Tools for Community Building


by Wayne Carle, Facilitator
Retired Superintendent, Jefferson County Public Schools

  • Putting your passions to work
  • Making politics and politicos more civil
  • Drawing the best from what everyone has to offer

Examples for discussion:

  • Communitarianism, balancing individual rights with social responsibilities
  • Habitat for Democracy, how a group in Jefferson County demanded civility from candidates in a time of political turmoil
  • Open Space, a process for identifying personal priorities then rallying like-minded others to the cause
  • Using Dialogue, to clarify issues, reduce conflict and promote consensus.

Some Background

1. Communitarianism

Candidate Bill Clinton mentioned Communitarianism in his campaign and inaugural address. The idea probably came from The Responsive Community (1990), by Amitai Etzioni and William Galston. They asserted that ever since the 1960s, America has been on a binge of individualism and individual rights. The society as a whole has paid a high price for it--in the decline of the communal relationships and loyalties that have always made ordinary life meaningful for millions of people. (National Public Radio, 6/14/92; Governing, 2/92, p. 14.) Clinton subsequently appointed Galston as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy (Denver Post 1/7/93, p 24A). The President veered to the global village, but Etzioni stayed focused on the nuclear community, writing The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society (1993) and The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (1996).

Etzioni founded The Communitarian Network, emphasizing that our individual liberties and freedom "depend upon the bolstering of the foundations of civil society: our families, schools, and neighborhoods," and that through these institutions people "acquire a sense of personal and civic responsibilities, an appreciation of our rights and the rights of others, and a commitment to the welfare of the community and its members."

The network's focus on two central traits in character education--(1) Self-discipline, giving young people the capacity to control impulse and not yield to antisocial urges; and (2) Empathy, the capacity to walk in other people's shoes--came to the attention of educators. ("The Communitarian Network: A New Force in Character Education," by Thomas A. Shannon, Illinois School Board Journal 9-10/94, p. 11.)

A Montana mayor, Daniel Kemmis of Missoula, became a visionary to a generation of leaders seeking to rebuild the foundations of civil society in their communities and, in the process, reshape the national political discourse. "It's nothing less than a reclaiming of the human capacity for co-operation," said Kemmis. ("Missoula: A city with new vision of urban renewal," Denver Post, 10/17/96, p. 22A.)

Few have written more thoughtfully about the good community than Amitai Etzioni. He argues for the development of largely voluntary actions in creating a Communitarian order:

The new golden rule requires that the tension between one's preferences and one's social commitments be reduced by increasing the realm of duties one affirms as moral responsibilities–not the realm of duties that are forcibly imposed but the realm of responsibilities one believes one should discharge and that one believes one is fairly called upon to assume. (Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule. New York: Basic Books, 1996, p. 12.)

He calls for a "shared, society-wide curriculum" for public education and for 'teachings that reflect the core of shared values and not only the diversity of cultures." (Ibid., p. 212.)

In Next, the road to the good society (New York: Basic Books, 2001, 137 pp.), Etzioni advocates community dialog that results in centrist policies and programs for the common good, not for political or economic advantage. Some excerpts:

  • "A good society relies more on mutuality than on voluntarism. Mutuality is a form of community relationship in which people help each other in a mutually beneficial way rather than merely helping those in need." (p. 8.)
  • "There are some forms of behavior that a good society considers anathema and must seek to curb (e.g., damaging the environment, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect). It is a community's moral culture that helps to curb such behaviors." (p. 23.)
  • "There may be fewer rights than some would claim, but our constitutionally protected rights are not conditional. We cannot and should not be required to do anything to 'earn' them. Hence, policies that deny criminals the right to vote while jailed--or in some cases, even after they have served their terms--should be modified." (p. 29.)
  • "To nurture Communitarian politics, to contain conflicts, the representatives of both major parties need now to get together to work out a new, reinforced set of rules that curb political strife. This does not mean that if someone commits a serious offense the other side should let the offender get away with murder, so to speak. It is necessary, however, to significantly raise the bar as to which kinds of transgressions should lead to attempts to drive elected officials out of office." (p. 81.)
  • "What is the ultimate purpose of our personal collective endeavors? Is ever greater material affluence our ultimate goal and source of meaning? When is enough enough? What are we considering the good life? Can a good society be built on ever increasing levels of affluence? Or should we strive to center it around other values, those of mutuality and spirituality?" (p. 110.)

