Developing Collective Wisdom in Communities, Cities, & Regions
We serve the vision of a world in which place-based communities become increasingly thriving and resilient. Rather than relying on the government to authorize and drive change from the top down, we believe that the shift to a global wisdom culture must also be initiated on the ground through the efforts of ordinary citizens within their home communities and cities.
Thousands of innovative approaches to community growth have been developed and successfully applied in real communities to bring the diverse voices of the community together to produce wise, collective visions and actions. The fundamental goal of these approaches is not to achieve an ideal state for a community but to develop an ongoing process through which a community can constantly recreate itself by mobilizing its own resources and collective wisdom in response to the challenges and opportunities it faces.
Leading community thinkers across civic, corporate, and social organizations consistently say that an integral, whole-systems approach is an essential factor in developing long-lasting community wellbeing. They consistently point to the interior dimension of relationship and culture as the primary social development need. Many outer tangible solutions to our ecosocial issues already exist. The inner cultural will and commitment to use them does not.
What community wisdom systems are strengthening the people and places where we live today? The regional and national organization and network hubs listed in the Movements section are a treasure-trove of useful information. We offer summaries of local ecosocial approaches here.
Transformative Co-leadership: Stewardship for Today and Tomorrow
In our interdependent society, co-creating a healthy community requires committed participation from across the “megacommunity” of the major organizational sectors: civic, social, and corporate. Multi-stakeholder community councils, whole-systems planning and analysis, and collaborative organization and funding structures are examples of geographic community leadership tools for both today and tomorrow.
Community stewardship today tends to be concentrated in specific sectors or domains in a community, often operating rather independently. More integral community stewardship systems are emerging, with new forms of partnerships, networks, coalitions, and alliances working across traditional grassroots and organization boundaries to address complex eco-social issues. Key elements are common spaces for community dialogue and action and an open inclusive attitude. Leading resources include the books Megacommunities, Abundant Community, the reports in EcoSocial Design Strategies, and the following approaches below.
Art and Soul: Celebrating Beauty, Peace, and Circle of Life
Artists, healers, and faith and spiritual leaders tend the inner heart of the community. They provide spaces and places for people to simply be together in a meaningful way, to focus on the values and beliefs that are important to them and to develop and heal their relationships. Community groups embrace beauty, peace, and diversity through a broad range of creative expression in music, art, and theatre. Artistic expressions such as community theater productions or local talent shows, can also be memorable ways to knit the fabric of community. and through a wide variety of gathering centers honoring many faiths and beliefs. They maintain the rhythmic heartbeat of the community through honoring life and community passages with ceremonies and rituals such as weddings, funerals, and group prayer and meditation. Leading resources include interfaith organizations such as the United Religions Initiative (www.uri.org), community art projects such as quilting bees, and local/global peace campaigns such as the UN International Day of Peace (internationaldayofpeace.org). Community healing circles are a local approach.
Community Healing Circles
In indigenous cultures, the primary role of the shaman was to maintain the delicate balance between the human and nonhuman worlds through rituals and trance journey work, for the health and harmony of the community. Through their rituals the shamans would remind the human community to honor the sacred dimension of the greater Earth Community of which the humans were just one part. In the modern secular West, we have largely forgotten this perspective or often reject it as primitive superstition. Yet the consequences of our failure to respect the intrinsic worth and sacredness of the nonhuman worlds have, of course, become alarmingly clear in the reports of the mass extinction of species, vast deforestation, climate change, and other deeply troubling dimensions of the global ecological crisis. Furthermore, there is now considerable research from the field of consciousness studies that strongly suggests that our prayers, meditations, and intentions do have nonlocal healing effects (Nicol, 2010).
Accordingly, we believe that convening community-healing circles that explicitly honor the sacred dimension of ourselves, our communities, and our natural environment is a vital element of a truly integral approach to community development. These circles could involve shamanistic healing ceremonies, collective prayer and/or meditation, or any other form of spiritual practice that resonates with the group and is directed toward healing and blessing the community at large. Like many things in life, the most important elements are the intention you bring to the work and the consistency of your practice.
Leading resources include the book Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown (1998) as well as organizations Deep Ecology.org (www.deep-ecology.org) and Permanent Peace (www.permanentpeace.org).
