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Introducing Citizen Now: Open-Source Visioning for a U.S. Democracy Movement

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Spring and early summer 2010 saw the emergence in the United States of a new political group known as the Coffee Party. The founders of this group outlined a compelling vision of a new approach to political discourse and problem solving -- an approach anchored in civility and shared values rather than party and ideology. This initial vision was oriented less towards developing traditional policy positions than towards building a citizens movement capable of ushering in the structural reforms that are necessary to secure the full and equal participation of every U.S. citizen in their own self-governance, and thus to transform the political culture itself.

By midsummer 2010, however, many of the most active and engaged Coffee Party organizers and other members came to believe that what was missing -- and what was necessary, if the Coffee Party was to reach its full potential -- was elaboration of the founders' original vision through a consensus-based process resulting in a set of formally stated organizational values and goals.

So, in August 2010, some 25 Coffee Party members organized themselves as the Principles and Purpose Working Group. I joined this Group in October 2010 and remained an active member until the Group concluded its work last month.

This Working Group aimed to do two things:

1
Engage a large, national sample of Coffee Party members in a conversation about their hopes and visions for the Coffee Party. Use member comments and feedback to develop member-supported draft Statements of the Coffee Party's Core Values, Purpose and strategic Goals. And present these Statements to the Board of the Coffee Party.

2
Conduct the project via an open, inclusive, collaborative, civil, and democratic process of dialogue, deliberation, and decision making that could be replicated throughout the Coffee Party.

An organizational moment

The project's early visioning phase jumpstarted an iterative drafting and survey process that lasted for the better part of a year.

Drawing on its initial collection of ideas and insights -- those harvested via face-to-face meetings, facilitated conference calls and online forums, together with those presented on Coffee Party videos and Web sites created by the founders -- the Working Group developed and completed a first draft of Statements of the Coffee Party's Core Values, Purpose and Goals, in November 2010.

Over the course of the next two months, the Working Group conducted two online surveys that invited a group of a few hundred Coffee Party members to respond to this first draft. Then, in February-March 2011, the Group surveyed a much larger sample on a revised draft of the Statements.

This final survey attracted the participation of nearly 1,500 Coffee Party members.

Over the 17-month life of the project, the Working Group heard from nearly 2,000 Coffee Party members.

The Group also benefited from contributions from some 50 Working Group members, who dialogued and deliberated with one another in nearly 100 (often facilitated) conference calls and in countless supporting conversations by telephone and email.

A more public focus

In all of its surveys, the Working Group asked Coffee Party members to comment on, and rate, the individual draft Statements on a scale of 1 to 10. The aggregate response to the Statements always was very positive. On the final survey, nearly all the Statements were scored at 9 or better.

Regrettably, the Coffee Party's leadership didn't see the advantage in embracing this outcome, and of bringing the Statements into the life of the organization and using them as a movement-building tool.

But, although the Coffee Party's founders and leaders never officially recognized the Working Group project, the Group persisted in refining the Statements in response to the final survey and continued to hold conference calls from spring 2011 until well into the fall.

Members of the Working Group long had seen the Group as, first and foremost, the steward of the shared vision of individuals who, in contributing to the Principles and Purpose project, were expressing themselves as citizens first. Indeed, it primarily was a vision for the country -- not a vision for an organization -- that had come to be embodied in the Statements.

During this culminating period, Working Group members came to understand that it was in the truest spirit of these Statements to make clear that this vision was not the reserve of any single organization or group.

Rather, this was a public vision; and, because it was a public vision, the Statements themselves should be made open-source -- should be offered to be accessed, developed, adapted and lived out by all who are involved in the larger project of healing the democracy.

And so -- with last week's (1) provisioning of the Statements with a non-commercial Creative Commons license and (2) publication of the Statements both at CitizenNow.org and on their own wiki at wiki.CitizenNow.org -- they are.

The idea of this "next phase" of the project is to provide We-the-People-oriented individuals, organizations, communities and coalitions with a set of tools that they can use to develop a shared vision for a democracy movement for the United States -- a vision toward which so many of them already are reaching.

Building blocks of a movement

Central to understanding these draft Guiding Statements is the truth that, even when the unifying task at hand is something as deeply felt as the mending of the very fabric of democracy -- even then -- an "organization," a "community" and a "movement" are three distinct, if occasionally overlapping, realities.

An organization along these lines, of whatever size, may or may not produce [a] genuine community. By the same token, a community along these lines may or may not include the structural trappings of a traditional organization. Certainly, a movement -- a real movement -- is an expression of [a] community. Whether, and how, this movement is undergirded by a specific organization -- or coalition of organizations -- depends on the movement.

So an organization is not a movement, and even a community is not necessarily a movement. And, yet, We-the-People-oriented organizations and communities can and must play an extremely vital and necessary role in creating and nurturing any democracy movement: the role of convener -- bringing people together around a set of shared ideals, a shared purpose and shared goals.

It is the fact (or potential) of this convening role -- the fact that it is only having been brought into the orbit of a specific We-the-People-oriented organization or community that a citizen becomes aware of a democracy movement (or the possibility of a movement) -- that obligates these organizations and communities to be the ones to spell out what the ideals, the purpose and the goals are, and, through them, what the vision is.

The Working Group hopes that these draft Statements can be helpful to those who are working to develop this vision -- whether theirs is an organization or community of 5... or 5 million.

Please read the Statements and learn more about this project at CitizenNow.org