A Call for Learning Democracy

David and Carole Schwinn


…democracy needs to be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.     - John Dewey, 1926

The Story of the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project

In celebration of the first phase of its CommUnity Transformation Project, Jackson Community College’s campus has been transformed into a "bazaar of possibilities." In one space, children are drawing large posters and creating stories about the community they would have if they could have anything. In another space, a local resident is facilitating a design session to create a new, talent-based, community currency. In yet another space, people are writing their visions for the community on giant puzzle pieces that will make up a 15-foot diameter picture of the whole earth. In the 350-seat theatre, a group of volunteer actors are dramatizing the story that hundreds of citizens helped to create about "Things Jackson Keeps Doing Over and Over Again, While Expecting a Different Result." All over campus, people and their families are reconnecting in conversations with friends and neighbors, and meeting new people for the first time.

In one particularly busy corner of the large cafeteria, a community volunteer (our youngest daughter, Lisa) has posted huge, brightly-colored signs that simply read "WHAT IF?" All day, people have been stopping by to sit for a while and engage in imagining what Jackson’s future could be. Someone suggests, "What if we had a juvenile justice system that was designed and managed entirely by young people?" Another says, "What if we had neighborhood resource centers throughout the city that were connected by technology, so that we could begin to solve community-wide problems together?" Still another says, "What if we got citizens involved in turning the riverfront into a community space for festivals and art and music and public conversation?" And another says, "What if all the service organizations in the community got together and cooperated on behalf of children, families and neighborhoods?" The dreams of the people are gathered throughout the day. Creative energy flows, even after an elected City Commissioner angrily storms off after listening for a while, saying loudly enough for all to hear, "This is ridiculous. These ideas will never work!"

This gathering, one of dozens held over the four-year period, 1995-1999, was part of the citizen engagement strategy for a large-scale, community-wide, social change initiative, called the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project, or JCTP. The purpose of the JCTP, which was co-sponsored by Jackson Community College and the Jackson Area Quality Initiative, and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan, was to create a learning community, "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (Senge 1990). The stated intention of the project was to "design, take to practice, learn from, and continually improve a comprehensive community development model for Jackson County," a geographic area containing 150,000 people, a city of approximately 38,000, and several smaller towns and villages.

The Transformation project was the natural evolution of our own ten-year history of working in communities, which began with our early 1980’s involvement with Dr. W. Edwards Deming and the principles and practices of quality management. Because of Jackson’s heavy dependence on the U.S. auto industry, the community has a pattern of suffering decline during economic downturns. In the early 1980’s, for example, Jackson had a 22% unemployment rate, and lost numerous employers, both large and small. During this time, David was responsible for supporting Ford Motor Company’s suppliers through his role at the World Headquarters’ Product Quality Office, and Carole was responsible for providing local businesses with training and consulting through Jackson Community College. These two roles merged to offer team-based, project-oriented, cross-organizational training for local suppliers, an initiative that soon led to a national project to train trainers in U.S. community colleges.

By 1986, our work began to focus on helping to create community-based quality initiatives all over North America. Our work with these initiatives proceeded through three phases, as our own learning and experience evolved over time. The first phase, an "organization-by-organization approach," engaged leaders of diverse local enterprises in shared, long-term, workshop experiences in which they were able to learn and apply quality management principles and practices to the real problems of their firms, and to begin to see the similarities and interdependencies across organizational boundaries. The second phase, a "sector-by-sector approach," came about when we recognized that the primary sectors of communities needed to embark on improvement journeys. In communities where this approach was used, cross-organizational teams from the business, education, human services, and government sectors came together to learn and improve specific aspects of the community, such as juvenile justice, healthcare delivery, and workforce development. The third phase, which we came to call a "whole systems" approach, came about when we worked with a community located on the Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario, Canada. This community, given its position on a small peninsula, was particularly concerned about environmental issues, and began to work on those issues, as a whole community, in a systemic way.

After ten years "on the road" working with other communities, we felt ready to do two things: (a) go home, and (b) apply what we thought we were learning in our own backyard. Specifically, we came to believe that we needed to develop an initiative in our own community that would:

- approach the community as a "whole system," rather than an aggregate of organizations or sectors, or a set of independent, unrelated issues or problems to be solved; and,

- integrate several streams of theory and practice (learning, leadership, continuous improvement, systems thinking and community-building) into a comprehensive model for community development in Jackson County.