For a brief history of and selected readings on Communitarianism, please go to Http://

"What really matters is our common humanity. When we forget it, we suffer. When we remember it, we prosper."

–Former President Bill Clinton, accepting the NAACP President's Award at University City, CA (Denver Post,3/5/01, p. 2A.)

2. Habitat for Democracy

Concerned about rising enmity growing out of recent elections, a group of leaders from civic, government, religious, cultural, communications and business groups formed an informal organization to explore what could be done. The project sought to instill principles of decency and dignity in a political process that had grown increasingly bitter and intolerant. These opinion leaders developed a pledge of civility then won its acceptance among candidates for office.

Bringing in speakers from various public arenas, the group planned ways to impact community attitudes through meetings, publications and approaches to political organizations. Its culminating activity was drafting a "Fairness Pledge" and seeking all of the candidates in the next election to sign and adhere to it. All but one complied.

The pledge was publicized in a press conference conducted under the neutral auspices of clerics from a variety of faith communities.

In The Good City and the Good Life, Renewing the Sense of Community (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1995, 226 pp.), Daniel Kemmis, mayor of Missoula, Montana , identifies some of the ways we can create a more civil society:

  • Alienation: "Poverty, homelessness, racism, drug addition, and teenage murders and suicides obviously cry out for an act of healing; so do dysfunctions in the body politic such as alienation, despair, and cynicism. But none of these symptoms can be effectively created in isolation from the rest, because each dysfunction is itself essentially a reflection of a loss of wholeness. (page 18.)
  • Children: "Those who focus on the issues of 'youth at risk' begin to understand that the city cannot attain its potential (and in some cases cannot even survive) unless it serves its children well." (page 31.)
  • Character: "The good city has nurtured and maintained its excellence through the generations by continually addressing itself to the development of those traits of character that ensure that the child will become a constructive member of the city–will become, in other words, a good citizen." (page 33.)
  • Citizen: "A citizen, in the most basic sense, is simply a city dweller, one whose life is shaped and given identity by the city much as a lion is shaped by and takes its identity from the jungle. A citizen is a denizen of the city: a city-zen. (page 16.)
  • Classroom: We are used to thinking of education as something the city supplies to its children in a specialized classroom setting. But the most successful cities seem to be those capable of seeing the community as a classroom, and indeed seeing the community as a kind of student, always engaged in broadening its own education." (page 38.)
  • Democracy: "In a democracy, by the very meaning of the word, the people govern–they create among themselves the conditions of their lives.... Perhaps nothing ... tells us more about the decline of democratic culture than the lack of any lived, human connection to the concept or practice of citizenship. (pages 9-10.)
  • Education: "The fundamental relationship between cities and youth has always centered on education, but education taken in a much broader context. A good city has always been one that teaches citizenship, in the deepest sense of the word, and such cities are not only teachers, but are themselves always learning how to be better cities." (page 31.)
  • Disintegration: "As the physical fabric of the city disintegrates, it teaches those who come in contact with it, and especially young people, a clear lesson: 'Nobody cares about this block or about this neighborhood.'" (page 37.)
  • Distraction: "There is hardly a public menace we can name that is not in some sense caused by one or another of the million ways in which our society teaches and enables us to abstract and distract ourselves–to escape in one way or another from the concrete presence of the here and now." (page 21.)
  • Health: "Our efforts to address such profound problems as poverty, racism, drug and alcohol abuse, and teenage murders and suicides will continue to fail until we recognize ... the central importance of wholeness, healing, and health as touchstones of the good city." (page 14.)
  • Life: "If we make the abundance of life our focus, we can see that we have already begun to view the human situation in a framework that has everything to do with life and little or nothing to do with nationhood." (page xvi.)
  • Mentors: One ... healing step, recognized in more and more cities [as in Eugene, Oregon] is the use of mentors as a key ingredient in repairing the city's relationship to its youth.... Business groups, labor, schools, government, and minority groups all pledged to provide mentors.... (page 35.)
  • Politics: "Perhaps part of the problem is that we have cast politics in a fundamentally dehumanizing frame, so that no amount of tinkering with structure (as in term limits or balanced budget amendments) and no amount of switching polarities (by responding to proclamations that 'It's time for a change!') can make politics feel humanly satisfying." (page xv.)
  • Power: "'We can often be moved by young people's hopes and dreams,' says Peg Michels, director of the Public Achievement Project at the Humphrey Center in Minneapolis, 'but we don't call on them to deal with their issues in power terms–as serious participants.'" (page 45.)
  • Public Life: "People do not like politics, or public life in general, because it does not engage their highest or deepest instincts. So they either abandon citizenship altogether, or they import into politics a narrow, essentially mean-spirited religiosity that in fact only worsens the prevailing gracelessness of public life, thus driving new multitudes into alienation." (page 24.)
  • Skills: "Perhaps no skill is more important to the office of citizen than the ability to teach or encourage one another to speak so that you can actually be heard by others who do not already share your views." (page 192.)
  • Wisdom: "If we did not end up with a world to inhabit, to govern, to pass on, might there not have been a kind of species wisdom that would have told us, however faintly, that the task of carrying life forward could only succeed if we learned to call much more broadly on the human potential of everyone on the playground?" (page xiv.)
  • World: Such life-affirming forms are in fact emerging around the globe, with ever greater cogency and force, but they remain obscured by the prevailing political forms of another age. Like some snake shedding its skin, we focus our attention on that which no longer serves us, and undervalue if we notice at all the tender but vital container emerging to replace it." (page xiv.)

