Remarks in Reed, Purce, Schuler panel on citizen engagement

From civicintelligence

Thank you John. I also want to thank Secretary of State Reed for proposing this event and Ellen for inviting John and me. I’m eager to continue this discussion over time because I believe it’s possible for the government and the academy to work together to strengthen our democracy in some very important ways.

This session really is in keeping with the goals of the program that John and I are currently teaching. In our program, Civic Intelligence and Collective Action, we’re exploring the rights and the responsibilities of citizens and how they play out in society, while, at the same time, we’re working to identify, define, and strengthen our own capacity to do so — as faculty members, students, and as an educational institution.

Building on one of Evergreen’s key tenets, integrating theory and practice, we are actually trying to design and implement what we learn.

It’s been suggested that there are three basic elements that a democratic society rests on. These three legs are the government, the economy, and the people. Each of the three elements must be sound if a society is to be sound. People often compare these three elements to three legs of a stool — if any of them is missing or too weak the stool is useless — certainly it can’t fulfill its function.

In our program, we’ve been operating under the assumption that the people are the leg of the stool that needs the most strengthening.

To do so, we’ve been using the conceptual lens of civic intelligence. We view Civic Intelligence as a form of collective intelligence that’s directed towards the public good. Sometime we refer to this as “pursuing civic ends through civic means.” Civic intelligence — of course — directly relates to the theory and practice of democratic governance. We’ve found that it’s especially relevant to what Benjamin Barber calls Strong Democracy or what Xavier De Souza Briggs calls Democracy as Problem-Solving. Both perspectives suggest that many of the views of democracy define a type of minimal democracy in which the citizen is not really an equal partner.

We believe that the challenges we face in the early days of the 21st Century are complex and interconnected. They range in magnitude but some are potentially catastrophic. We believe that they are unlikely to be solved without the strong engagement of the citizenry. It’s really more a matter of survival than one of fairness or justice. We really can’t afford not to use the immense creativity and intelligence of people power when looking at 21st century problems.

One of our assumptions or assertions is that without strong engagement on the part of the citizenry, we’re truly in very serious trouble. The stool can’t support any weight if one leg is missing or too weak. But the solution is not necessarily to reduce the powers of the two strong legs of the stool — the government or corporations — although some of that may be needed — but to strengthen the weakest leg — the citizenry.

We know that Evergreen is already one of the most civically engaged colleges in the country. At the same time, we’ve noticed some possible shortcomings in the way that the engagement is practiced. For one thing, we often send interns to work with non-profits, we don’t often collaborate with them. For another thing, communities aren’t on the quarter system. For those reasons and others we’ve begun exploring — with our students — ways in which we can help provide ways to overcome these shortcomings.

We’ve begun to work on establishing an approach to improving our practice of civic engagement at Evergreen. We’re not trying to replace anything but to help encourage the good things that we’re already doing. We do want, however, to invent new approaches for areas where we need to work more effectively. We’re using the name Civic Intelligence Research Action Laboratory (CIRAL) to describe this effort for two reasons. Firstly because “civic intelligence” provides a very useful lens for this work, and secondly because our focus will be on research and action in equal measures. Action without reflection is incoherent, and reflection without action is pointless.

The Civic Intelligence Research Action Laboratory (CIRAL) is intended to integrate theory and practice in an ongoing way. It is the type of real-world “lab” with student leadership that is often unavailable for undergraduates. A significant part of the program would be devoted to working with people and organizations in and outside of the region. We are still mostly designing this although we’ve begun to invite dialog with people and organizations within and outside of Evergreen.

We’re interested in answering the question “Will we be smart enough soon enough?” in the affirmative and we’re hoping that our efforts with The Civic Intelligence Research Action Laboratory will be part of the answer.