Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Civic Entrepreneurship

That term appeared in discussions last week at the Kettering Foundations annual Deliberative Democracy Exchange.

     Like the business entrepreneur, the civic entrepreneur operates in a time of dramatic change, sees 
opportunity, and mobilizes others in the community to work toward their collective well being. 
 Douglas Henton, John Melville, & Kimberly Walesh 
 Civic Entrepreneurs: Economic Professional as Collaborative Leader


Kettering Foundation

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday last week as an invited participant at the Kettering Foundation’s annual Deliberative Democracy Exchange. The Kettering Foundation (Dayton, OH), under the leadership of former HEW Secretary, David Mathews, has been focused for more than 30 years on developing civil community conversations on issues of importance. Among other efforts they helped develop the National Issues Forums,  but they are doing work around the world by bringing practitioners and scholars together to exchange experiences, research, and resources regarding developing deeper democracy in communities everywhere.

I was assigned to a focused discussion of civic capacity building, but there was terrific cross-pollination amongst the various focal areas. I had lunch my first day with members of Arab Network with representatives from Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Another session was with those who use art to engage the community in deliberation and discussion. The DDE was a diverse bunch (about 200+ I think), young, old, black, white, male, female, citizens, foreigners, etc.,  some who were there for a week, but others like myself there for a day or two.  There were tracks for teachers of deliberation and for college students, for journalists, political operatives, etc.

Our group’s (about 15 of us) primary discussion was around how Kettering might help develop and nurture ‘civic entrepreneurs’ who could bring civil discourse to their community. This included  some folks doing great work through United Way organizations in communities in West Virginia, others doing serious and important community building in cities like Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans, etc. and throughout the developing world. Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation was in our group sharing her vast network knowledge to the discussion as was our moderator, Kettering's Ileana Marin, a Romanian born, but global citizen working to strengthen democracy in communities everywhere.  This was a second meeting on the topic for some, but the first for many. Plans are afoot for one or two more meetings to flesh out some approaches that Kettering might develop to help build more civic entrepreneurs. 

Kettering folks are trying to understand why some folks become civic leaders and for those that do, what sustains their involvement? Are there attributes that they share, that can be identified and nurtured? What might a program to support this civic leadership spirit look like? Underlying these questions is a strong faith that community development begins at the grassroots, and that it's locally based and responsive to local environments.

We spent one evening reviewing and critiquing a draft National Issues Forum approach to “Budget Cuts and the Role of Government.” I also had a separate meeting with the head of NIF to discuss how libraries might better access, and NIF might better share, the work they do around tough issues. There is a new level of interest in ALA around the role of libraries in civic engagement. This is an interesting emergent congruence  for me at the moment.