By Carmen Sirianni, Peter Levine, and Ann Ward
September 14th 2020
Dear friends and colleagues:
Today we are launching a new project that has emerged from the work of many innovative civic activists, teachers, students, and professionals in the U.S. who are committed to more democratic, sustainable, and just communities in a time of climate crisis. We are calling this project CivicGreen because its resources for learning and practice extend across a very broad range of arenas where civic engagement intersects with green innovation in communities and ecosystems, institutions and policy.
Who we are
Our editors and contributors work in varied settings, but all of us believe that we cannot respond effectively to the challenges of sustainability and resilience in the United States today unless everyday citizens and diverse communities work with partners in public agencies, schools and universities, unions and businesses to generate common solutions that are pragmatic yet visionary.
We are visionary in the sense that we are profoundly committed to a vital civic democracy, as well as to sustainable, resilient, and environmentally just communities that can reduce the threats and weather the storms of climate crisis. Yet we are also deeply pragmatic in working through how we might realistically make this happen in our diverse communities and our complex institutions. Building civic and governance capacities for the challenges we face will be a long and difficult slog. We believe that public policy at all levels of the federal system can help make this happen, but only if we also locate robust civic engagement and collaborative governance within our core policy responses.
Climate movement protest, of course, is indispensable for generating the policy opportunities we need and for cultivating activist identities. We believe that there are many fruitful synergies of such climate action with the kinds of innovation and practice that are our central focus in CivicGreen.
To be sure, we recognize that there are many essential tools of governance in today’s world for tackling the crises we face – public investment in green infrastructure, better regulation of greenhouse gases and environmental equity, tax and market incentives, global climate agreements, and more. But we are skeptical that even a good mix of these can succeed without creative, robust, and equitable forms of public engagement that are well aligned with such tools and with other institutional and professional strategies. Neither market magic nor technocratic imperative nor fiscal largesse will effectively manage and solve the problems we face without civic and green innovation in our communities and institutions.
Thus, we are committed to designing for democracy. Designing our policies, designing our streets and neighborhoods, designing our workplaces and businesses, and designing our professional training to support robust and effective engagement in a republic of empowered and ennobled everyday citizens. We are visionary civic democrats, but we are not utopian romantics. We do not believe that all good things, or only good things, come from bottom-up wisdom or grassroots action. Many good things do, but our professional and civic commitments are to pragmatic testing of what works, how can we improve, and how might we avoid perverse if unintentional consequences and policy backlash.
We are housed at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, but our Editorial Team comes from various universities, foundations, associations, and public agencies. Many on our team have been in the forefront of innovation in communities, have led and advised major national and local initiatives, and have produced award winning documentaries and practical toolkits. We are only at the beginning of what we see as an ongoing project that taps the wisdom of so many who have been at work transforming communities and institutions to ensure that they are sustainable, resilient, healthy and just as we move forward to confront our twin crises of climate and democracy.
The resources we offer
CivicGreen offers a variety of resources, some developed by our team, many culled from networks of activists, scholars, and practitioners who have been at work, in some cases for decades. We stand on the shoulders of many thousands and tens of thousands of community innovators, civic associations, public administrators, democratic professionals, and engaged researchers, students and teachers.
Our resource sections provide multiple windows into case studies, practical toolkits, key concepts, books and reports, policy designs, networks of associations, and professional training and practice. Since we are only in the early stages of developing these resources across every area of civic and green innovation, we seek to deepen, expand, and improve on them as we move forward. We thus welcome helpful suggestions and critical feedback, which you can send our way at the end of every entry. We will not be able to respond to everything, of course, but we will make every attempt to think carefully about what you suggest and make revisions that seem appropriate.
Here is a brief overview of our sections:
- Glossary: we provide key concepts and terminology that are utilized in many fields. Our short annotations give a brief definition and our full entries provide a more extended discussion, including history of terms, critical debates, relevant scholarship, case studies, and civic associations and public agencies working on these issues. We aim to keep these full entries accessible and edit them to be useful for class presentations and research projects, preparation for public meetings, or preliminary research by innovation teams and policy staff. Our entries are grounded in scholarship, but are not intended to lose readers in all the finer points of scholarly debate.