Similar ideas are expressed in columns by David Broder ("Words of hope again will be civics, civility," Denver Post, January 2, 1996) , and by Robert D. Putnam ("One nation under apathy," Rocky Mountain News, January 4, 1996).

3. Open Space

This is a process for brainstorming, coalition building or strategic planning used recently by the national Institute for Noetic Sciences, along with Mile Hi Church in Lakewood, PFLAG Denver (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and other groups.

The program asks participants to declare their passions, then bring together potential collaborators. Respondents may choose among a number of proposers, freely electing which groups in which to participate.

There are four rules and one law--

  • Whenever it starts is the right time;
  • Whoever shows up is the right group;
  • Whatever occurs is what is meant to happen; and
  • Whenever it's over, it's over.

The Two-Foot Law provides than anyone can enter or leave any group at any time--putting one foot in front of the other--according to the person's interest. Those who stay engaged often emerge with the enthusiasm and energy to change their visions into reality.

A group in Denver last month performed a variation on Open Space as a means of learning more about the group's human resources. They called it The Bizarre Bazaar.

Each participant will have half a banquet sized table (about 3 square feet) on which to set up a Living Collage. Bring your favorite books, CDs, your craft or artistic creations; if there are rocks all over your house, bring a couple. If hiking is your thing, come dressed in hiking clothes. How about sharing your business passions or projects? Whatever is import to you!

Note: To anyone concerned that they don't have enough time to prepare, this takes about 10 minutes and a box. Take the box, walk through your house picking up likely objects--books, CDs, art, crafts, magazines, anything that represents you. Then throw in a few business cards or brochures. That's it. You are ready. This about sharing, not being perfect!

4. Dialogue

As long as I can remember--at least since adolescence--I've enjoyed the dialogue. Not that I had read Socrates, but that bouncing ideas around was so energizing. It used to happen with my parents and siblings as we commented on or critiqued the sermon on the way home from church. Or in the stock room at S.H. Kress with my co-workers. In other places, at other times, I could sit and talk with friends by the hour.

Then, increasingly, give-and-take happened more-and-more in structured classrooms and less-and-less in the casual and time consuming contacts outside. Regrettably, that may be one of the prices of formal education.

Examples of groups in dialogue abound. Here are a few diverse instances of dialogues:

