Bridging divides and bringing communities together.

Author:McGrath, Mike

Sometimes it seems that nothing can bring residents of our divided communities together. On the local government level, however, there is ample evidence that we can still work together across dividing lines to create stronger and more equitable communities. By better understanding residents' aspirations for their communities, learning how residents talk about and see community challenges, and demonstrating a commitment to inclusive government, governments can cross divisions and create stronger communities.


Here's an example of how it can work. During the early 1990s, a measure to limit the placement of billboards on city streets in Asheville, North Carolina, led to a bitter power struggle between interests on both sides of the issue. Opponents of the ordinance won a majority on the city council and proceeded to fire the city manager. A group of former elected officials then mounted a recall drive against the new majority which led to members of the new council majority launching a recall effort against the remaining council members who had supported the billboard restrictions.

Ultimately, neither recall drive was successful, but when the local chamber of commerce hired an economic development consulting a few years later, "political polarization" was identified as a significant obstacle to local economic development efforts. The consultant's report served as a wake-up call for a group of business leaders, government officials, non-profit organizations, and citizen associations that banded together to overcome the political conflicts dividing the city.

Asheville was so successful in bridging its political divides that in 1997 it was named an All-America City by the National Civic League. The award is given to ten communities each year for outstanding civic accomplishments. In the write-up on Asheville's story, the National Civic League noted that the "search for political common ground" was "symbolized by the city's two top elected officials, very different people who have vowed to work toward consensus." The mayor, a Republican, was a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. The vice mayor, a Democrat, was an architect who had lived in a commune.


Asheville's experiment in what its leaders called "community-oriented government" was part of a larger trend that emerged during the 1990s, an upswelling of civic innovation at the local level. More and more cities were experimenting with new forms of trust-building, community-based problem solving, public deliberation and democratic governance--so many, in fact, that in their 2001 book, Civic Innovation in America, authors Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland identified what they saw as a "new movement for civic renewal."

The authors traced the origins of this "movement" to a variety of sources--community organizing, environmental activism, conflict resolution, community development and community-based health initiatives. Promoted by a network of organizations such as the National Civic League (NCL), Public Agenda, the Study Sources Resource Center, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and America-Speaks, these new ideas about civic engagement, public deliberation, and democratic governance found their way into the publications and annual conferences of governmental organizations such as the International City/County Management Association and the National League of Cities.

One of the most influential thinkers in the growing field known as "public deliberation" was Daniel Yankelovich, author of the 1991 book, Coming to Public Judgment. In the book, he argued that most citizens were...

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