Community Democracy Workshop at the Kettering Foundation

Community Democracy Workshop at the Kettering Foundation


The Community Democracy Workshop and the Kettering Foundation convened seventeen people committed to community democracy and community engagement from philanthropic, community-based and supporting organizations along with Kettering staff members to learn from each other and explore three questions:

•  What are our assumptions and beliefs about learning and knowledge building?

•  What are various approaches to community engagement? What are the relative value and effectiveness of these approaches to advancing community democracy?

•  How are we to enter, behave in and exit from communities?

Desired outcomes of the day and a half workshop also included participants having an understanding of the purpose and approach of the Community Democracy Workshop, the status of work to date, and its plans going forward.

The following document is a summary of more detailed notes from the workshop.

Introductions  (the first day)

The Kettering Foundation is a research organization with a mission to learn what it takes for democracy to work as it should. Its inquiry is into problems of democracy not in democracy, the “problems behind the problems.”

The Community Democracy Workshop begins with a community lens and then looks at how philanthropy and other systems intersect with community when the objective is increasing community power to improve their circumstances. CDW works in three ways; it’s a three-legged stool:

•    working in communities through community field work

•    creating a learning agenda and building knowledge

•    building a constituency through communications and outreach

Among other things, “CDW will work on assumptions and systems that are taken for granted. For instance, a widely-held assumption, held almost universally by policy makers and public policy schools, has been that solutions to community problems will be found either through government regulation or privatization. In research on governing the commons, which included thousands of studies, Elinor Ostrom has shown the superior sustainability and effectiveness of a third option: communities working together, as long as certain conditions are met.”

All participants engaged with a colleague and identified one word that captures the importance of community democracy. Words included: ownership, real , belonging, humanity, mutuality, interdependence, neighbor, relationship linked to difference, essential, connection, future, agency, wisdom, and love

Initial assumptions about learning and knowledge building

The assumptions were introduced and then discussed in small groups:

•    Knowledge is power; widely held knowledge is the first step toward widely held power.

•    Knowledge and hunger for knowledge exists everywhere and in everyone. Advancing an elite expert meritocracy does not advance the cause of democracy.

•    The process of identifying existing and building new knowledge is itself an opportunity to build community power and capacity to access the political, economic and social mainstream.

•    Change of the magnitude communities desire and deserve cannot be achieved without producing strong evidence of the role community can and must play.

•    The field is too small and insular. Convincing an audience of like-minded allies is insufficient. The learning agenda we establish and the knowledge we share must have the potential to mobilize those with whom the evidence resonates but who have not yet taken action, and importantly to convince the unconvinced.

•    People learn democracy by being members of a group or community that acts democratically – a community in which everyone, not just a few, have access to knowledge, to co-own it, and use it to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Comments on assumptions from small groups

•    The first two assumptions were restated: “Something can be learned from everyone and everyone can learn. The ability to learn and to apply what is learned is power.”

•    “Knowledge in itself is not power. It has to be used, that is, shared with others. It has to gain the ability to influence. Critical thinking – the ability to question, challenge, analyze, and be curious – is needed.”

•    “There are actually only three basic assumptions:

            Principles, assumptions about the value of knowledge

            Production, producing the knowledge through a democratic process is key

            Expansion, about how to get the knowledge out to a larger audience.”

•    “Learning needs to be continuous. Community democracy is not the goal, it’s the path. A new construct of power is the goal. You can go through community democracy with civility or conflict but you must come out the other side.”

•    “To realize the ‘magnitude’ of change that a community aspires to requires that it determine its own needs and wants. Communities are not fixed or static, and they need infrastructure to build and sustain resilience and endurance.”

•    “Philanthropy and government usually require ‘evidence’ of the relationship between community democracy and concrete change or ‘outcomes.’ Perhaps CDW should redefine what ‘evidence’ is in a way that recognizes that communities are not monolithic and are actually messy.”

•    “Democracy must be specific; generalization is a problem. Democracy needs a frame that doesn’t exclude but is still specific enough. To have an inclusive process an exclusive process is necessary. It requires preparation, and it never results in a single table. People need to be in settings where they feel safe, and a truly inclusive process won’t get them there. The process is like sitting around a quilting frame: there’s work to do that’s interwoven and collective. We need multiple quilts, multiple frames, multiple entry points.”