Education and Communication: Learning and Getting Along
The more we listen and learn from each other about our communities and the broader world we live in, the better we understand and appreciate our own place within the community. This awareness can bring comfort and satisfaction from a greater sense of belonging and more capacity to make effective change where we live. Educating ourselves about our local communities at history and cultural centers, the local Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) or land trust, and other uniquely local learning opportunities is a fabulous way to have fun, meet our neighbors, and learn useful skills. Learning about the local/regional/global connection through the media (such as YES! And National Geographic magazines, public television and radio) and seminars (ShiftNetwork.org, dialogue)
The opportunity and challenge of today is learning together in community so that we can think together in community. Participating in classes and gatherings together as community members and leaders to explore and discuss local ecosocial systems is a necessary ingredient in developing the trust and the expertise for wise local stewardship. Meeting in smaller circles about resilience/security (www.localcircles.org), sustainability (greendrinks.org) or any issue is equally important in building neighborhood trust and expertise.
Bringing people closer together in community also inevitably involves encountering our differences—different political views, educational backgrounds, communication styles, cultural assumptions, and so on. Our communities are healthy to the extent that they can allow these differences and integrate them in a higher creative synthesis. Easier said than done! Many of us have painful associations with conflict and tend to avoid it where possible. Others of us may tend to jump right in but later wish we didn’t. Furthermore, many of us have had disheartening experiences of our current legal and political approaches to resolving conflict, which, because of their adversarial frameworks, often exacerbate the tensions between the people involved, involve a huge amount of time and money, and leave lasting rips in the fabric of community. Yet with the right kind of “container” (and plenty of courage and commitment), sitting in the fire of conflict can bring communities closer together and unleash tremendous creative energy. The following innovative approaches are examples of intelligent frameworks for dealing with conflict and differences within communities.
Convening: Hosting Community Conversations
Bringing community members together for respectful, inclusive conversations is fundamental to building healthy communities. Effective conversations can take the more free-wheeling form of a community salon or the more deliberate and meditative form of a talking council or circle in the spirit of indigenous wisdom traditions. Leading resources include the book Change Handbook and Open Collaboration and the websites for the World Café (www.theworldcafe.com), Commonway (www.commonway.org), Open Space (www.openspaceworld.org), Conversation Café (www.conversationcafe.org), Future Search (www.futuresearch.net), Change Handbook
Community mediation involves the use of trained community volunteers to provide mediation services as an alternative to the judicial system. Community mediation offers many advantages over traditional legal approaches to conflict resolution, such as:
- It provides a forum for dispute resolution at the earliest stage of the conflict;
- It uses mediators who reflect the diversity of the communities served; and
- It is committed to providing services to clients regardless of their ability to pay.
According to the National Association for Community Mediation (n.d.), a typical community mediation program has 1.5 equivalent full-time staff, 30 active mediators, and a $40,000/annum budget. Many community mediation centers have well established programs for schools that help to create a culture of nonviolent conflict resolution among the children and teachers.
Leading resources include the book Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators by Kraybill (2001) as well as the National Association for Community Mediation (www.nafcm.org).
Health and Recreation: Wellness, Play, and Celebration
Public health and wellness is a vital component of a thriving community. Local governments and schools play an important role in community health, with faith and other organizations helping to create a safety net for people in need. Many familiar nonprofit institutions such as the YMCA.org, UnitedWay.org, and the Lions Club and newer emerging networks such as care2.org and communitycommonrs.org include health as a core part of their mission. Individual health providers and support groups such as twelve-step fellowships for addiction recovery provide
Social groups, sports leagues, parks and recreation programs provide group settings for fun and play, a necessary spice of life. Community fairs, festivals, and parties like Green Festivals (www.greenfestivals.org), EarthDance (www.earthdancenetwork.com), and Burning Man (www.burningman.com) are enjoyable celebrations which build connections between community members in relaxed, informal settings. Creative approaches such as InterPlay (www.interplay.org) have been developed that work with art and/or play to intentionally foster community transformation at a deep level.
