Connections 2021 - The Public and Institutions: Fractured or United?

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Citizen trust in institutions has been declining for decades, even before the economic, political, and racial turmoil of 2020. Yet, despite the challenges, citizens are finding new ways to work with institutions as varied as journalism, the police, and government itself.

The 2021 issue of Connections, edited by KF director of strategic initiatives Melinda Gilmore with KF senior associate Maura Casey, focuses on the tension and the opportunities in the relationship between citizens and institutions. The articles explore what can be done to increase trust and, in so doing, strengthen democracy.

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To Work Together, Learn Together by David Mathews  ( PDF )

The Kettering Foundation’s research review this year has been focused on the troubled relationship between citizens and authoritative, or “governing,” institutions. Kettering Foundation president and CEO David Mathews shares research from the new report Together: Building Better, Stronger Communities, which offers frustrated citizens—both leaders and community members who doubt they can make a difference—new ways of looking at their community to help them discover more opportunities for working together.

Citizen Space and the Power of Associations: An Interview with John McKnight by Scott London  ( PDF )

Journalist and author Scott London interviewed Kettering Foundation senior associate John McKnight on McKnight’s new book, Associational Life: Democracy’s Power Source, to be published by the Kettering Foundation Press. McKnight contends that citizen associations are vital to democracy but that they have been weakened in recent decades by a confluence of social, economic, and technological forces. Among them is the rise of professional service providers who now do much of the work once carried out by citizens. McKnight argues that what is needed is to increase the “citizen space,” where people can come together, discover common purpose, and build productive capacity.

How Participatory Journalism Created Collaborations between Law Enforcement, Assault Survivors, and Community Advocates by Sammy Caiola , jesikah maria ross  ( PDF )

Kettering has long included journalism when it explores the roles of institutions in democracy. In 2019, the foundation assembled a group of journalists from four different newsrooms to focus on a “wicked” public problem facing each local community. These journalists experimented with ways of reporting that would encourage democratic community problem solving. In this article, Sacramento CapRadio journalists Sammy Caiola and jesikah maria ross explore what happened when the station chose a different way of reporting both on the problem of sexual assault and the police response to these crimes. They had multiple meetings with assault survivors and police, and they discuss what both sides learned, what changed in how police handled these crimes, and how the experience changed the radio station’s approach to covering the news.

Community Building in an Old-Fashioned Way by Maura Casey  ( PDF )

Kettering Foundation senior associate Maura Casey has written on an effort in Alabama to increase community participation by starting small newspapers. The idea to begin publishing newspapers came about in a series of deliberations run by the nonprofit PACERS organization, which has supported rural communities and towns in Alabama for 40 years. Those deliberations brought up the question: “What was the best thing residents could do for their communities?” The answer was, by consensus, “publish local newspapers,” and so the PACERS Rural Community Newspaper Network was born. It has produced four newspapers, all published twice this year so far, in the towns of Beatrice, Camp Hill, Pintlala, and Packers Bend. Casey reports on how the effort is going as a journalism project and, most important, as a way to strengthen local communities.

Libraries as Islands of Trust by Ellen M. Knutson  ( PDF )

The decline of trust between citizens and institutions is of long-standing concern, yet libraries in the United States remain some of the most trusted institutions. 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, to increase public trust and build relationships between communities and their libraries. In so doing, the libraries involved increased deliberative decision-making in the community on a variety of public issues.

Rural Life: What Keeps People from Getting Involved? by Lorie Higgins  ( PDF )

Lorie Higgins is an extension professional and professor at the University of Idaho in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology. In this article, she writes about efforts of the Western Community Assessment Network (WeCAN), which uses Community Review (CR), an assessment and strategic planning process designed for towns of 10,000 people or fewer. A CR is tailored to the local community and codeveloped with local leaders, business owners, and residents. Higgins uses observations during Community Review events and survey data across 13 small communities in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming to examine why a process meant to be inclusive still is not able to spark wider participation in some communities. She explores impediments and makes suggestions concerning the need to increase local leadership, broaden opportunities for involvement, and communicate clearly to welcome more people to the process.

Redefining Public Safety: Professionals and the Public by Valerie A. Lemmie  ( PDF )

Kettering Foundation director of exploratory research Valerie Lemmie writes about learning exchanges with representatives from communities where citizens led efforts to redefine public safety as a shared responsibility between professionals and the public. Most of the communities —in New York, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, South Dakota, Minnesota, and northern and southern California—had experienced a police-involved incident that sparked community protests and demands for changes in police policies, procedures, and practices. Lemmie describes the struggles to name and frame the issues and learn from shared experiences to better enable communities to embrace public safety as a public problem shared by all.

Getting to We: Bridging the Gap between Communities and Local Law Enforcement Agencies in Virginia by Brian N. Williams  ( PDF )

Brian N. Williams is an associate professor at the University of Virginia. He describes an effort led by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with the assistance of the Public Engagement in Governance Looking, Listening and Learning Laboratory (PEGLLLLab) within the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. These two entities have developed, implemented, and facilitated a series of “courageous conversations” between police and community members. The meetings took place in Danville, Newport News, Norfolk, Prince William County, and Richmond. This article explores the implications of these dialogues.

Democracy Is a Snowball Rolling Down a Hill: The 2021 Kettering Multinational Symposium by Wendy Willis  ( PDF )

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. Nearly 100 people—including representatives from more than 20 countries, as well as Kettering staff and associates—came together for the first fully online multinational symposium. This year, as the pandemic continued to spread and create tragedy, the theme of the sessions was “Responses to the Pandemic: Citizens’ Relationship WITH Governing Institutions.”

Catalyzing Change: Unleashing the Potential of Communities by Richard C. Harwood  ( PDF )

This article by Richard C. Harwood, the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, is adapted from his newest book, Unleashed: A Proven Way Communities Can Spread Change and Make Hope Real for All (Kettering Foundation Press, 2021). Over a period of two years, Harwood and his colleagues conducted in-depth examinations of nine communities, each of which the institute had worked with at some time during the previous 30 years. Their goal was to see what they could learn about how people got started—and why. They learned that change ripples out in communities through an interaction of highly intentional actions and serendipity. This interaction and its effects can be proactively created.

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