•    “True democracy means giving the community control. We know what we need where we live.”

•    We often refer to “community” as singular: the African American community, the Chicano community, the immigrant community. Can we build communities with shared goals?

A continuum of community engagement

A “continuum of community engagement” was introduced that moves from minimum engagement to maximum engagement and influence in these steps: accesses information, outreach audience, gives input, repeat or ongoing participation, plays active role, leads and governs. Participants were asked what questions the continuum raises for them. Among their questions were these:

•    What is the myth vs. the reality of engagement? What’s the difference between what we say we do and what we do? “Engagement” is not usually a partnership. The reality is often characterized by a lack of truth-telling.

•    Where do the community’s own resources come into play?

•    What if community insiders hold inordinate power?

•    Isn’t community ownership a step beyond ‘governs’?

•    The continuum is presented from the perspective of someone outside the community. What if we flip it and show it from a community ownership perspective?  What would it look like from the community’s perspective?

Provocative questions from small group discussions of the continuum

Small groups were assigned to discuss the continuum and develop a provocative question for continued discussion. The resulting questions were:

•    Given all we’ve done and all we know about community engagement, how do we make it work (more consistently) on the ground? We’re still not satisfied with what we have achieved. How do we operationalize what we know?

•    What militates against our becoming what we are fighting against?  RISK!

•    What are the infrastructures and choices that have to be made to reinforce democratic behavior and elevate the thinking and strategic action of communities?

•    How can we increase the probability that philanthropy doing this work can partner well? Honest dialogue among grantor and grantee are required.

The report-outs from groups also included these thoughts:

•    Flipping the continuum and seeing it from the community’s side would have to start where people are: developing a sense of belonging as a first step and identifying with a place as another. The continuum would be a never-ending spiral rather than stairs.

•    For the most part, foundations don’t know about these issues. Even those who are trying don’t know what to do, don’t know how. We haven’t gotten deep enough.

•    How can foundations learn that the messiness of the process is legitimate?

•    We’ve created a split between insider and outsider, between resourcer and resourced. People actually move back and forth between these roles.

Community field work  (the second day)

The challenge of this second day of the workshop was to begin to operationalize the global thinking of the first day. A community’s view of someone coming in to help might go like this: “I don’t care how much you know philosophically or abstractly until I know you care, until I can see how it shows up in my life.” A story grounded in community culture and traditions started the morning process.

Without knowing the community culture, someone entering a community can make a critical blunder. The first step is crucial, you can’t go back.

Groups were created to discuss three questions:

•    How do we enter communities? (as a foundation with an agenda?  when invited?)

•    How do we behave when we are there?

•    How do we leave (What is the protocol for this?)

About entering:  Listening is necessary to learn the community’s history and stories. Pre-work is needed. Selecting a community and having permission to enter are not the same.

About behavior while there:  Be human, don’t pick favorites, own the fact that you belong (if from a local foundation), be honest especially about your limitations and keep showing up even when the conversations are hard. Know the difference between emergence and prescription, between figuring it out together and knowing the outcome in advance, between acting and being acted upon. You have to be vulnerable.

About leaving: Recognize that in good relationships, changes happen. Be sure that community members know of changes in your relationship with them before others do and tell them the reasons for the change. Organizers get stuck when they take ownership, when they hold it too tightly. Leaving is especially hard when a foundation’s agenda changes even though the community’s need continues. Leaving is complicated when resources are involved.

One group said entering and leaving have equal value; we can’t talk about one without talking about the other.

Another group asked: What type of internal community building are you, the foundation, willing to do? If the foundation does not change more than the community does, it will have failed. And the same applies to NGOs, government, and academic institutions. What internal practices do we have that reflect our values? An autocratic style of philanthropy won’t work in building a stronger democratic community.


Among other closing comments were:

•    The power of this workshop is an important part of building the infrastructure to allow CDW’s work to go forward.

•    This has been not only about what you know, but how you think.

•    The lack of hierarchy was good; it was the people behind the experiences, not their positions that made the difference.

•    There was safety in being part of a discussion larger than myself and my own work.

•    I want to talk more about the way our organizations have to change.

•    Community democracy is not an end, but a process toward the redistribution of power. How do we live into the promise?

•    The challenge is to accept my limitations and then see what I can do about it.

•    It feels we’re creating a conspiracy to move forward in a way we couldn’t do alone.