I’m writing from Seattle where I released my new book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back. What strikes me most in my conversations with people is the extent to which we have become mechanistic in our response to a fundamentally human condition. Here’s what I mean. Over the last four days, I have been attending the national Conference on Foundations Community Foundation annual conference. I have spent 15-hour days talking with community foundation executives about the condition of the country, what we need to do to pursue an alternate path in public life and politics, and the role community foundations can play. There are incredible people here, individuals who care deeply about their communities and the effectiveness of their programs.
But as I talked with folks here, and think about some of my conversations with people before arriving here, I am struck by how mechanistic we have become in response to trying to engage people in public life and politics and to generate meaningful change in communities; my thoughts even extend to how people are increasingly talking about “rebuilding” New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
- The mechanistic response is to reach out for so-called “best practices” and replicate them without thinking deeply enough about our purpose in acting.
- We go out and underwrite programs in our communities that sound good and even make us look good, but for which we neither have a plan nor the capacity within the community to drive it out and sustain it over time.
- Another example of the mechanistic response is to embrace new “civic engagement” tools or program or processes that we implement step-by-step, almost like a civic recipe, and yet the program has no meaningful connection to people’s lives, and organizations within a community often fail to take the results and use them to rethink their own initiatives. It becomes an exercise to nowhere.
- Or, as one community foundation president said to me last night, we have done all this “great” research, but it has no relevance to taking action.
All of this often occurs in a kind of civic vacuum – a void of thinking about the real conditions that exist in a community that must be addressed; a failure to see what levers for change actually exist; a missing sense of what will truly engage people to step forward and find their way back to public life and politics.
The mechanistic response is a kind of milquetoast, middle of the road, make-few-waves approach to the deep challenges we face in our society, which I talk about in Hope Unraveled. I believe that we must discard this mechanistic approach and embrace an alternative which has two big components:
- First, those of us pursuing civic-oriented initiatives must become what I call “ruthlessly strategic.” We must be clear on the conditions we face, what it takes for communities to actually change, what the right levers are at the right time to spark such change, and the capacity that is needed in the community to bring about change. We all have limited resources; that will never change. So, my concern is how we determine the best set of actions that will generate the kinds of civic conditions that will increase our likelihood for real progress. I often say in speeches that we have become “activity happy and action deprived.” We must be much more strategic in our efforts.
- Second, I also believe that we must focus much more on the so-called soft side of the equation – what I would call “hope” or “civic faith” or people’s aspirations… different people will use different terms. But the point is that when all is said and done, we are in the business of people, of human nature, of generating a sense of possibility and hope, After all, this is the most basic element of life that enables people to keep going, keep trying, keep aspiring to fulfill their needs and their dreams. Too often we discard this piece precisely because we want to appear strategic.
The mechanistic approach robs us of these two components. It puts us on automatic pilot just when we need to make choices about what it means to be truly strategic and what will give people hope.
So, here I am Seattle and the good news is that many of the community foundation executives here want to figure out how to take an alternate path in public life and politics. I’m ready to get going.