What is a Commons?

How many of you feel that most of your available wisdom is actually used in your job, by your organization, by your school, by the political process? 

Please, IMAGINE . . . for a moment, The Citizen's Assembly - A neutral arena in every community for citizen-to-citizen communication where the meetings work for each participant, perspective, and the work at hand. These communication arenas might also be called the town meeting, the commons, the public forum, or a council of citizens that is:  

* dedicated to the life of the entire community  

* open to and inclusive of all stakeholders and perspectives  

* highly skilled in collaborative decision-making  

* not controlled by any single institutional mandate or special interest group.  

* allowing citizen's who share concerns to learn and take action together, and document their results & input for those who follow  

* an environment where everyone, adults and youth alike, can give their gifts to the whole 

In the 1970’s, the people of Surrey County, Virginia organized themselves into a voluntary Citizen's Assembly. Many years ago now, they closed the jail because it was not being used. As a direct consequence of the Assembly's formation, virtually every eligible voter was registered. These citizens, many of whom could not read and write, along with their fellows in assembly counties across Virginia, elected the first black governor in our nation's history, and constitute a congressional district. The school system has gone from the worst in the state to a high school with in excess of 90% of graduates going on to higher education, and Ivy League recruiters on campus.  

In the 1980’s, in the village of Maliwada in Maharastra State, India, the husbands of the village agreed to sit at the table with the wives and listen to them as equals. Today the Maliwadi School of Human Development has trained cadres of facilitators from over 300 surrounding villages who conduct regular town meetings on all facets of community life. Maliwada has become such a thriving center of economic democracy that the Bank of India has built the first ever branches in a village, and the young people who left for the city are returning back to their villages because the greatest opportunities for their lives are now at home.  

In both cases, adult members from most of the families came together and formed a voluntary decision making body for the whole of the community. They initiated the continuing evolution of the community's social memory, trained their leadership in a simple meeting process, and began to take concerted action.  

 In 1990, 500 leaders from across the spectrum of the Santa Barbara 'water wars' came together in 45 small focus groups at the Chamber of Commerce and other locations in the community. Seventy applied for acceptance into the inaugural class of Leadership Santa Barbara County, including the Chamber President and a homeless person, the Chair of the Board of Supervisors and a high school student, the Chief of Police and a black studies librarian, a local CEO and a produce manager. The graduates now number over 200, and alumni sit on most major bodies in the county. Dozens of collaborative initiatives have and are affecting every aspect of life in Santa Barbara, and facilitators are now used for many of the most critical problem-solving activities. Collaboration, a word that was unheard of in 1989, is the order of the day.  

Leadership Santa Barbara County was designed as a seed for this to take place in every city and county. We have used the methods and track record of the The Institute of Cultural Affairs as the foundation of our experiment. The coalescing of the virus of collaboration has been steadily infecting the whole county for now over 20 years. The coalescing of it into a voluntary, ongoing collaborative citizen policy mechanism, if it continues to replicate functional collaboration skills, is only a matter of time. 

 In 1768 an anonymous Tory described the town meetings with astonishment, "At these meetings, even the lowest mechanics discuss upon the most important points of government, with the utmost freedom." James Madison called the following statement the consensus of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  "I wish for vigor in the government, but I wish that vigorous authority to come from the legitimate source of all authority - the people. The government ought to possess not only the force, but the mind or sense of the people at large."  

Bill Moyers in "Report from Philadelphia" quoting James Wilson, head of the Pennsylvania delegation at the Constitutional Convention, Summer, 1787  

The foundation of all these meetings was, and continues to be, the trust that emerges from the discovery and profound respect for the wisdom of each person, and use of methodologies for maximizing use of that available wisdom to strengthen their collective sovereignty. In small pockets across this nation and the planet, people are proving that they are capable of creating their own destiny as a community and a nation. The question is how and what do we do to make this a systematic option of us all?  

"If we are going to create a sustainable and livable society . . . we cannot talk about the economics of competition without also talking about the ethics of cooperation. This means recognizing our capacity to make common cause . . . to create a culture that nurtures obligation and honors trust."

"Civilization, you see, is a web of cooperation joining people to family, friends, community, and country; thereby creating in each of us a sense of reliance on the whole, a recognition of self in companionship with others, sharing a powerful loyalty to the common good. . . " 

Bill Moyers, Middlebury College Commencement, 1990 

Maximize use of the available wisdom