The event that launched what was to become the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project was an international teleconference called "From TQM to a Learning Community," which was uplinked from the community college campus to 125 sites in North America in 1993. The title reflected our observation that community-based quality initiatives needed to move beyond the adoption of TQM (Total Quality Management) as an end in itself, if they wished to continually improve their communities as whole systems. The event was designed based on the results of focus group discussions with local citizens and members of the Jackson Area Quality Initiative, in which the people said that they were not interested in having only one more interesting conference that did nothing to actually produce changes in thinking or in how the community functioned. Rather, they wanted to participate in planning, launching and supporting a community-wide improvement process.

The teleconference, which was attended by a live audience of 1500 local citizens, featured a dialogue among Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, and Thomas Berry, co-author of The Universe Story. On the day following this remarkable and historic conversation, several hundred citizens gathered to begin to craft a highly participative, large-scale change initiative for Jackson County.


Project Beliefs and Assumptions

As leaders of the design team for this effort, we believed that we were in uncharted territory. Most large-scale community change strategies that we knew about were "top-down" approaches, driven by traditional leaders, and low on the public participation scale. Our intention was to take a "top-down, bottom-up" approach, to engage both traditional and invisible leaders, and to take the high road on public participation. In the proposal that was developed for funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we stated that this initiative was based on the assumption that people:

increasingly understand that the problems they face in their communities are highly complex and interrelated

have decreasing faith in the traditional approaches of traditional leaders to defining and solving these problems

have increasing faith in their own and their neighbors’ ability to take collective action to create the future they desire

Thus, the team of project designers developed their plans around the idea that comprehensive community development initiatives must provide processes for understanding complex systems, for developing new leadership and problem-solving approaches, and for engaging citizens in collective action and reflective learning. Based on the work of Dr. Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi of INTERACT: the Center for Interactive Systems Design <www.interactdesign.com> in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we defined development as the process of "increasing every citizen’s desire and ability to meet their own needs, the needs of the community and the needs of the larger environments in which we live."1  The Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project approach, we said, would be comprehensive and multidimensional: it would address the economic, political, ethical, aesthetic and technological/knowledge dimensions of the community, or what Ackoff and Gharajedaghi term wealth, beauty, power, values and knowledge (the dimensions of a social system).

From these ideas, we adopted a set of Guiding Principles for the project, which also became an explicit part of our invitation to all citizens to participate in the project’s work. It was our intention, through these principles, to be clear about the stance we were taking as community organizers. The Guiding Principles stated our desire to create a community in which every person has the opportunity to have:

- reasonable resources (wealth)

- a share in decision-making (power)

- a sense of meaning and belonging in their lives, and enjoyment of a clean, healthy environment (beauty)

- a role in shaping the ethics of the community, and helping to dissolve conflict (values)

- a chance to learn and develop their own unique talents, skills and abilities (knowledge)


Engagement Strategy

Consistent with its purpose and principles, the JCTP committed to engaging ever-increasing numbers of the 150,000 Jackson County residents in a highly iterative, social system design process, which was adapted from Ackoff and Gharjedaghi’s "idealized design" approach.

While the process is not meant to be construed as linear, it is made up of four elements:

1. Creating a shared understanding of the community’s current condition;

2. Designing the community’s desired future;

3. Taking action to realize the ideal; and,

4. Sustaining a process of public engagement in community development.

From its public launch on December 7, 1995 to the end of its foundation funding on August 31, 1999, the JCTP engaged over 5000 individuals and 200 organizations through a three-level engagement strategy:

1. Whole System Design - Engaging citizens in structured dialogue about the design of the community as a whole system. This strategy involved organizing "community design teams" all over the community that would, with the facilitation of trained Design Leaders, work on creating a design for the community they would have if they could have anything. They would create a story of Jackson’s history and its operating beliefs and assumptions, and a design for a "new" community based on more valid beliefs and assumptions.

2. Strategic Initiatives - Supporting both planned and emergent strategic initiatives, or collaborative approaches to bringing about the envisioned design. This strategy involved identifying or initiating the design of systems and structures that were needed to bring about the "ideal" design, and engaging stakeholders in the same imaginative and iterative process used to design the community as a whole.

