Much of the work I've done over the past decade is aimed, in one way or another, at promoting civic renewal. The phrase refers to the effort to build community, strengthen democratic practices, promote public dialogue, and generally strenghten our capacities as citizens to participate and make our voices count. In these reports, essays, interviews, audio clips, and book reviews — handpicked from the hundreds of pages that make up this site — I explore these issues, try to sort out their implications, and examine potential solutions.

Civic Renewal


Public Innovators: Forces for Social Change and Civic Renewal

Public innovators are stewards of change at the community level. They are not quite civic leaders, not quite community organizers, and not quite social entrepreneurs, but something of all three. Their work is aimed at engaging people, catalyzing conversations, articulating questions and common concerns, and aligning people, organizations, and resources to achieve real impact. Based on a year-long study I led for the Harwood Institute, this essay looks at public innovators — who they are, how they do their work, and why they are one of the keys to bringing about the change we need in America's communities.

The Power of Dialogue

It's a sad fact that while most of us spend a sizeable part of our lives communicating with others, we seem more separate and disconnected than ever. We speak at each other, or past each other. We speak different conceptual languages, hold different values, embody different ways of seeing the world. This essay makes the case that we need to get smart about how to talk to one another. We need to be able to overcome differences, find common ground, create meaning and purpose, and set directions together. Our best hope of doing that is through authentic dialogue.

Roundtable on Democracy Research

In May 2001, a group of prominent civic leaders, scholars, policymakers and public intellectuals gathered in Washington D.C. to explore the promises and challenges of community-building in America. This report, published by the Kettering Foundation, summarizes the dialogue that took place and explores its implications for the burgeoning civic renewal movement. [PDF - 461 KB]

Collaboration and Community

Originally prepared for the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, this essay looks at the theory and practice of civic collaboration. "In a time of widespread frustration with politics-as-usual, the principles of collaboration are seen by many as a more effective means of working for change than forming coalitions, task forces, commissions, interest groups, and other, more traditional kinds of partnerships." [Also available in a French Translation]

Fraternity, Social Capital and the American Community

This essay revisits Wilson Carey McWilliams's The Idea of Fraternity, a forceful and unusually prescient study of American community that foreshadowed the work of Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch, Robert Putnam and others who have charted the decline of America's civic life in recent years.

Benjamin Barber on the Politics of Education

In this interview, adapted from a radio interview, Benjamin Barber, one of America's most prominent political philosophers, looks at the problems of education, diversity, political correctness, and the narrowing of public discourse.

"Democracy Is Inevitable" with Warren Bennis & Philip Slater

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, Warren Bennis and Philip Slater published a controversial article in the Harvard Business Review in which they boldly argued that "democracy is inevitable." They predicted that democracy would overtake the communist nations, and indeed the entire world, within 50 years, for a very simple reason -- it is the most efficient system of organization. Did Bennis and Slater have any idea how prescient their idea was? I tracked them down to find out, and to ask them what they see for the next 50 years. [To listen to this clip, you'll need the RealAudio Player on your computer.]

The Good City and the Good Life by Daniel Kemmis

In this far-sighted and evocative book, Daniel Kemmis documents what he sees as the small but encouraging steps by which citizens are revitalizing democracy and building more sustainable communities. He describes it as an effort "to paint a useful picture of the politically transformative power of the good city."

Thinking Together: The Power of Deliberative Dialogue

A look at the theory and practice of deliberative dialogue — a much-needed antidote to the sort of argument and debate that too often passes for public discourse today. Unlike other forms of discussion, deliberative dialogue is aimed not so much at talking together as thinking together. The process involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.

A New Metropolitan Vision

In this radio program, I talk with a number of leading thinkers and social critics, along with several innovative architects and urban designers, who are articulating a new metropolitan agenda for the 21st century, one aimed at creating cities that are walkable and diverse and promote a sense of connectedness and place. Among those interviewed are architects Peter Calthorpe, Terrence Glassman and Carl Anthony, ecologist Daniel Botkin, and Australian community planner David Engwicht. [To listen to this clip, you'll need the RealAudio Player on your computer.]

Democracy Derailed by David Broder

This is a fascinating, if not altogether convincing, look at the spreading use of the initiative process in the United States. David Broder sees it as an alternative to representative government, one that threatens to challenge, or even subvert, American democracy in coming years. It is a form of government that radically departs from the Constitution's system of checks and balances, he says, by handing over decisions directly to citizens themselves.

Higher Education, the Professions and Public Life

This report examines the deepening divide between American higher education and the nation's public life and how a growing number of academics, civic groups, and community activists are seeking to address the challenge. [PDF - 281KB]

Where are the New Ideas? Not on the Campaign Trail

This op-ed piece, published in the Santa Barbara News-Press, makes the case that politicians and newspeople need to elevate the public debate by addressing real ideas, not falling back on rhetoric and tired cliches. "The way to do that is by spending more time talking to the American people -- not to each other."

Civic Networks: Building Community on the Net

This paper examines the role of online networks in building and strengthening community. The report takes up the issue of "virtual community" and looks at whether public deliberation and social capital apply to online communities.