February 25, 2008

Getting a Grip on Living Democracy

I read Frances Moore Lappe's new book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad, on a recent plane ride to visit my grassroots grantmaking colleagues in central North Carolina. Good thing I had my seat belt on - otherwise I would have been dancing in the aisle as I perused this short but powerful book!

In Getting a Grip - the latest in a series of wonderful and forward-thinking books by the author of Diet for a Small Planet and The Quickening of America - Frances Moore Lappe uses fresh language and a hopeful, common sense approach to point the way to the change that so many of us are longing for in our communities. In describing the difference between "thin democracy" and "living democracy", Lappe describes what I have felt and seen but have found so challenging to describe - the difference between a community that is alive and full of hope and one that is stuck in a place of wanting and needing. Thin democracy generates communities where democracy is divorced from people's day to day lives - best left to experts with voting and spending as the two primary responsibilities of good citizens. A community that is experiencing living democracy is a place where democracy is a living system that shapes people's lives and people in the active citizen role bring their voices and values to shape choices that affect them in very personal ways. Lappe says that "living democracy recognizes that all people have public lives and that only in public engagement can we fulfill our need to connect with others in common purpose, to make a difference, to express our values and to fully respect ourselves."

I found much in this book that rang true with my own work in my Memphis neighborhood and the work of hundreds of people that I have had the opportunity to meet and learn from through my association with Grassroots Grantmakers and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. In her own fresh and inspiring way, Lappe reminded me that:
  • Our perceptions of what is possible actually shape what is possible;
  • There is always more there than we can initially see or imagine - in ourselves and in our communities;
  • The real power (and the magic) is in the relationships;
  • People have a deep felt need to contribute and to be connected.
It was thrilling to me to read Lappe's take on democracy as a learned art - something that we get better at if we practice. This to me is at the heart of grassroots grantmaking. Grassroots grantmakers invite people to learn the art of democracy by practicing with their neighbors, in their own time and on their own block. And the practice is not just practice for practice sake - it is real-time practice on real-time issues, with results that instill hope and encourage yet more practicing.
  • The clean-up is successful - so now what?
  • The summer youth project was successful - so now what?
  • We've discovered that there are more of us than we imagined and that we can do more than we had imagined - so now what?
This is the trajectory of grassroots grantmaking and what happens when people practice democracy and begin to see themselves as active citizens instead of passive participants in a thin democracy.

Lappe's list of the Ten Arts of Democracy has interesting possibilities for the type help that newly active citizens might find useful as they are practicing democracy:
  1. Active listening - encouraging the speaker and searching for meaning.
  2. Creative conflict - confronting others in ways that produce growth.
  3. Mediation - Facilitating interaction to help people in conflict hear one another.
  4. Negotiation - Problem solving that meets some key interests of all involved.
  5. Political imagination - Re-imagining our futures according to our values.
  6. Public dialogue - Public talk on matters than concern us all.
  7. Public judgment - Public decision making that allows citizens to make choices they are willing to help implement.
  8. Celebration - Expressing joy and gratitude for what we learn as well as what we achieve.
  9. Evaluation and Reflection - Assessing and incorporating the lessons we learn through action.
  10. Mentoring - Supportively guiding others in learning these arts of public life.
I was struck that many of these are right there in our list of the tools for grassroots grantmaking. Lappe's list provides good food for thought about what else might we add. It also is good reinforcement for the things that are there that are easily overlooked in the interest of saving time - with celebration being the one that comes first to mind for me.

I obviously found reinforcement and inspiration in this little book. I would love to hear from you if you know this book or are intrigued by what I have shared:

  • Have you used this book as background reading for a group, such as a foundation board or grantmaking committee? If so, what was your experience?
  • Have you tried out some of language or concepts in this book - and if so, how did it go?
  • What light bulbs came on for you?
  • What do you see as the most promising ways that we can promote living democracy?
Your thoughts will have me dancing in the aisle once again!

Additional resources:

February 18, 2008

About This Blog

Big Thinking on Small Grants is my personal blog, launched to provide an open space for discussion about grassroots grantmaking and the creative edge of community philanthropy from a possibility perspective.

What do I mean by grassroots grantmaking?
Grassroots grantmaking is a place-based grantmaking strategy that is simple yet powerful. Quite simply, it utilizes modest grants and common sense to help people reclaim their place as change-makers in their own community. It is about civic engagement at the most human level. The strategy supports the determination and passion of people to actively join with their neighbors to create the community that provides the supportive environment they need to live the life that they want.
Grassroots grantmaking is powerful in that it recognizes the potential of a largely untapped resource for community renewal - the informal associations at the community level that most frequently operate under the funding radar screen. These informal associations (grassroots groups) serve as the locus for “active citizenship” in a community. Investing in grassroots groups provides a mechanism for activating a critical missing ingredient in more traditional community development strategies - the knowledge, passion, commitment and enduring presence of people who in live in a community.

Grassroots grantmaking is a rapidly growing funding area - appropriate for funders of all types who believe that people - not programs - are the generators of change. Community foundations, family foundations, private foundations, corporate funders, city governments, United Ways, giving circles, community-based nonprofits, and neighborhood groups themselves are discovering the possibilities of grassroots grantmaking.

Grassroots grantmakers are funders that are:
  • investing in resident-initiated and resident driven activities;
  • helping communities discover, claim and activate the leaders in their communities that have been waiting in the wings;
  • working from a possibility perspective - using an asset-based approach to solve community problems;
  • realizing that grants that are small for funders but big for the grassroots groups can have big impact;
  • thinking local - very local, as in blocks, neighborhoods and groups of neighborhoods - with work that is tailored to maximize local resources and respect local culture;
  • helping to spread the word about the power of grassroots grantmaking!
Why a blog?

I believe that the combination of my personal experience in my own community, my work as a place-based funder, my association with Grassroots Grantmakers and the number of years that I've been observing and contributing to the ebbs and flows of community philanthropy gives means something. Most recently, my association with Grassroots Grantmakers has allows me to sit in a privileged place, witness to the learning journey and innovative work of funders who are walking the walk of social change - putting money in the hands of community residents who are connecting with neighbors to move a good idea into action. With this blog, I am creating a space where I can share the view and try out some "meaning making" with others who are on this journey.  I am especially interested in encouraging critical thinking and dialogue about what funders can do to promote active citizenship by thinking bigger about small grants.

What will you find on this blog?
  • Reflections on the work of grassroots grantmaking - sharing what I think might be interesting or noteworthy from my big picture perch in the world of grassroots grantmaking;
  • Thoughts on active citizenship and why it's important for funders to be in the grassroots grantmaking business;
  • Flags on work that is important for grassroots grantmakers to know about and think about - research, innovative practices, cutting edge thinking;
  • Notes on the innovative edge of community philanthropy and what opportunities and challenges it is offering to more traditional philanthropic approaches.
Posts on this blog do not represent the official views of Grassroots Grantmakers - they represent my opinions and observations, offered as invitations to others to join me in a dialogue about grassroots grantmaking. Please join me in big thinking about small grants!