O'Neill C.I. Fieldwork

From civicintelligence

Civic Intelligence Field Work -- Final Report

By: Michael O’Neill

CIRAL, Spring 2012

In this document I hope to show how my own path of exploring civic intelligence can be used as a model for others’ undertakings.

I first heard the term civic intelligence in a program examining the internet and its impact on community. The program had attracted me because of my interest in community development and my life long love of technology. This idea of civic intelligence so matched my own ideas of how communication across groups influenced the social dynamic versus the deterministic social construction of individual rights, that I pursued it for the rest of my study at Evergreen.

My study spanned a years worth of academic programs dedicated to exploring civic intelligence and developing a learning environment and material that would expand its study, as well as four independent learning contracts (ILC). In the academic programs I have been exposed to many topics that interrelate with civic intelligence and have come across several key texts that have shaped my understanding. My ILC work has been an outlet to practice the application of my understanding in the real world.

I encountered Mark Granovetter’s piece, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in my first program at Evergreen, Internet: Knowledge and Community. The idea of documenting the connections of individuals through the various social groups they exist in and what it revealed was fascinating to me. Investigating the idea further of mapping the connections of communities I came across the work of John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann, founders of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.

Their idea of community asset mapping became the basis of my first ILC exploring civic intelligence in my own community of Cowlitz County. In this project I set out to catalog the many social service agencies and non-profit organizations and examine the dynamics of communication. What helped me the most in developing a working knowledge of these dynamics was interviewing individuals who worked in the social service field, and attending a community event that presented a report card of the health indicators in Cowlitz County.

This initial exploration into the dynamics of my own community would form the basis of a much larger project to foster more civic intelligence and address some of the issues I noticed during my observation. By investigating Cowlitz County’s public sphere with an eye for the assets it had developed and attention to how communication affected community dynamics, I was also able to identify the issue of health as a common thread linking multiple groups within the community. This may seem obvious since I started my investigation in the social services sector. But, in a county that wasn’t at the bottom of health outcome rankings, as Cowlitz County is, I suspect different issues would arise.

What I observed about the dynamics of the community in Cowlitz County focusing on the issue of health was that there was a strong service sector working to address issues in the community. However even the inter-agency collaboration and focus on improving the health of Cowlitz County had not greatly improved the community’s health. At the community health report card presentation I observed that the people most affected by the poor health of the community were not present.

As I pondered this challenge and continued my study in civic intelligence through the summer and fall of 2011 the idea of working within my community using the approaches I had been studying to approach the issue in a different way slowly developed. Preparing for winter quarter 2012 I decided to approach Paul Youmans, the director of Pathways 2020, the organization that produces the community health report cards. In our first short phone conversation I explained that I was a student at the Evergreen State college and was interested in working with Pathways 2020 to develop a community conference based on my studies.

Over the next five months Paul supported my efforts and helped me to build a network of other members in the community who would support my project. As the plan for the conference took shape, changed its scope and focus, and solidified into an event with a location and a date I learned a great deal about the logistics of this type of event planning and how to work with professionals in a community. This process further developed my understanding of the community dynamics around the topic of health and helped me realize my own abilities and limits in working mostly on my own.

The Conference on Community Collaboration Towards Health did not develop into the 100+ participant civic intelligence extravaganza with many of the key players from the social service sector that I had initially imagined. Instead 15 participants, many that I have known over the time I have lived in Longview, gathered for six hours on one of the busiest saturdays of the spring to earnestly explore the issue of health in our community. As a presenter and facilitator I was amazed by the engagement of all of the participants and the ideas that emerged from our work together.

Based on the presented statistical information about Cowlitz County and the social determinants of health, the participants knowledge and experience in the community, and my introduction to collaborative approaches for solving shared problems, three key areas of focus emerged. In our world cafe and pattern card workshop knowledge and ability to eat healthily, transportation, and connecting available resources to those who could benefit from them generated much discussion and several exciting project ideas. Expanding communication to involve more of the community, especially those most affected by Cowlitz County’s poor health outcomes was a constant theme throughout the conference.

As the conference drew to a close many of the participants were energized in thinking of how our efforts could grow and become a part of the work to improve the health of Cowlitz County. Both Pathways 2020 and the Health Department have asked to use the final report from the conference in further planning. Many possible avenues have been opened to continue this work.

In envisioning this project and seeing it through to the completion of the conference I have greatly expanded my understanding of how civic intelligence plays out in the real world. My own social capital played a large role in getting anyone at all to show up to the event. Had I not been able to articulate my understanding of why the approach I proposed was viable and potentially beneficial, I would not have been able to secure the trust and support that I did. Without the opportunity to gain confidence in my understanding of civic intelligence and develop facilitation and leadership skills in the Civic Intelligence and Collective Action classroom, I might easily have given up and canceled the conference when my expectations for the event were challenged by reality.

I hope this brief look at some of my projects and experience will show that there is great opportunity for learning and success in student led and developed work outside of the classroom. I would encourage other students engaging the topics of civic intelligence, collective action, and community development, to think big and challenge themselves to come as close to those expectations as possible. A team of students could easily accomplish more than I did on my own.

Anyone interested in building on the work I have started in Cowlitz County through the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Lab (or otherwise) should contact me at mloneill418@gmail.com or 360-430-0546.

~Michael O’Neill