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Harold A. McDougall

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Cultural DNA: Bringing Civic Infrastructure to Life

Posted: 07/10/2012 9:31 am

This post continues my previous discussion of Citizens' Assemblies as a way of aggregating civic capital into "civic infrastructure." Here we look at how the culture of each Assembly participant might animate the work of the whole.

Culture isn't just the way we sing and dance and the food we eat. It's the way we solve problems. "Cultural DNA" is the template that organizes the cultural information of a particular community, gives it coherence, and passes it on.

Cultural DNA could animate Citizen's Assemblies, helping them create new norms and values and new patterns of interaction, organization, and problem-solving. The informal leaders of the community would ground as well as accelerate this process.

"Go to" people would provide access to the community's cultural patterns, its folkways, its problem-solving history and means of celebration. Their input would be particularly important at Level One of the Assembly (bringing up to 10 people together).

"Networkers" know where people gather, where aggregated civic capital can be found. They would be very important in Levels Two and Three (bringing up to 1,000 people together). "Boundary crossers," who know the pathways between their own community and those of others, would have key roles at Levels Four and beyond (10,000 people and up).

Let's take a closer look at how cultural DNA actually works.

In his book On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins shows that the brain processes all the information it receives -- whether through sight, smell, hearing, taste or touch -- by casting the received data into tiers of manageable patterns.

Before we learn to read, for example, we see writing as squiggles, lines and dots. Then we learn the symbols for letters. We then learn symbols which collect and synthesize letters -- words. Then, we learn symbols to pattern words into sentences (grammar and syntax also play a role). Paragraphs, pages, chapters and entire books follow as we learn to capture and store increasingly more complex information through these "nested" patterns.

This is not only how we read, but how we process information acquired with any of our five senses. That means patterns we develop to process what we see and hear also affect how we process what we feel, taste or smell. This is why listening to music sometimes helps us think or write more effectively, or why the sight of food enhances the taste.

If we think of culture as a matrix of patterns people have developed in their journey through history, we can see how culture might powerfully influence this patterning process, making it reflect a particular culture's way of seeing the world. Dr. Sabine O'Hara's work suggests that this cultural matrix has five key dimensions, affecting our sense of: (1) context, (2) participation, (3) place, (4) limits, and (5) temporality.

A sense of context identifies the community in which our life functions are supported and carried on. Participation speaks to the degree to which each member of the community is included in common efforts and benefits. Place is literally the state of being grounded, the level of an individual's awareness of the unique ecological balance of the particular location they occupy. Limits measure our appreciation of the world's finiteness. Temporality is simply our sense of time. Is it a resource to be used or an experience to be cherished?

These variables distinguish one culture from another, affecting not only how we solve problems, but how we see them in the first place. They shape and organize a community's cultural DNA, which is handed down from generation to generation, refined and renewed by each. Such cultural DNA from communities the world over constitutes a rich storehouse of knowledge and insight, a "socio-diversity" that is as valuable as "bio-diversity."

Creativity occurs when we make predictions by processing new information with the patterns we have developed in response to previous information and experience. It also happens when we take newly learned patterns to review and re-sort information already stored under older ones. In both cases, new and old patterns and the information they organize merge and cross-fertilize, in flashes we call epiphanies or "aha" moments.

A Citizen's Assembly that strengthened its diversity would see a lot of that kind of creativity. This is why diversity is so important in the Assembly process. Luckily, there is increasing diversity in the United States, as people come from all over the globe, bearing their civic capital and their cultural DNA as they immigrate here. Everyday Democracy, in its study circle work, has proven especially adept at managing this kind of diversity and putting it to work.

Aggregated by Citizen's Assemblies, the cultural DNA of each community involved could be brought to bear on a host of social, economic, political, health and nutritional problems. Assembly participants would benefit not only from the collected civic capital of all their colleagues -- their organizations, contacts, and influence. They could also learn and develop through exposure to new problem-solving patterns and capabilities as well. Both processes -- new connections and new ways of knowing -- ground and strengthen progressive social change.

In my own work, I have closely examined community's power to educate, check and renovate democracy. I have also examined its power to create "third way" forms for direct problem-solving that are useful alternatives to government and the market. It is community -- not the market, not government -- that is the crucible of culture, and culture is the root of problem-solving, of intelligence itself. New and progressive cultural DNA strands are best developed by civic collaboration and civic action.

The participation strand of cultural DNA, for example, requires that we be invested in the success of every member of the community. This is especially true of the youth; we want them to know how to pick up the reins, because our sense of temporality -- another strand -- assures us that one day we will drop them.

As we teach them and send them on their way, we have a responsibility to pass on the tenets of progressive social change as our generation understands them: learn by experience; respect context; encourage participation; honor place; accept limits; and acknowledge temporality. These strands of cultural DNA, traditional and modern, can help us construct a culture of empathy and sustainability that is the proper foundation for progressive social change.

For more details, see my books Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community and African American Civil Rights In The Age Of Obama: A History And A Handbook. See also my article in Vol. 55 of the Howard University Law Journal, "Reconstructing African American Cultural DNA: An Action Research Agenda For Howard University."

 
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