Community Conversations

Civic engagement is the pursuit of accountability and commitment through a shift in the nature of the conversations we are having to make our community better.

This process treats civic engagement as something more than voting, volunteering and supporting events designed to bring people together. While civic engagement is about action, it is not about community action and community development as we normally think of it.

The action here is not a decision to spend more money, to end or continue programs or to better measure or enforce our decisions. It is, most simply put, the choice to radically change the way we talk with one another. Civic engagement is the action through which citizens join in new conversations that have the capacity to alter the future. 

These new conversations present a way of shifting our thinking about building community. The shift is to recognize that creating an alternative future rests on the nature of our conversations and our capacity to relocate where cause resides.

The public conversation includes the conversations we have with ourselves, the ones we have when people are gathered and the ones that occur in the media. The shift we seek in the public conversation is from speaking about what others should do, to speaking into the possibilities that we as active citizens have the capacity to create. 

Change the conversation from what? Certain conversations are satisfying and true in their own way ... and yet they have no power and no accountability and do not generate any shared commitment.

For example, the conversations we want to avoid or postpone are:

Telling the history of how we got here

Giving explanations and opinions

Blaming and complaining

Making reports and descriptions

Carefully defining terms and conditions

Retelling your story again and again

Seeking quick action

Talking about people not in the room

These conversations characterize most meetings, conferences, press releases, trainings, master plans, summits and the call for more studies and expertise. They are well intentioned and valid, but they hold little power. These conversations help us get connected, they increase our understanding of who we are, but most of all they are our habit – they are so ingrained in the social convention of our culture that they cannot be easily dismissed or disrespected. They just do not, however, contribute to a transformation.

Transformation is a change in the nature of things, not simply an improvement. More clarity, more arguments, more waiting for others to change does not change anything. A different kind of conversation is the vehicle through which transformation occurs.

In these different conversations ...

Invitation replaces mandate, policy and alignment

Possibility replaces problem solving

Ownership and Cause replace explanation, blame and denial

Dissent and Refusal replace resignation and lip service

Commitment replaces hedge and barter

Gifts replace deficiencies

These are the conversations of civic engagement. These are the conversations through which communities are transformed ... because they lead to commitment and accountability. In the absence of these conversations, it is all just talk, no matter how urgent the cause, how important the plan, how elegant the answer.

When people have accepted the invitation and decided to show up, there are actions and outcomes that emerge which, when taken in the presence of others, help restore and build community and shift the wider public conversation about our future together.

These actions are:

To offer hospitality and to associate

To declare a possibility

To take ownership – “I created the world I live in”

To say “no” authentically

To make a promise with no expectation of return

To declare the gifts we and others bring to the room

* * *

(edited and adapted from) Peter Block “Community – The Structure of Belonging” 2008 and Peter Block “Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community” 2007



Peter Block “Community – The Structure of Belonging”
now in a second edition, revised and updated
Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2nd ed. edition (July 17, 2018)

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