The Loss of Civic Connectedness

An increasing number of people are expressing concern over the loss of civic connectedness in America. Voting, volunteerism, and participation in professional and community associations, it seems, are in decline. Experts, such as noted scholar Robert D. Putnam, warn that our stock of social capital – the fabric of our connections with each other – has plummeted, bankrupting our lives and communities.


Pretty dire, huh? Part of the cause, Putnam and others suggest, is a general lack of confidence in the critical mass of cooperation. Put another way, Americans often find it easier to say “no” than to make the investment in discovering ways to say “yes” to providing solutions to many of the more intractable problems that our communities face. Or, rather than saying “no,” perhaps Americans are simply choosing to say nothing and are turning their focus from community connections to individual and family concerns. A number of people, at any rate, have declared as much since September 11th. Yet things in New York, at least, are not as desperate as some suggest. In the aftermath of September 11th, several questions seem worthy of consideration:

  • When something as significant as the events surrounding September 11th happens, what do we as environmental and public policy dispute resolution professionals do if there is little or no history of collaborative approaches to managing conflict and decision making?

  • How do we, in the face of such an urgent need to move forward, work slow (so as to be inclusive) in order to work fast (so as to avoid the likelihood of people saying “no”)?

  • How do we engage the public with the promise that their contributions will actually influence decisions, and what steps do we take to make sure that they do?

  • How do we make “the big” experience seem like “the small and important” one to the participant?

  • Finally, how do we take something as big as September 11th and use it as an opportunity to amplify the capacity of environmental and public policy dispute resolvers to cooperatively engage large sectors of the public?


The terrorist attacks have created a number of reactions and feelings for Americans, and for New Yorkers in particular; among these feelings is the sense of the futility of addressing many of the large issues facing our community, nation and world. This discussion does not offer answers to these questions as much as it points to some endeavors in New York City that may hold the promise of building (or re-building) social capital among New Yorkers.


New Yorkers, as everyone knows, move fast. They don’t feel. They get up, dust themselves off, and move on. In the wake of September 11th there has been a great urgency to “do something.” The events of September 11th have added to the list of seemingly intractable problems – some global, some local. Rebuilding the World Trade Center site is but one. The destruction of the World Trade Center has actually engaged the region in a series of discussions about the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, an the area of the city that includes the sixteen acre World Trade Center site, as well as about how to memorialize the events of September 11th.


Such an undertaking requires vision, planning, and, more importantly, time. Typically, the visioning and planning stages of any “public action” are the most difficult stages at which to get people actively involved. You get people’s attention with a proposal. The problem (and it’s a classic one) is that once there is a proposal people react, they take sides, the rhetoric starts, communication becomes distorted and eventually stops, and a “wicked” public dispute evolves. Today in New York there is also a strong emotional context. The challenge is first to get people’s attention. That happens in many ways: the grief process related to the loss of lives, the media, the “temporary” memorial of light beams, the barrenness of site itself, the disruption of transportation services, etc.


Before New Yorkers “move on” and things begin to take place as usual several organizations in the New York region are trying to use this moment of captivity to:

  • Engage the myriad institutions that define the New York community to bring a wide array of resources to bear on the situation;
  • Honor the unique emotional context of these circumstances;
  • Engage in mutual education that allows people to bridge differences and reach mutually acceptable solutions based on common interests; and
  • Help decision makers make and implement better decisions.


Two efforts currently underway in Greater New York are worth noting because of their pointed attention to the issues noted above and their purposeful design to build institutional capacity for sustained cooperation and to integrate technology into the collaborative process along with the direct involvement and blessing of key decision makers from both the public and the business sector. These undertakings, Listening to the City and Imagine New York, are consciously moving forward in a way that both urges cooperation and pledges to meet the promise of influence. Influence is different from decision making. Most, though certainly not all, people probably realize the difference and do not expect to be the final arbiters, especially in such large public decisions. To be sure, some of the decisions are best left to forums in political and judicial domains. Cooperation can be a difficult and even inappropriate approach for some problems. However, the opportunity here is to use cooperative processes to focus on peoples’ intrinsic and less tangible needs, such as affirming deeply held values and bolstering a sense of self and self-determination. The absence of such a focus makes it unlikely that people will ever accept or live with whatever gets decided. Information about these and related projects can be found at www.civic-alliance.org and www.imaginenewyork.org.


Will any of this make a difference in the spirit of cooperation of New Yorkers? It is really too early to tell. Unlike other forms of capital, social capital increases as it is spent. New Yorkers and others in the region are making a tremendous investment to see that, whatever happens on the World Trade Center site, it is done “right.” Today, the community is pledged to cooperate. The cooperation could disintegrate if visions and plans are translated onto paper and into action too quickly or if the realities of context, inclusiveness, influence and scale are left unattended. The proof then is not what ultimately happens in lower Manhattan but what the community is able to achieve through cooperation when faced with the next big public controversy where there is little or no history of collaborative approaches to managing conflict and decision making.


                        author

W. Steve Lee

W. Steve Lee is the principal in WSL CONSULTING, which provides services and training in mediation, facilitation, organizational and conflict assessment, conflict management, negotiation, and collaborative process design and implementation. Background: Steve’s 20-year career includes notable credentials in public and governmental affairs, agency coordination, mediation, facilitation, negotiation, environmental policy development,… MORE >

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