3. Each One, Bring One - Bringing people into the project’s work, one voice at a time. This strategy simply worked toward getting more and more people to the table, and was based on the realization that people will only commit their hearts and minds and discretionary time if they are able to get beyond their fear and alienation and move to a level of hope and trust in which they believe that they can truly make a difference.


Whole System Design

Through the work at the whole system level, hundreds of citizens, in small and large groups, created the story of Jackson’s history, traced the development of its culture, and developed a shared understanding of the social dynamics that kept Jackson "doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result." Fascinating stories were unearthed, including the choice that community leaders made in the mid-1800’s to locate a huge state prison in Jackson, rather than the University of Michigan. They chose the prison because it would be a source of free labor. That choice and its consequences, including Jackson’s on-going image as a "cheap labor town," began to help people understand that the choices we make at a moment in time have long-term impact, and that we are collectively responsible for the future we create.

The work at the whole system level created a shared understanding of the widely-held, community beliefs and assumptions that no longer seemed valid or useful, and an agreement about a different set of beliefs and assumptions that would be the basis for creating a community that could work for everyone and bring about a new future, based on new thinking. (See table on following page).


Old Assumptions

More Valid Assumptions for the Future

We need strong leaders to take care of us and make decisions for us.

Leaders can be developed everywhere to create the conditions for citizen responsibility and democracy.

Citizens are powerless to change the main systems that effect their lives.

Citizens can make and influence choices, take responsibility for the consequences, and learn.

Citizens outside our personal circles need to take care of their own problems by themselves.

Citizens can use their talents and work together to vastly improve the whole community for all citizens.

If we had enough time and money, new laws and better enforcement, we could fix any problems.

Citizens can be deeply motivated to understand and take action on complex problems with very little money.

If citizens gained the right job skill, they could have long-term security.

The changing nature of work requires the resources and availability of lifelong learning for all citizens.

The next phase of the process was to engage the Design Leaders and Teams in creating An Evolving Vision of the New Jackson County. This work asked participants to imagine what kind of community they would have if they could have anything, and to literally design that community from a clean sheet of paper. Dozens of facilitated design sessions were carried out all over the community for several months, and included regular gatherings of Design Leaders. In these gatherings, the work of the Design Teams was brought together, synthesized, and taken back out to the Teams for a next iteration and increasing explicitness. The project’s primary mentor, Jamshid Gharjedaghi, was instrumental in helping to coach the JCTP staff and Design Leaders in the "Idealized Design" methodology.

The Evolving Vision included a new structure for organizing human effort on behalf of the common good. The following depiction of the structural elements and their relationships helped to keep the vision of the whole before participants, and continually connected strategic initiatives to the whole.


The Evolving Vision explicitly described each element, the processes needed to carry out its work, and how it would interact with the other elements. The elements were:

CommUnity Participation — People would organize their own neighborhoods to define problems, create solutions, and work together toward common goals. They would learn how to dissolve conflict, and how to work with other neighborhoods and towns on common issues and concerns.

CommUnity Enterprise — People would create meaningful work that would provide for their own and the larger community’s needs, and provide products and services needed in the larger society.

CommUnity Learning — People would create lifelong learning experiences that individuals and organizations needed for work, civic participation, and enjoyment.

CommUnity Support — People would create services to provide for health, safety and transportation, as well as special support needed during times of illness, loss, or other stressful conditions.

CommUnity Connections, or our "window to the world," would regularly and systematically create an exchange of information and resources between the whole community and the rest of the world.

CommUnity Planning and Justice, would allow for protection of the commons, including the co-creation of a system of behavioral rules and responses to their violation, decision rules about land and other resource usage, and other agreements for how the community would function.

A CommUnity Council, would create pathways for connection, work on a set of community quality indicators, & regularly convene the community to reflect on what we were learning.

Two things were particularly challenging about working with this way of thinking about how the new, "ideal" community would be organized. First, most of us are entirely unaccustomed to thinking about the "structural" elements of the places we lives, how the elements interact with one another, and what "processes" are required to carry out the work of the community. Even for those who are more accustomed to working with structures and processes, the default picture in our minds is a top-down, organization chart that illustrates a chain of command. We eventually created a small picture book that illustrated the structure and described the new community in a more friendly way.


