May 19, 2013

It's Not Just Cicadas

I'm fascinated by all the buzz about this being the year that the cicadas come back. But what really fascinates me is something else that isn't getting nearly as much buzz but is a much bigger deal. It's the re-emergence of active citizenship.

I recall a conversation at a Grassroots Grantmakers' Board of Directors retreat just 8 years ago when we were brainstorming about this question:  "What surprising thing could happen that would change the landscape for Grassroots Grantmakers dramatically?"  After a dozen very thoughtful responses were added to the flip chart, I offered my out of the ballpark (and intentionally flip) response - "a citizen revolution".  In the years that I felt alone on the edge and found courage and support from the connections I made through networks like Grassroots Grantmakers, a citizen revolution felt like a preposterous idea.

But here we are.  Everyday I spot active citizenship energy emerging everywhere:
  • In the going-wild proliferation of micro-granting activity for citizen-sourced ideas that is coming from every place imaginable.  Eight years ago the micro-granting landscape included some innovative place-based foundations, a handful of United Ways, some local governments (with Mayor's Matching grant programs, spread by the Johnny Appleseed of that work, Jim Diers) and a few community-based funders.  Today the landscape includes more happening from all of these groups, spurred on by the crazy energy coming from crowd-funding vehicles (see ioby),  soups/dishes and other events, contests and competitions, giving circles, Awesome Foundation chapters, national groups such as Project for Public Spaces (see Lighter, Quicker Cheaper), Generations United (see Youth Jumpstart Grants), and a tidal wave of innovative mico-granting outside of North American that are contributing innovation in this arena.
  • In the focused attention that civic and philanthropic organizations are giving to community engagement.  We're clearly over the hump of community engagement as a necessary evil and into the new territory of community engagement as a core value and competency for place-based institutions (see CFLeads' recent work on on community engagement, Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities' Real Communities, and Bright Spots on Community Engagement), with sincere exploration of the "what do we do tomorrow/how do we do our work differently" questions that come with moving values and theories into practice.
  • And, most exciting for me, what people are inventing, initiating and growing unprompted. I've heard some "tired of waiting/no help is coming" explanations for this new energy, but  personally, I don't want to spend my energy exploring why.  I just want to be part of this new energy and let it fill me up with hope and joy - and do whatever I can to fan the flames and build some firewalls that will keep it from well-intentioned efforts from the institutional side of the fence that could tamp it down in the name of building capacity or making it sustainable.
My thoughts are now with Grassroots Grantmakers, during this citizen revolution. What's our most important role?
  • It's obvious to me that people everywhere are making the case for people powered solutions for our community's futures - and that the hardest part of our job from the previous era - the case-making - is getting easier. We need to listen, document and join with others to share with a big loud voice all of these creative case-making messages.
  • I also see that the institutional trail-blazers in the big thinking on small grants world - those who started early and kept at it with small grants for block clubs, neighborhood groups, youth groups, and other groups who were thought to be risky bets - have enabled us to have treasure chests full of practical wisdom, applications, final report forms, technical assistance approaches and "what not to do" guidance that gives that can be shared with those who want to activate community engagement by using small grants to invite more citizens into the action.  We need to make sure that people can spot and open these treasure chests of documents, wisdom and practical information, and spot more good stuff to add to the treasure chests.
  • This is a wonderful time - what we've been hoping to see!  But, we've had glimmers of this before - when community building was all the rage, when we were just learning about importance of social capital, and when big dollars were flowing from public sector and national philanthropic partners for community development and community change.  I think the most important thing that we can do is limit how much this time has in common with cicadas!  I can't stand the thought that the wonderful hum of active citizen energy that we're now hearing might go silent again and we'll have to wait another 17 years to hear it again.  I want to hum to become a buzz. I can't wait to see what happens in our communities when we are so accustomed to that buzz that everyone notices when it's not there and hungers to get it back.
So here is my question for you.  How do we - all of us - keep this going?  I have some ideas about case-making, and have experience sharing what's in the treasure chests of practical wisdom and information.  But I'm not too sure about how to steer around our short attention spans and love of the next new thing to ensure that this active citizen energy doesn't go underground for another 17 years.

I anxiously await your help with that question!

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