isn’t just predatory lenders or cheap state legislatures; the real costs of college are rising far too fast and imposing unjust burdens on young people and their families. A major cause is probably the failure of higher education to achieve efficiencies that have cut costs in manufacturing and service industries. If everything else gets more efficient, but your activity doesn’t, you become more expensive. That’s the situation with both medical care and higher education.

Kamenetz is excited about initiatives like MIT’s Open Courseware, which is an impressive repository of materials created at MIT that can be used free anywhere else. The materials include notes, syllabuses, readings, illustrations, problem sets, and assignments. It is generous and helpful for MIT to contribute in the way (sometimes at a cost of $15,000 or more for each course, as Kamenetz notes). But the benefits will be substantial only if (a) the expense of developing course materials is normally a significant component of tuition, and (b) “courseware” can be used effectively by faculty who didn’t develop it in the first place. Both premises are possible, but I’m not overly optimistic.

I see two opportunities that might be more important.

First, I’m obsessed by the sheer number of people who are employed per student at particularly expensive colleges and universities. For instance, Harvard employs 2,163 faculty, 5,102 administrators and professional staff, and 4,800 clerical and technical workers for its 19,500 students. Only 18 percent of the total work force are professors. There are three students for every five workers. (I’m counting graduate students as students, even though most also teach, so the ratio is even higher.) Thus I wonder whether there could be significant efficiencies in administration. On the other hand, it may be that most of the administrative and professional staff are involved in externally funded research or clinical medicine, in which case shrinking their numbers doesn’t cut the cost of education.

Second, I do see prospects for new types of course that would be based on computers, would be cheap per student, and would complement the rest of the curriculum. Imagine that we continued to offer a college education that was broadly similar to what we provide today, with seminars, lectures, labs, and office hours. But students were expected to take one course that was a large-scale simulation of a complex phenomenon. They might, for example, be asked to play various roles (appropriate to their majors) in a fictional town that faced a health emergency. Students would have to conduct research, plan, and communicate as part of playing this game. Developing it would be extremely expensive (if it was any good), but it could be offered nationally at a marginal price of just a few dollars per student. Small local teams of faculty could customize the game for their own campus.

I wouldn’t want the computer to do the grading, but it could dramatically cut the costs of assessment by tracking the completion of assignments and scoring multiple-choice tests, leaving only writing to be hand-graded. If ten percent of students’ credits were earned in such courses, the saving would be almost ten percent of tuition. And if these courses were offered in residential universities along with traditional seminars, lectures, and labs, there would be little loss of face-to-face learning and community.