Strategic Initiatives

At this level of engagement, project staff and other volunteers provided a variety of services for approximately 50 "strategic initiatives" or collaborative projects that began to move the community in the direction of the Evolving Vision. These services included convening, group facilitation, consulting, coaching, system design and grant writing, and were offered without cost to collaboratives that agreed to work within the principles of the JCTP. The work of these strategic initiatives began to influence new ways of thinking, acting and interacting in the community that were more participative, systemic, and cooperative. Strategic initiatives that received significant attention from JCTP staff included:

1. Design of a new countywide, economic development system called the Enterprise Group. This organization created an integrated structure for creating and supporting business and creating jobs. It replaced a dis-integrated system that was confusing, competitive, and ineffective with one that is highly approachable, collaborative and successful.

2. Redesign of the Jackson Police Department, which shifted the department to community-based policing principles and practices, including placement of officers in neighborhoods in order to support residents in creating a safe, secure environment.

3. Development and funding of a Youth, Education and Athletics (YEA) program, a collaboration of eight organizations serving disadvantaged youth. YEA brought together organizations that had previously competed for scarce resources into a group that shared resources, created more integrated programming, and better served youth and families.

4. Design and implementation of a Respite Care service to provide individuals and families responsible for the constant care of loved ones with the opportunity to get relief for short periods of time. This service was created by a collaborative of human service organizations.

5. Development of a relationship between the Jackson Area Neighborhood Council (JANCO) and the Jackson Community Foundation to build neighborhood capacity and "helping networks." This relationship helped to create a bridge between grassroots neighborhood associations and a traditional funding source, in which each could learn about the other, and discover ways of working together in service to the expressed needs of neighborhood residents.

6. Development of a set of "asset-based" indicators as a "tool that could be used by anyone interested in building the capacity of children or adults to lead self-determined lives, and in building community capacity to support that self-determination." (Building a Self-Determined Community: Checklists for Self-Sufficiency). Checklists were created for babies and toddlers, youth, adults and families, elders, and the community. Community indicators focused on safe places, housing, the economy, education, the environment, health care, empowerment, citizenship, and integration.1

7. Development of the Ayieko (meaning "pulling together") Center, a 2200 square foot neighborhood technology center with 12 computers, training rooms, and community meeting rooms, and operated by the Jackson Housing Commission. The Ayieko Center became an award-winning community technology center, a model for neighborhood-based approaches to "spanning the digital divide," and the impetus for creating an entire network of neighborhood resource centers dedicated to meeting the diverse needs of residents.


Each One, Bring One

At this level of engagement, the JCTP employed the services of a number of volunteers, supported by the Americorps/Vista program of the U.S. federal government, in a strategy designed to bring increasing numbers of people into the process, one voice at a time. This work often involved meeting in people’s homes, reaching out to people who were formerly incarcerated in Jackson’s large prison and their families, and inviting people into conversations who were either homeless or continually struggling in the community’s social and economic system. One approach that became absolutely critical was to hold gatherings in spaces that were readily accessible, such as church buildings and neighborhood centers, and to provide food, childcare and transportation.

These Americorps/Vista volunteers acted out of a model for "community guides," developed by John McKnight of Chicago’s Northwestern University. McKnight (1996) refers to community guides as "individuals who assume a special responsibility for guiding excluded people out of service and into the realm of the community." They are often "unique, unschooled in their efforts, and informed by their own individual creativity and insight." They are "well connected in the interrelationships of community life," and "achieve their ends because they are trusted by their community peers, rather than having institutional authority." They "do not just introduce one person to another; they bring a person into the web of associational life that can act as a powerful force in that person’s life," and they do so in a way in which "their capacities can be expressed—where they are not simply defined by their ‘deficiencies.’" Guides, according to McKnight (1996), have "a special eye for the gift, the potential, the interest, the skill, the smile, the capacity of those who are said to be ‘in special need.’" They are artists of "presenting the gift of one to the hospitality of another" (McKnight 1996).

One of the greatest challenges to supporting the ongoing work of community guides is, of course, an issue of sustainable funding. Traditional funding sources, at least in the U.S., are completely unaccustomed to supporting the work of individuals who simply interact with their neighborhoods to notice what is needed, and to help build the hope and capacities of individuals and families.


