Our Common Purpose: Dramatically Expand Civic Infrastructure Capacity

This article is based on a report, OUR COMMON PURPOSE, produced in June, 2020, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In his New Yorker article of 11/16/20, Evan Osnos likened the report to the civic equivalent of the 9/11 Commission Report. It offers bipartisan recommendations in the form of six Strategies, with between two and eight recommendations per strategy.

” With Strategy 4, we move beyond the ballot box, the halls of Congress, and national citizens’ assemblies and enter the hyper-local world of libraries, playgrounds, public parks, community gardens, churches, and cafes.
The many sets of people who come together in these places—the book clubs, the Friends of the Parks associations, the bible-study groups—are practicing the art of association.
As has been suggested by a line of writers that extends from Alexis de Tocqueville to contemporary scholars such as Robert Putnam and Cathy Cohen, this art lies at the center of Americans’ self-understanding. In the practice of this art, government is not the prime arena for action: family, faith organizations, and social groups are.”

STRATEGY 4: Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity

This strategy includes the following two recommendations:

  1. Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy.
  2. Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy.

“Physical infrastructure like highways, trains, and tunnels creates connections among places and often carries economic benefits. Civic infrastructure serves a similar bridging function: think of all that parks, libraries, schools, churches, and museums do to bring people together in their communities. These gathering spaces promote social and civic interaction in ways that foster what sociologists call “social capital.” Although it is challenging to measure the health of our civic infrastructure with any precision, there is no question that our civic infrastructure today is poorly supported and too often underappreciated.”

“A National Trust for Civic Infrastructure would be the ideal vehicle for strengthening civic infrastructure on both national and local levels in the United States.”

“Funding for a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure might begin with a nationwide investment campaign, carried out through private funding and philanthropy. Once the model has proven successful, however, Congress should fund the Trust through annual appropriations. Congress already provides funding to strengthen democracies abroad through the National Endowment for Democracy, founded in 1983. (The National Endowment for Democracy received a congressional appropriation of $300 million for Fiscal Year 2020.) (57) Why not fund democracy at home?”

End of Strategy 4 recommendations.

To see the full report go to Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century

Contact: bthornton@assetstewardship.com
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