  1. More than 30 years ago, a group of nine denominations formed the Consultation on Church Union, now called Churches Unifying in Christ, which hopes to have the congregations in full communion agreements by 2007. Other efforts: Roman Catholics in dialogue with Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Methodists and Lutherans; Episcopalians and Lutherans and the Church of Sweden; Lutherans linked with Episcopalians; Lutherans with Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church and the Reformed Church in America; United Methodists talking with African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal. There are dozens of united congregations around the country. Denver Post, 8/9/00, p. 2A.)
  2. "We agree that poor end-of-life care should never be a reason that a dying person would seek assistance in dying. In the vast majority of cases. Modern palliative care techniques are capable of managing pain, suffering and other symptoms at the end of life. In addition, hospice and skilled home nursing are valuable means to provide care for the dying. We strongly believe that barriers–whether economic or technical–to patients' access to good end-of-life care need to be removed. . . .
  3. "As a group, we have reached no consensus about the rightness or wrongness of physician-assisted suicide, or whether the practice should remain illegal in Colorado. . . ."–Joint Statement by 21 participants in a Dialogue on End-of-Life Issues, Including Physician-Assisted Suicide, a joint project of CDR Associates and Healthy Outcomes Inc., Denver, 2000.
  4. "John XXIII (1958-63) summoned the Second Vatican Council in 1962, setting in motion a sweeping liberalization that permitted Mass in local languages, gave local bishops more authority and promoted interfaith dialog." (Denver Post, 9/5/00, p. 1A.)
  5. "I think we are moving forward, and perhaps I won't say we've made a major stride but let's say the ice is being broken and things are beginning to move in the right direction," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a surprise appearance at the U.N. as Iranian President Mohammed Khatami launched a campaign to promote a "dialogue among civilizations." (Denver Rocky Mountain News, 9/6/00, p. 33A.)
  6. "One track for a possible dialogue between science and religion has arisen from the observation that spiritual and material traditions often use similar metaphors to elucidate their concepts. In the seventies, physicist Fritjof Capra wrote the influential book, The Tao of Physics, which delved deeply and revealed many parallels between concepts of modern science and spiritual traditions." ("Quantum Yoga," by Amit Goswami, Noetic Sciences Review, Institute of Noetic Sciences, 6-8/01, p. 28.)
  7. "I was drawn to vaginas because of my own personal history, because of sexuality, because women's empowerment is deeply connected to their sexuality. And, I'm obsessed with women being violated and raped, and with incest. All of these things are deeply connected to our vaginas."–Eve Ensler, The Vagina Dialogues ("Eve Ensler Opens Up," by Julia Bourland, Applause, The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 7-8/01, p. 8.)
  8. Anthropologist Dean Saitta and theologian Greg Robbins have teamed to teach Science and Religion in Dialog, a four-hour course in winter quarter at University of Denver. "Many scientists see these as non-overlapping areas, but we'll consider the degree to which science and religion can influence and inform each other. We will try to figure it out together," said Saitta. ("Science and religion evolve into a new course," The Source, University of Denver, 1/02, p. 1.)
  9. "Good societies require people who can balance their religious or secular ethical commitments with respect for autonomy, especially the rights of others; who are willing to engage in moral dialogues rather than promote state enforced morality; and who limit the scope of their shared formulations of the good to core values."–Amatai Etzioni (The New Golden Rule, Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. New York: Ba-sic Books, 1996, pp. 254-55.)
  10. "Feelings are the language of the soul, and highly evolved beings understand this. It is the purpose of communication in a society of HEBs [Highly Evolved Human Beings] to know each other in truth. A HEB, therefore, cannot, and could never, understand your human concept called 'lying'. . . . Ultimately, all real communication is about truth. And ultimately, the only real truth is love." (Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God, an uncommon dialogue, book 3. Charlottesville, Virginia, 1998, pp. 331, 334.)

Understood as a condition that cuts across all racial, ethnic and political groups, poverty begs a collaborative approach. William Julius Wilson has proposed such a strategy.

The idea that diverse racial groups can work together to pursue mutual goals is not taken seriously by many Americans because of the perception that racial friction is an unavoidable fact of American life. . . . Accordingly, if the goal is to overcome obstacles to the creation of multiracial coalitions, then our focus should not be on existing racial ideology, but on the societal conditions that encourage it to flourish or allow it to subside. (William Julius Wilson, The Bridge Over the Racial Divide, Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics. Berkeley: University of Califor-nia Press, and New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999, pp. 109-10.)