Endings and Beginnings

Over a four-year period, the JCTP engagement strategy began to demonstrate to residents that this approach to community development was different, that it was about a sincere invitation to all persons to become a part of creating a community that would work for everyone. The JCTP approach stood in stark contrast to Jackson’s (and most other community’s) dominant mode of problem-solving, in which traditional leaders identify problems, create solutions, attempt to sell them to the public, and deal with opposing views, which are usually fought out on the front pages of the newspaper. Many residents began to see that this approach was about creating a shared understanding of the complexity of interrelated problems, rather than focusing on single causes and effects, and that it was about people acting and reflecting together to create a better community on behalf of their own and the common good.

Many residents and leaders were uncomfortable with the approach, of course, and continued to ask questions about what the project was going to focus on or "fix." Others continued to wonder if the project had a hidden agenda. Some asked who we thought we were to initiate such a community change effort, suggesting that it wasn’t "our place" to do so. A few individuals were outwardly and vocally hostile, while some simply chose to ignore the project altogether. Among some citizens, however, mental models began to shift regarding how people and systems change, about thinking wholistically, about getting out of the box, about the power of shared vision, about possibilities, and about a shared responsibility for creating the future. Our own learning included the challenge and difficulty of sustaining interest and momentum among "early adopters," while, at the same time, trying to bring more and more residents into the conversation.

During the fourth year of the project, we shifted our thinking and energy towards sustaining an engaged, participative, community development approach in Jackson County. Many long and thoughtful conversations focused on the question, "What has to be in place to sustain this process?" Our answer to the question was that specific, targeted actions in the community needed to be explicitly moving in the direction of the "ideal," and those actions needed to be strong enough, connected enough, and woven enough into the fabric of the community, that the processes of civic engagement and participation established by the project would not be overcome by the inertia of the current systems and mental models.

We believed that our answer was based in sound systems theory. One of the project’s most generous and devoted mentors, Margaret Wheatley, helped us to think about how large-scale, self-organizing systems change over time. We understood that systems (and people) can’t really be changed by anyone or anything. They can only be "disturbed," and, given those disturbances, they can choose what to notice and how to respond. Further, systems (and individual and collective mental models) have a strong tendency to maintain the steady state by "dampening out" disturbances. Systems theory helped us to understand that if we wanted to change mental models and prevailing systems, we needed to create, amplify, connect, and loosely coordinate enough disturbances, all moving in the direction of the desired future, so that the prevailing mental models and systems would simply fall away of their own weight.

In order to sustain and facilitate what we expected would be a long-term process of community transformation, we decided to create what Lisbeth B. Schorr has called an "intermediary organization," According to Schorr (1997), intermediary organizations should:

"encompass the complexity and ecology of urban distress and solutions while being flexible and opportunistic about points of intervention; they should be guided by a clear overarching vision and be able to translate the neighborhood and public sector to each other; they should utilize sound research as a convening and mobilizing tool; and they should work with all parts of the community to develop realistic strategies for system change and in creating a power base from which reforms can occur."

The intermediary organization we developed, the "Citizen Center for the Common Good," was launched in 1999, as a new downtown, storefront enterprise, dedicated to "lifting every voice and mobilizing the creative energy of every citizen in Jackson County." Its vision was to "create the conditions for all people to have the opportunity to individually and collectively imagine a different future, to discover their freedom, to accept their responsibility, to access resources, to take concrete action, to reflect on their learning, to increase their competence and confidence, and to co-create a community known the world over as a model of democratic, civic participation."

The Center’s work continued to be supported by the community college after the formal W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded project reached its conclusion in August 1999. Even with significantly reduced funding and staffing, the Center was able to continue its work with strategic initiatives that would begin to bring about the vision for the "new" Jackson County. Center staff, for example, facilitated the design of a new, highly collaborative, County-wide initiative called the Jackson County’s Promise to Youth Alliance, worked with the Jackson Community Foundation on re-imagining its leadership role in the community, and organized, sought funding for, and coordinated an approach to youth development called The Opportunity Project. It was also through the Center and the college President’s support that we were able to play a leadership role with From the Four Directions, the global leadership initiative of Margaret Wheatley’s Berkana Institute <www.berkana.org>, and to serve as board members, advisors and trustees of a number of other national or global change initiatives.

Securing a level of ongoing funding for the Center that would make its work vital and sustainable, however, continued to be daunting. Evaluators of the JCTP had clearly pointed to the funding issue as one of the major barriers to community colleges playing an instrumental role in comprehensive community development. In addition to funding, evaluators identified elements that must be in place for this work to be successful.