- Bookshelf: we track current scholarship, as well as studies of enduring value. Our focus is on those works that provide insight into civic problem solving, stewardship, and education, as well as collaborative governance for sustainable and resilient communities. We do not provide reviews of works that are primarily critical, unless they also point the way towards pragmatic and productive civic action. We engage scholarship deeply, but we are not aiming to serve as an academic journal. Our short annotations provide a quick overview and our full reviews provide a discussion of key analytic perspectives, empirical evidence, and action repertoires. Given our time and resources, we hope that our short annotations might serve as a launch pad for fuller reviews. Please suggest titles that might fall within our purview.
- City Desk: we examine the work of cities in some depth, with an eye to how they have developed increasingly coherent, if still very incomplete, strategies for engaging publics in the broad spectrum of green innovation. Our case studies provide a history of local struggles to democratize and diversify urban governance, as well as key initiatives in land use, sustainability and climate planning, environmental justice, healthy cities, urban forests and farms, green building, bicycle and pedestrian street design, and river and estuary restoration. Our case studies also provide access to other online resources, such as books and reports, important civic and environmental groups, strategic plans and practical toolkits. We add case studies as we gain access to a critical threshold of reliable research and other data, and we consider obstacles as well as opportunities in our cases.
- Policy: we are committed to a view of policy design that engages ordinary people in civic work, the coproduction of public goods, and inclusive and just problem solving for sustainable, resilient, and healthy communities. Policy, in our view, should enlighten and empower citizens, not mystify them with technocratic and economistic models, and certainly not make them increasingly dependent on elites. We examine models of “policy design for democracy” at every level of the federal system and seek ways of leveraging these for much greater impact in some of the current policy proposals at the federal level to combat climate change and ensure democratic resilience.
- Professionals: we explore the work of a broad range of professionals whose expertise is vital to creating sustainable and resilient communities and institutions and who have been modelling what we call “democratic professionalism.” They hone their professional practice in ways that are responsive to community input, indeed often to contentious grassroots protest, in order to develop more collaborative ways of generating useful knowledge and collaborative solutions to public problems. Democratic professionals do not abandon their expertise, but neither do they seek to impose it unilaterally or in the exclusive service of the powerful. We will profile professionals, and their associations and schools, in such areas as architecture, planning, transportation, water and coastal management, disaster response, and much more. We will also explore how workers and unions, as well as business managers, can work to design collaborative teams to anchor sustainability deeply within workplaces and businesses of all kinds.
- Youth: we profile the many creative ways that young people can be engaged on those days when they are not at the climate barricades pressing for urgent policy change. We see youth as essential to creating everyday democracy in their schools and colleges, youth groups and communities, and through formal representation in city and state youth councils. Many engage in ecological stewardship, citizen science, and environmental monitoring. Others enlist in conservation corps to restore forests or help communities recover from storms and floods. Still others are building homes in low-income communities and learning construction skills that certify them as green builders. Many are also interested in the kinds of professional training that enables them to work in civic partnership with communities over a long career. Our sections provide several windows into the work of youth engagement: environmental education in K-12 schools, community-based learning in higher education and professional schools, and national service through AmeriCorps.
- Blog: we provide regular news, analysis, and debate across the areas of civic and green innovation. We enlist members of our team and their extensive networks to offer diverse perspectives and to profile creative activists and practitioners.
Enriching our democratic imagination
CivicGreen remains grounded in the gritty and imperfect work of ordinary citizens and activists, as well as professionals and public servants in every field relevant to creating sustainable, resilient, and environmentally just communities and institutions. We struggle to do this work in the face of cultural, economic, racial and other systems that are highly unequal and often marginalizing. This is especially true for frontline communities that bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens and climate risks.
We struggle to rekindle faith in our democratic capacities to meet the climate crisis head on – over the short, medium and longer run. We engage in pragmatic work with imperfect tools and imperfect partners to generate trust and regenerate hope in a future we can shape together. We work across boundaries, be they racial, regional, institutional, or partisan. We recognize obstacles, some deeply embedded in prevailing institutional logics, and we choose to rework and reform them as best we can, in recognition that we are unlikely to be rescued by some grand logic of complete societal and economic transformation.
CivicGreen is nonetheless visionary in our attempt to leverage pragmatic work to imagine a much more integrative and ambitious approach to creating sustainable, resilient, and just communities in a world facing profound crises. We seek to learn from all those who have been doing the work and paving the way, and we appreciate updates from those organizations whose work we have profiled.