Wilson calls for:

  • a public dialogue on how problems should be defined and addressed
  • a vocabulary that helps ordinary Americans become more aware of how global economic changes as well as monetary, fiscal, and social policies have increased social inequality
  • a multiracial political coalition . . . [which] could pressure national public officials to consider seriously the interests of ordinary citizens when such issues are debated or up for adoption.
  1. "In the final analysis, unless groups of ordinary citizens embrace the need for mutual political cooperation, they stand little chance of generating the political muscle needed to ease their economic and social burdens," he writes. (Ibid., pp. 120-23.)11. "I doubt that intermarriage is the solution to all of America's race problems…. It is an opportunity to move into a different dialogue about race, a dialogue in which the voices of multiracial adult children and women and people of color can also be heard. And beyond its benefits to racial tolerance, interracial marriage demands democracy, openness, and tolerance within families." ("The Color of Love," by Maria P.P. Root, The American Prospect, 4/8/02, p. 55.)


In The Soul's Religion, Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002, 297 pp.) Thomas Moore gives us a way to see community issues in a profoundly more cosmic dimension.

A monk in a Catholic religious order for 12 years, Moore is a scholar in theology, musicology and philosophy. He is author of Care of the Soul, to which the current book is intended as a companion. Speaking March 22 at Mile Hi Church, Lakewood, Colorado, the author reminisced about the book for most of an hour, then engaged in dialogue with his large audience.

He reflected on the paradox of living in a secular society which has almost countless religions. He goes beyond religious practice to show how to find the spirit moving in everyday life. Some passages from the book:

  • "I have been profoundly influenced by the religions of the world. From Zen I have learned never to believe that I have grasped the truth or have understood anything fully. From Taoism I have been taught to find strength in yielding and never to believe that my conception of the meaning of things is ever completely accurate. I have learned from Christian mystics to be content in a cloud of unknowing, to risk the dark night of the soul, and to cultivate deep and ironic ignorance. Among the Sufis and Native Americans I find the image of the fool as a persona of holiness." (pp. xvi-xvii.)
  • "To enter the area of the spiritual and the holy, the precinct of the sacred, requires a profound openness of mind and heart. We stand aware of our ignorance, willing to give up our agendas and follow the signs." (p. 3.)
  • "As important as it is to believe, it is even more important not to believe. Pure belief is too thick. There is no room for movement and no motive for reflection. When belief is rigid, it is definitely more dangerous than unbelief." (p. 34.)
  • "Working out life's conundrums can be a way of wandering through the labyrinth and ultimately finding a spirituality that is tough and grounded. Each step of the way can reveal otherwise undiscoverable truths about human nature and about our own individuality–our calling and destiny, the importance of life, the need for community." (p. 121.)
  • "Unconsciously our society, to the extent that it is religious at all, sees itself in relation to an image of a gentleman God, the grandfather and patriarch. This has pushed the goddess, the woman Nature, into hiding. But she doesn't disappear. She rules from beneath the surface of understanding and life structures." (p. 125.)
  • "The soul feeds on God, nurses at the divine breast. The deep soul, embedded in life and personality, needs regular doses of spirituality, nurturance that addresses its eternal side. The human dimension thrives only if the soul is connected to the divine, however that may be imagined or articulated." (p. 155.)
  • "The great romantic poets of the nineteenth century wished to create an alternative to the industrial toughness and rationalistic edginess they found developing in the culture around them. They wanted to make room for the soul, for the deep, mystery-filled peculiarities of both nature and human personality." (p. 164.)
  • "The capacity to be in the presence of an image is a requirement for a religious life, because images are mediators between the divine and the human…. Angels mediate between this world of time and the other of eternity, and that is precisely the role of images. (p. 179.)
  • "It makes all the difference in sacrifice to whom the offering is made. Is it to the person of the leaders? People sometimes give all their money and maybe their lives to a charismatic teacher and the emotion of the moment. Or is it to an infinite and absolute object of worship? Ultimately God is the only worthy object of sacrifice. (p. 210.)
  • "If we can imagine spirituality not as the pursuit of perfection and high virtue but as a generous embrace of who we are and what life asks of us, we might see how sex contributes to religion rather than takes away from it." (p. 237.)

In conclusion, as an educator I would ask:

  1. How well are we as a Gunnison Watershed community utilizing the full resources and leadership of our cities/county/businesses for the education and mentoring of children, youth and college students?
  2. Can we become more effective as a learning community, and can we as leaders work more productively with our government counterparts to enhance learning as well?
  3. How effectively are we modeling democracy in schools, and how well are we preparing students for their roles as citizens and public servants in the future?