1. The community college must consider community activism as an important part of its mission.

2. The leadership development effort should be enthusiastically supported by, but somewhat independent of, the college.

3. Either the college or the staff of the leadership effort must have a deep understanding of the community.

4. The college should have a history of outreach into various aspects of the community on which to build.

5. The college must be prepared to act as a resource and trustworthy mediator for the agendas of others more than an advocate of its own agenda.

6. The college must have enough confidence in its skills and processes, and in people’s ultimate preference for cooperation over conflict, to be flexible in its approach.

Ultimately, any existing institution – a college or university, a local government, a healthcare system, a religious organization, or a school system – that chooses to play an instrumental role in comprehensive community development must seriously weigh all of these considerations. They must make hard decisions about allocating resources and making commitments to the work of social transformation, while sustaining their commitments to fulfilling their more traditional roles in the community. Given these considerations and the pressure to make tough choices, a new college President decided to terminate the college’s support for the Citizen’s Center and its work in May 2001.

While the demise of the Center was a major disappointment, we continue to see and track evidence of significant, long-term, sustainable change in the community. In addition to the concrete examples of change already described, it is a rare day when we don’t see or hear about people and institutions asking different questions, convening different conversations, engaging different people, and acting differently on behalf of the community as a whole system and the common good of the people. We also see significant challenges in the way the community thinks, acts and interacts.


Lessons in Learning Democracy

The most significant thing that we have come to understand about our work in Jackson is that it was a grand experiment in "learning democracy." From our experiences, we believe that at least seven critical elements must be present in order to do the work of learning democracy:

- Local intermediary organizations. These organizations, committed to raising the voices of the people and mobilizing their creative energies on behalf of the common good, must have the credibility, courage, resources, and autonomy to act responsibly and independently.

- Comprehensive orientation. Comprehensive community initiatives "indicate a commitment to change at many levels, including family, institutional, and community-wide, through processes that involve collaboration and coordination within the community and between the community and the broader society. (Kubisch 1995) They act in the "wealth, power, beauty, values and knowledge" dimensions of the social system already discussed.

- Multi-level engagement. Initiatives for learning democracy must "meet people where they are" in terms of their world views, their prior experiences with public participation, their social and economic capacities, their fear and alienation, and, in particular, in terms of what they most care about in the community. Invitations to participate must be extended over and over again, and the processes and environments in which people gather must reflect the world that organizers wish to bring forth.

- Internal and external resources. Lisbeth Schorr (1997) has pointed out that comprehensive community initiatives, "both rely on a community’s own resources and strengths and draw extensively on outside resources, including public and private funds, professional expertise, and new partnerships." Of particular importance is recognizing, respecting and making use of local individuals and organizations with a history of using their expertise and resources on behalf of the common good.

- Praxis. Learning democracy initiatives must engage people in an explicit, ongoing process of praxis, or what Paolo Freire describes as "action and reflection to transform ourselves and our world." For our own work, we developed and use an iterative model for social learning that begins with surfacing the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that will serve as the basis for collective action, engages all participants in reflecting on experience, and uses new learning to modify or shift assumptions and future actions. Assumptions include a sound theory base in large-scale, social system change.

- Short-term gains/and long-term investment. Our experience has shown that concrete, visible, short-term gains, while insufficient, are absolutely necessary. If people, particularly those who have become most alienated, can see even very small evidences that change is possible, they begin, ever so slowly, to build trust and hope. Without long-term investment and commitment, however, that fragile trust and hope can be quickly extinguished and moved to even deeper despair.

- Faith in the people and the future. John Dewey once wrote, "At the end, as at the beginning, the democratic method is as fundamentally simple and as immensely difficult as is the energetic, unflagging, unceasing creation of an ever-present, new road upon which we can walk together" (Hickman 1998). Setting out on and staying on that road takes extraordinary faith in people, in the future, and in one’s fellow travelers.

As we became ever more deeply involved in our own community, we were able to see the degree to which so many people had become disillusioned, discouraged, and disenfranchised. They no longer held a vision of what is possible, they no longer had faith in their ability to make a difference, and they had essentially turned their backs on public life. They no longer expected their leaders to invite them into public conversation, or even to act responsibly on behalf of the common good. They no longer exercised their right to vote, and they had long since given up the idea that there would be any listening at what we euphemistically call "public hearings." They were no longer surprised that the only public debate taking place was through the Letters to the Editor in the daily newspaper. Democracy had surely become, to many, an abstract concept, far removed from their lived reality.

