Changing the Civic Culture
By Mike McGrath
One of the biggest problems we face as a country is our inability to face problems, or rather, our inability to have face-to-face conversations about our problems, educate ourselves, weigh the options and come to a consensus about how to move forward.
Instead, we divide ourselves into warring camps, hand out talking points and get into the fight before we even understand the true nature of the problem or how we might do things differently. Name the issue—health care reform, climate change, the economic crisis—too much energy is being spent on gearing up for the big fight before we even have a real conversation.
I’m always heartened to find out about local groups like Hands Across North Quabbin that are trying to get people look at problems and challenges in a different way.
Hands is an ambitious effort to shift the “civic culture” in an economically depressed, politically polarized region of north central Massachusetts. Founder Mark Shoul compares the organization to the agricultural extension programs that were developed years ago to help rural dwellers learn new and better ways of growing crops and caring for farm animals, only in this case, the goal is to grow a healthier “civic culture.”
“We create projects where people come together to work
on issues of common concern so that trust gets built,” says Shoul, a longtime resident of the region who had headed up a local community development corporation before founding Hands.
North Quabbin is a region of fading mill towns—Athol and Orange—and “postcard” New England villages. Years ago, one of the region’s largest employers shut down leading to high levels of unemployment, political infighting about who was to “blame,” and growing class division between the older, blue collar residents and an influx of more affluent newcomers attracted to
the unspoiled scenery and quaint New England architecture.
Concerned about the way things were going, Shoul gathered together some of the smartest and most respected people he knew to think and talk about ways of building trust and moving the community forward.
An opportunity arose when the town of Athol got into a brawl about what to do about the local high school, which had lost its accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The superintendent came up with the plan to turn things around, but the plan was unacceptable to many in the community.
In the meantime, the local school committee (school board) had earned a statewide reputation for being divided and dysfunctional. “The problem wasn’t really the school committee,” says Shoul. “The school committee was a reflection of a divided community.”
Shoul’s organization stepped in to try to break the impasse, challenging opponents of the superintendent’s plan to come up with their own ideas. The first step was to organize a massive volunteer effort to fix up the high school building. The next was to organize a long-range strategic planning process for the Athol-Royalston Regional School District.
The upshot was this: the high school got its accreditation back, and the community developed a new sense of direction for the district. This was the first of several new initiatives inspired by Hands, including the development of a North Quabbin Green Economy Network and the construction of a new pavilion for community meetings.
I met Shoul last year at a national “civic innovators forum” in Washington, D.C. His organization was one of several civic start-ups I found out about during the forum. I asked Shoul to write an article about Hands for our quarterly, the National Civic Review. His article, co-authored with Hands board chair, Philip Rabinowitz, will appear in the summer issue of the review.
Shoul thinks it takes three conditions to change the “civic culture” of a community: First, a high level of dissatisfaction; second, a new vision of a better future; and third, action-oriented first steps on how to achieve that vision.
Admittedly, collaborative problem solving is a tough thing to do at the national level. There are too many entrenched interests groups, professional campaign organizers, PACs and lobbyists and too few forums for real discussions, and, frankly, most Americans simply aren’t engaged at that level of government.
But learning about local efforts such as Hands Across North Quabbin process helps us think about political issues and policy debates in a different way and, hopefully, to imagine a healthier civic culture in state capitols and Washington, D.C.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will be appearing every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.