three paths to civic renewal

Right now, my email inbox contains announcements of three important civic initiatives:

  • AmericaSpeaks has put together a document that explains how one could organize a deliberation involving one million Americans. Using large face-to-face meetings, small informal gatherings, and online forums, citizens would simultaneously discuss a single topic, reach conclusions that would be transmitted to policymakers, and then turn into an active constituency to support their recommendations. In 2002, Senators Hatch and Wyden introduced a bill that would authorize a national discussion of health care reform. That idea prompted AmericaSpeaks to convene a group of experts to work out a fairly detailed blueprint for coordinated deliberations on any topic of national importance. (The AmericaSpeaks document is not yet online, but I will forward a copy of the .pdf on request.)
  • Nancy Kranich, a former president of the American Library Association and a friend of mine, has written a comprehensive report about the “Information Commons.” It is now on the Brennan Center website in an attractive format. Nancy notes that the Internet could allow a vast expansion of the fundamental ideal traditionally championed by public libraries: free, shared information. But digital media also create the risk that intellectual property will be over-protected and restricted. She documents ways that libraries are protecting open access and building “information commons” for the digital era. These commons are not only storehouses of knowledge; they also support communities and social networks and thus enhance civil society. She concludes with policy recommendations to enhance the commons.
  • My colleagues at J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, have announced $1 million in grants for “community news ventures.” Nonprofits and educational institutions may apply for funding to “help create new types of self-sustaining community media projects.” The source of J-Lab’s funds is the Knight Foundation, also a major benefactor of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, in which I’m heavily involved.
  • Community news services housed in local nonprofits, “information commons” based in libraries, large-scale deliberations on important issues … this could be the beginning of a true civic revival.