More than 75 years ago, John Dewey wrote that democracy is, "more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living," that comes about through learning in community. He believed, as we do, that, "democracy can be served only by the slow day-by-day adoption and contagious diffusion in every phase of our common life of methods that are identical with the ends to be reached and that recourse to monistic, wholesale, absolutist procedures is a betrayal of human freedom no matter in what guise it presents itself." Lifelong learning is the means through which humans participate in the self-renewing processes of life, the means by which we engage in the continual renewal and re-creation (Hickman 1998).

Dewey was not naive; in fact, he was one of the world’s first pragmatists. Early in the 20th Century, he saw that the shared intelligence of people all over the world had been subjugated to "sensationalism and credulity, force and coercion, and private manipulation of public opinion." He wrote that, "Superficial, temporary conformity of opinion masquerades as genuine communication. This mass credulity takes us from one intellectual fashion to the next according to the dominant suggestions of the day." He observed that,

"instead of dispelling ignorance and superstition, the progress of science and its technological application has resulted in business corporations possessed of extensive legal rights and immunities; and, as is commonplace, has created a vast and intricate set of new problems. It has put at the disposal of dictators means of controlling opinion and sentiment of a potency which reduces to mere shadow all previous agencies at the command of despotic rulers. For negative censorship it has substituted means of propaganda of ideas and alleged information on a scale that reaches every individual, reiterated day after day by every organ of publicity and communication, old and new. In consequence, for practically the first time in human history, totalitarian states exist claiming to rest upon the active consent of the governed. While despotic governments are as old as political history, this particular phenomenon is as startlingly unexpected as is powerful" (Hickman 1998).

Dewey saw that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few had created a situation in which we are "unable to perceive the need for radical change, unable to imagine and take seriously alternatives, unable to escape from habitual old ideas about individualism, freedom and intelligence." And, in our failure to perceive the need for change, "it is material security as an end that appeals to most rather than the way of living which this security makes possible" (Hickman 1998).

In our generation, a time in which both the hypnotic impact of mass culture and the mesmerizing influence of tribal fundamentalism are casting their equally debilitating and destructive spells all over the world, we believe that the rebirth of democracy everywhere is urgent. In a recent proposal for a large-scale Learning Democracy Project, we wrote about our belief in this way:

"The current situation requires a new vision of the kind of society we are trying to create, a new way of thinking about the roles and responsibilities of citizens, and a new level of commitment to creating communities that work for everyone. As citizens in a free society, we need to understand the world we live in, reclaim our citizenship, develop new habits and skills, co-create new systems and structures, and figure out how to meet the challenges of the future…together."

We have come to define the term "learning democracy" in two ways. In the first use of the term, we would describe a learning democracy as:

…a mode of organizing human enterprise in which all people freely choose to bring about and continually renew the systems and structures through which they meet their own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of the larger systems of which they are a part.

In the second use of the term, we are saying that democracy must be learned. New ways of thinking and acting and interacting will not and cannot come about through mandate, declaration, legislation, intimidation, or imposition from within or without. They can, however, be brought forth when we create the conditions in which people can develop their own "civic agency" through social learning and public work. Here we are using the term agency in the way Amartya Sen (1999) uses it, as a way of describing "someone who acts and brings about change."

Creating the conditions for the development of civic agency requires that those of us who work at large-scale change in the places we live need a new set of competencies and capacities, as well. In an article we wrote for the American Association of Community Colleges (2000), we identified several of those new capacities, as follows:

1. Theory Building and Action Research - The new generation of community builders must be able to develop, experiment with, learn from, and improve upon new approaches to community transformation and leadership development that are based in sound theory. Theories and practices, including but not limited to, learning, leadership, systems thinking, continuous improvement, and community organization must be integrated and new comprehensive theories and approaches need to be learned and shared.

2. Civic Engagement and Dialogue - New community builders must become skillful in using various methods for engaging citizens in structured dialogue, democratic decision-making, action planning, and reflective learning. Methods including town meetings, future search conferences, and open space technology can create the conditions for shared understanding and commitment to collective action for the common good. These processes require leaders who can convene diverse stakeholder groups of all sizes, create the space for dialogue, surface and challenge assumptions, synthesize and reflect understanding back to the group, and move the group to action.

