Building Communities, Building Capacity: Deliberation as Innovation in Civic Engagement

Blog Post
Erika J Mitchell /
Oct. 23, 2017

This blog is part of the civic engagement blog series released in tandem with the "Building Civic Capacity in a Time of Democratic Crisis" white paper. To read the rest of the series, click here

America is deeply divided. High levels of economic inequality have made partisan differences more acute than ever.  Communities are fragmented, and it seems there is little that can be done to get America out this chaos. So the work of identifying ways to bring communities together and develop their civic muscles is therefore more critical than ever. The work to glue our country back together will take time, and will require multi-pronged efforts from government and policymakers. It will also require that individuals take up on their roles as citizens and do their part to change, strengthen, and put back together their communities. 

These individuals’ work and their success stories is the focus of Hollie Russon Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman’s white paper "Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis."  After talking to individuals who are making change on the ground, every day, the authors have found that in spite of increasing cynicism and separation from American politics, there are a myriad of local players doing tremendous work to rebuild both trust and engagement within and between communities.

But what makes the work of these champions of democracy successful? Some of the stakeholders from the April 2017 workshop that served as a basis for the white paper wrote about their experiences in their communities and what their work might mean for the state of civic innovation more generally. All of the pieces shared one common trait: the premium was put on the slower, more intentional work of developing trust and going to members of communities rather than expecting constituents to do the work of finding opportunities for civic engagement themselves.

This is significant, especially because innovation is often conflated with how quickly different iterations of a product can be delivered. Particularly in the tech sector and the gig economy, products that streamline the ways that people access various goods and services, such as Uber and the Open Data Race, are looked at as vanguards for how new forms of civic innovation should be approached. It is thought that since quantified results that can be measured and changed rapidly, they serve the public best because we can supposedly catch errors easier and systematize more optimal processes.

However, people are not products. Success in the field of civic engagement must be measured in more than just the raw numbers of people impacted, but also in terms of more intangible and harder-to-capture measures, like increasing trust in governmental institutions and willingness to participate politically in the more “formal” methods of governance, such as voting, volunteering, and donating to political campaigns.

Regina Schwartz gets at this very point in her Q&A, describing the intentional work that goes into finding New York residents who would benefit from her work in the Public Engagement Unit. Rather than waiting for people to come to her and her colleagues, Schwartz’s team goes door-to-door to see if people need assistance, particularly with respect to housing and eviction support. This gets at a critical, if understudied, issue. The PEU outreach team serves as a visible sign of the work that government can do and, thus, a space for people to develop a sense of trust and efficacy in their government.

The positive outcomes of of civic innovation are also within the life of Maria Hadden, someone who became a fierce advocate for the work of participatory budgeting in Chicago. Sitting at the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, Hadden’s life was turned upside down by the 2008 economic downturn. Not only did this devastate her financially, it also tore apart her relationship with her hometown of Chicago. Participatory budgeting allowed her to redevelop a sense of civic duty in her neighborhood and her community and also reaffirmed her belief in the power of the collective. Participatory budgeting for Hadden, then, is not just a space to develop trust in institutions but also, and perhaps even more importantly, a site to develop and strengthen community bonds. This work is not easy, of course. It requires labor, time, and effort. But that’s the point. For Hadden, she even says in her blog that she was “hooked” because she was able to see the direct results of impacts on the community.

 It’s important to note exactly why this is an innovation at the contemporary moment. The proliferation of information about government incompetence, corruption, and division creates a climate in which the barriers to entry to government are higher than at previous times. This rise in frustration with government is concomitant to higher amounts of hours put in per week and the reduction of labor workforce protections. Put another way, people are both more disillusioned and more busy. Therefore, finding a way to get people to donate both their time and their energy in a sustained, interactive way is important, but also challenging. 

As Elena Souris discusses in her piece about volunteerism, we need to broaden how we think about civic engagement. While she brings in a number of examples from around the world, her reference at the end of the article about how citizen organizations and social clubs do not serve the same function that they used to (though they ought to) rings especially true. The United States has lost quite a bit of capacity with respect to institutions that foster and develop civic-minded people. This is what makes work like the Public Engagement Unit and Participatory Budgeting so innovative: these new institutions are filling this “participation void”  with deleterious results. However, what of the more traditional spaces that people go to? Do we have the capacity to innovate for the civic good within the spaces that traditionally served as vehicles for civic engagement?

Reverend Kimberly Lagree certainly thinks so. Her work as the Faith-Based Coordinator in the City of Baltimore’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention shows us that while there is a significant need for new spaces of intervention into civic engagement, another important type of innovation is that of connection and collaboration. She works to find ways to bring Baltimore together to move beyond the violence that impacts the city. Specifically, her initiative around Faith and Community-Based Violence Prevention works to incorporate faith-based leaders into the work of intervention. There is an understanding here that  faith leaders have a variety of stakeholders and subgroups of the community that they are accountable to, which invariably leads to conflict; and that they are nonetheless looked to as leaders within Baltimore. Returning to the importance of slowing down processes of civic engagement, Lagree reminds us that conflict is not an excuse. In fact, there is a deep insight in bringing together various members of the community with an eye towards working through rather than around existing issues. Rather than looking to external forces to help mend fences, Lagree and her staff understand that change truly must come from within communities themselves in order to produce anything lasting. And, as she says, this does not mean that those conflicts won’t linger. Instead, once you work through them, you begin to see, even if you do not fully actualize, a higher level of community resilience.

Civic innovation needs to be seen as something distinct from products,services, or quick-fixes. In order for any type of civic engagement to be successful, it needs to have at its core a desire to inspire people to see themselves as powerful and efficacious. This goes beyond reaching those usual suspects who were already willing and able to participate in the political process. As Ashley Trim, executive director of the Davenport Institute at the Pepperdine School of Public Poilcy writes, “...engagement comes not when people feel heard, but when they are heard.” Civic innovation is thus something that requires a thoughtful, measured approach that centers the process of acculturating people into politics rather than the quantifiable results that come from that acculturation. The stakeholders that contributed to this blog series understand that and policymakers and scholars must understand that too. Indeed, our democracy depends on it.