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The Citizen's Assembly: A Civic Infrastructure for Progressive Social Change

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At present, windows of opportunity for real change civil society protesters create are quickly filled by forces that are more organized. Egypt's present standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, for example, occurred in the vacuum created by protesters who were sufficiently organized to bring Mubarak down but insufficiently organized to play a role in what came next. Neither the Arab Spring nor the Occupy movements have developed an organizational capacity permitting them to extend their activities beyond mobilization. They are missing a "civic infrastructure."

In a speech at a National Civic League annual meeting, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley compared American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience's attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool -- and the society -- unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice.

This civic infrastructure should be community-based, attracting the social capital of informal leadership. Formal leaders include local elected officials, ministers, and heads of traditional civil society organizations. Digging deeper however, we find informal leadership -- "go to" people (informal consultants and mentors), networkers, (people who are good at making connections), and "boundary crossers" (people fluent in diverse cultures and accepted in many).

This civic infrastructure should also avoid bureaucracy, hierarchy, or top-down control -- organizational and decision-making models that are holdovers from the Industrial Age. Since the mid-19th century, top-down models have supplanted more democratic and cooperative approaches in the U.S., in civil society and government as well as industry. It's time for a different approach.

The civic infrastructure I propose would aggregate "study circles" into a set of "Citizen's Assemblies" of approximately two hundred fifty thousand people each.

Study circles are small groups (5-12 people) regularly meeting together to reach consensus on the problems they face and to develop solutions. The Swedes have used study circles to further adult education and build civil society since the early 20th century. Organizations such as Everyday Democracy have pioneered study circles in the United States. Their core principles are inclusiveness and diversity, sharing information and power, combining dialogue and deliberation, and connecting dialogue to change.

Study circles must be knit together into an organization large enough to tackle the problems they unearth if they are to truly balance business and government, however. To do that without sacrificing their intimacy and solidarity, and to avoid bureaucracy and top-down control, I recommend using Thomas Jefferson's "Assembly" model (originally designed to bring members of Congress closer to their constituents).

The building block of Jefferson's assembly is a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a "conference" representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information -- and instructions -- from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model's democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board. It was unearthed in the 1960s by one of Jefferson's black descendants, a lawyer and social activist named Don Edwards.) A modern Citizen's Assembly would aggregate study circles rather than families, and would act as a watchdog not just on government, but on business as well.

The first level of the Citizen's Assembly would be a council of 10 people, each representing one study circle of 10 people. Level Two would network Level One councils, Level Three would network Level Two councils, and so on. Level Four would bring together 100,000 people. Level Five would aggregate a sufficient number of Level Four groups to cover a small Congressional district. Larger districts would go to Level Six.

Each level is comprised of relatively small units whose delegates to higher levels are selected in face-to-face meetings, building relationships that flatten the structure into a pattern of concentric circles. This helps avoid bureaucracy and promotes responsibility and accountability.

To represent community interests in public policy matters, the assembly could form a "shadow government," perhaps called The People's Loyal Opposition, which would not contest elections, or attempt to govern, but rather critique the actions of the party in power, keep up with the latest developments and create more transparency in government action at the federal, state, and local levels. (Benjamin Barber floated this concept in the 1990s). The assembly would not only offer information, advice and criticism, however, but also engage in lobbying, pressure, and demonstrations where needed, regardless of the party in power. The assemblies could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation.

Regarding business and finance, Citizens Assemblies would represent many consumers and bank depositors -- a real force. Moveyourmoney.org provides a current example of how mass action might check banks engaging in exploitative and high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor's boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Functions parallel to business such as the co-ops Gar Alperovitz describes could round out the assembly portfolio, creating "social" businesses and a source of income.

Electronic communications of all sorts could accelerate assembly processes -- feedback loops built into the assembly's Internet platforms, social media to speed communication, wikis to aggregate insights and data. At the same time the assembly's face-to-face dimension grounds these virtual encounters, building empathic connections, "strong ties" rather than weak ones. The combination of virtual and real-time approaches can become a matrix from which new norms and values may spring, as well as new patterns of interaction and organization.

The current generation of protesters must be urged to develop an organizational structure, supple as well as sophisticated, that does not repeat the mistakes of the past. Social media has a role to play, as does public protest, but small-group organizing and coalition-building, to create a progressive civic infrastructure, is essential if the 21st century struggle for political and economic democracy is to survive and flourish.