3. Social System Design – Northwestern University’s John McKnight (1995) as written that, "our ‘correctional systems’ consistently train people in crime. Studies demonstrate that a substantial number of people, while in hospitals, become sick or injured with maladies worse than those for which they were admitted. In many of our big city schools we see children whose relative achievement levels fall further behind each year." New community-builders must have the competence to guide the design of new systems that create justice, health and learning, and place increasing responsibility for the well being of our communities in the hands of citizens.

4. Civic and Citizen Leadership Development - In this new era of community development, says author David Chrislip (2000), "the idea of leadership itself is transformed: it is insistent yet not domineering, compelling but not heroic, credible rather than powerful (in the traditional sense), concerned with process as much as content, and much more behind the scenes than on center stage." New behaviors and practices, he writes, including "getting people to the table and keeping them there, subsuming one’s own desire for a specific outcome or solution and trusting the work of the group, ensuring the participation of others, helping others solve problems without having to know or provide the answer, acknowledging and celebrating the successes of others without taking credit, leading as peer rather than as superior — must be learned" (Chrislip 2000).

We hope it is clear that this call for learning democracy is decidedly not a call for replicating or exporting the practiced democracy of the United States or the practiced democracy of any other existing society or culture. In fact, we believe it is necessary for people around the world to resist the strings attached to any offer of aid that demands adoption of Western practices or appears to require indoctrination in what Vaclav Havel (1997) calls "half-baked" democratic ideas. What we are calling for is experimentation, in our organizations and communities, and in small towns, villages, and cities all over the world, with new ways of engaging people in bringing about a world that works for everyone. In the process, we may even discover a term more descriptive than democracy. By whatever name, however, more voices must be raised, more creative energy must be mobilized, more global connections must be made, and, most importantly, more learning must occur, if we are to break through to a peaceful, just, sustainable and gracious future.


1 Gharajedaghi (A Prologue to National Development Planning 1999) defines development as "the process in which people increase their abilities and desires to satisfy their own needs and legitimate desires and those of others." By needs, he means "those things that are necessary for survival; for example, food and oxygen. What is needed may or may not be desired; for example, persons who are not aware of their need for calcium may not desire it. On the other hand, persons may desire things they do not need, for example, caviar and diamonds." By a legitimate desire, he means "one that the pursuit or fulfillment of which does not reduce the likelihood of fulfillment of the needs and (legitimate) desires of others."

2 Two excellent resources on the community indicators movement can be found at www.rprogress.org/progsum/cip/cip_main.html and www.sustainablemeasures.com/



Chrislip, D. "The New Civic Leadership," in Cutting Edge Leadership 2000. James McGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, 2000.

Gharajedaghi, J. Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity. Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999.

Havel, V. The Art of the Impossible. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Hickman, L., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Kubisch, A., et al, eds. New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives. Washington, The Aspen Institute, 1995.

McKnight, J. "Redefining Community," in Kettering Review. Charles F. Kettering Foundation, Summer 1996.

McKnight, J. The Careless Society. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Schorr, L. Strengthening Familes and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America. New York: Anchor Books, 1997.

Schwinn, D. and C. "A Call to Community: The CC Role in Comprehensive Community Development," in Community College Journal. American Association of Community Colleges, April/May 2000.

Schwinn, D., et al. "An Evolving Vision of the New Jackson." Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project, 1995.

Sen, A. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 1999

Senge, P. The Fifth Discipline. New York: DoubledayCurrency, 1990.

W. Dolan, P. Restructuring Our Schools: A Primer on Systemic Change. Kansas City: Systems & Organization, 1994.

Wheatley, M. Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1992.



David and Carole Schwinn <cdschwinn@dmci.net> are principals of The Praxis People, an international network of consultants, specializing in relationship-centered leadership, community building, systems design, and continuous improvement. The Schwinn’s work has taken them to Japan to visit Deming Prize winning companies, to New Zealand to teach on a Fulbright Scholarship, to Puerto Rico to train organizational consultants, to India for a Global Dialogue on Peace, to communities in Canada to build community learning capacity, to Aruba to share initiatives on community transformation, to the United Kingdom and South Africa to work with circle hosts in the From the Four Directions <www.fromthefourdirections.org> global leadership initiative.