Connections 2021


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Much of Kettering’s research is based on the idea that democracy works better when citizens’ participation is valued and when they work together to address shared public problems. Addressing many issues requires not only an informed citizenry but also institutions that listen to the needs and priorities of ordinary people who seek to better the region and, indeed, the country in which they live.

Trust has been measurably declining for decades between the people and the many institutions that serve them—religious, educational, governmental, legal, and media. This has led to growing frustration, apathy, and a lack of trust, all of which show signs of eroding our democracy.

But amid the concerns there are success stories, creative and gratifying attempts to reach across differences to find ways of using diverse experiences and viewpoints to address shared public problems in pragmatic ways instead of allowing them to become wedges separating us from one another. The very tensions involved present opportunities. With that in mind, we are pleased to present the 2021 issue of Connections—The Public and Institutions: Fractured or United?

Kettering Foundation president and CEO David Mathews kicks off the issue, sharing research from the new report Together: Building Better, Stronger Communities. He offers new ways of looking at communities so that even leaders and community members who doubt they can make a difference can work together. The headline says it all: “To Work Together, Learn Together.”

Journalist and author Scott London and Kettering Foundation senior associate John McKnight join forces to explore “Citizen Space and the Power of Associations” in a Q and A. London asks the questions and McKnight draws upon his 50-plus years of working with citizens to provide the answers. McKnight’s new book, Associational Life: Democracy’s Power Source (Kettering Foundation Press, 2022) argues that the best remedy for the ills of democracy is to strengthen the ability and ways citizens can come together and share common purpose.

The media is often blamed for increasing political polarization and widening the gap that exists between citizenry and their ability to address “wicked problems.” Sammy Caiola, a former health-care reporter at CapRadio in Sacramento, California, and the station’s senior community engagement strategist jesikah maria ross dared to question professional habits of journalism that, too often, increase distrust instead of reducing it. They brought together law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, and sexual assault victims to find a way to navigate the tensions in how sexual assault is addressed. The resulting article, “How Participatory Journalism Created Collaborations between Law Enforcement, Sexual Assault Survivors, and Community Advocates,” proves that sometimes the best way to address a problem is to question your assumptions.

Kettering Foundation senior associate Maura Casey spent 35 years writing for four newspapers. With the rise of the internet, she thought this era was over. So she was mesmerized by an effort in Alabama to increase community participation by starting small newspapers—the paper-and-ink kind, not merely publications with a web presence. She documented this retro effort in the article, “Community Building in an Old-Fashioned Way.”

Trust in institutions may be declining, but just about everyone loves their local library. Kettering Foundation research deputy Ellen Knutson details six years of experiments between libraries and the people they serve in communities across the country, including Topeka, Kansas; Portland, Oregon; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Houston, Texas. These efforts sought to increase public trust and build relationships between communities and their libraries. She recounts their inspiring use of deliberation to build community in “Libraries as Islands of Trust,” as indeed they are.

Lorie Higgins understands rural communities. As an extension professional and professor at the University of Idaho in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology, she did a deep dive to understand why rural residents did not get involved with planning processes. Higgins examined processes during community review events and survey data across 13 small communities in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming to see why a process meant to be inclusive doesn’t spark wider participation in some communities. Her suggestions in “Rural Life: What Keeps People from Getting Involved?” may help turn that around.

Public safety and trust has been an issue of great public concern, particularly in the last few years. Kettering Foundation director of exploratory research Valerie Lemmie recounts exchanges with representatives of nine communities that hosted citizen-led efforts to define public safety as a shared responsibility between professionals and the public. In “Redefining Public Safety: Professionals and the Public,” Lemmie describes the struggle of participants to name and frame the issues and learn from shared experiences—including police incidents that sparked protest—to help communities embrace public safety as a public problem shared by all.

Brian N. Williams is an associate professor at the University of Virginia. In his article, “Getting to We: Bridging the Gap between Communities and Local Law Enforcement Agencies in Virginia,” he describes a series of “courageous conversations” between police and community members. The meetings took place in Danville, Newport News, Norfolk, Prince William County, and Richmond.

Wendy Willis, a writer, lawyer, and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, writes about the Kettering Foundation Multinational Symposium, which was held on March 22-23, 2021. The 100-plus participants from more than 20 countries related stories of how citizenry around the world responded to the pandemic by working with institutions. Willis captures this inspiring meeting in her article, “Democracy Is a Snowball Rolling Down a Hill: The 2021 Kettering Multinational Symposium.”

Richard C. Harwood wrote “Catalyzing Change: Unleashing the Potential of Communities,” which is adapted from his newest book, Unleashed: A Proven Way Communities Can Spread Change and Make Hope Real for All (Kettering Foundation Press, 2021). Harwood is the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The article and book are based upon insights from in-depth examinations of nine communities, each of which the institute had worked with at some time during the previous 30 years.