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November 22, 2010

The Art and Practice of Common Ground

The Institute of the Commons gets people talking across lines

Several summers ago, neighbors of all ages, races and income gathered at the intersection of San Francisco’s 25th & Mission Street—right in the street—just to talk. Blocked off from traffic, they sat around café tables, sipped coffee and got to know one another. It wasn’t National Night Out sponsored by the police department, it was a “World Café,” an exercise in community conversation hosted by Marc Tognotti and Kenoli Oleari of the “Neighborhood Assemblies Network“http://sfnan.org/index_nan.php, a project of the Institute of the Commons.

After ten years of working with Internet startups as a media consultant, Tognotti founded the NAN initiative with longtime community organizer Oleari. Then, after adding Development Director Monisha Mustapha, NAN expanded into the Institute of the Commons, a San Francisco based non-profit that facilitates interactive meetings within groups ranging from large government agencies and corporations to individual members of a community. Their goal is that these specialized meetings—in whatever form that may take—result in democratically established, binding action plans or understandings that represent each individual stakeholder’s input.

IOTC’s record of accomplishments is diverse: staff members have trained village leaders in Papua New Guinea, facilitated forums between concerned environmentalists and leaders in the biotech industry in the streets of San Francisco, and established long term partnerships between city developers and conservationists in Alaska. Their methodology varies according to the nature of the groups involved, but every approach used by IOTC shares an underlying philosophy: that everyone is a stakeholder wielding equal power within the dispute resolution process regardless of his or her relative status outside the meeting.

The founders of IOTC envision a society where the principle of “‘we the people’ guides humanity to a future of expanding freedom, love and hope.” In the pursuit of this vision, IOTC works on more than just moderating. This past April, it was announced that IOTC would partner with local residents of El Sobrante, CA, to create a community center out of an abandoned elementary school. The center, which is expected to pay for itself by renting space out for local businesses and private events, will provide a place for neighborhood functions. The partnership is part of IOTC’s “Agora Project” (named after town centers in ancient Greece), a project that focuses on “creating beautiful neighborhood public squares and centers that provide a shared place for informal and formal gathering.”

The broader goal of the Agora Project, and IOTC as a whole, is to create this kind of community assembly space in “every walking-distance neighborhood around the world.” Why? Over the last century private shopping centers, personal automobiles, corporate retailers and electronic communication have acted as instruments of enclosure and isolation, eroding the fundamentals of community engagement through encroachment on public spaces and local commerce. The myth behind the virtue of individualism has led neighbors to become disconnected from one another, from the places they live, and from the influence they can wield as unified citizens.

Why is this a problem? Towards the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson became disenchanted with the republic he helped found. With the rapid mobility and urbanization of the new country, he feared citizens would withdraw from public life and that without an engaged constituency, political power would fall disproportionately to the discretion of individual government representatives—representatives whose loyalty would fall to moneyed interests if left unaccountable to their constituency. Jefferson called “the power of participatory and self-organizing, democratic networks over top-down hierarchical management” exemplified by New England town hall meetings the only chance for the Republic to succeed.

The Jeffersonian principles held by IOTC represent more than just nostalgia for a simpler time, but rather the backbone of the establishment and management of common resources—whatever those might be. Global citizens of the 21st century must be the trustees of their own wealth and must tip the balance back away from the market ethos which has come to define the government. A protected commons requires the tools of democracy, like government action that is held accountable to common interest, not corporate interest. And this common interest can only be honestly represented by a consensus reached from all voices of the affected community. It’s organizations like IOTC who are strengthening our democracy by re-opening the long forgotten channels of community dialogue one assembly at a time.