Giving and Rights: Caring and Sharing Services
Volunteers, donors, and community service civic and social organizations tend the outer heart of community. They operate from a sense of community caring, ethics or values and dedicate their time and money to community welfare. The poverty-fighting network Community Action Partnership (www.communityactionpartnership.com), community foundation network Council on Foundations (www.cof.com), Rotary Clubs (rotary.org), are examples of large local/national network serving community needs. Service efforts usually focus on a particular aspect of community support, but by helping one part of a community, they contribute to the whole. The opportunity and challenge today is to develop megacommunity (corporate/social/civic) awareness and collaboration to leverage the talents and capacity of all our community resources. Social wellbeing can no longer be sufficiently funded by nonprofit donations or taxes alone. Crowdfunding (eg. www.indiegogo.org) is one example of a new collective funding mechanism.
Equitable human rights of North Americans across race, religion, gender, and economics, is a social justice imperative championed by thrivingresilience movements across the spectrum, from established institutional networks like the United Way to more recent phenomenons like the Occupy movement. The concept of intrinsic rights for local communities is also emerging in America. Communities and cities are adopting charters of community ethics including the Earth Charter (www.earthcharter.org) and the Charter for Compassion (charterforcompassion.org). Some communities are creating codes of ethics and legal sovereignty to steward their local commons resources such as water rights.
Governance and Design: Social Contracts & Ecosocial Technologies
Governance and design systems involve the agreements we make to live together in a specific place and the information and technologies we use to design those agreements. Governance includes the legislative, executive, and judicial aspects of government: public policy advocacy, creation, engagement, and enforcement. The civic renewal movement works to establish neutral forums for public deliberation on critical community issues, increased public involvement in the development of regional community indicators, and more collaborative approaches to local and regional planning processes.
Ecosocial design systems include information systems, research and development, and analysis tools and indicators required to understand local community ecosocial systems. Design systems originate from action research institutes like the PostCarbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org) or Sustainability Institute (www.sustainabilityinstitute.org) and literally thousands of universities across the country, corporate products like GoogleEarth (www.googleearth.com), and nonprofit efforts like regional analysis tools from BALLE (www.livingeconomies.org) and Ecotrust (www.ecotrust.org).
Here is a sampling of the latest interesting approaches to systemic governance and design.
Tom Atlee (n.d.) and others have argued persuasively that our current democratic processes need to evolve to reflect the whole systems worldview emerging from advances in both the natural and social sciences over the past century and to make our democracies more truly representative of the voice of the people. As Atlee says, truly participatory democracies that tap into the collective intelligence of the people would do more than measure opinion polls or simple majority votes. They would devise processes that, firstly, built the capacity of the whole community or society to reflect on itself and, secondly, elicited the collective wisdom of the whole for the benefit the whole. Innovative democratic approaches that invite a deeper level of participation from ordinary citizens in the governance of their communities include citizen deliberative councils, wisdom councils, and stewardship councils.
Leading resources include the books Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All by Tom Atlee (2002) Civic Revolutionaries: Igniting the Passion for Change in America’s Communities by Henton, Melville, and Walesh (2004), and the websites for citizen deliberative councils (http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-CDCs.html), the Center for Wise Democracy (www.wisedemocracy.org), America Speaks (www.americaspeaks.org), and the Democracy Collaborative (www.democracycollaborative.org), and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (www.deliberative-democracy.net).
Restorative justice is an umbrella term for community-based approaches to criminal matters that emphasize repairing the harm caused by the crime. In a restorative justice circle, victims and offenders meet face to face, along with key members of their communities and a skilled facilitator, to address what happened in the crime. Victims are thus given an opportunity to express their pain, and to feel heard and understood. Offenders are given the chance to realize the full impact of their crime and to make amends. Both victims and offenders tend to rate this process a “highly satisfactory” way to deal with crime. Since 1989, New Zealand has made restorative justice processes the hub of its juvenile justice system (Restorative Justice Online, n.d.).
Leading resources include The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (2002) as well as organizations Restorative Justice Online (www.restorativejustice.org) and Centre for Restorative Justice (www.sfu.ca/crj).
Many recent approaches to community development challenge the traditional focus on identifying a community’s needs and argue instead for the benefits of mapping a community’s assets. Mapping assets helps to connect people and resources within a community, stimulates the local economy, and provides a great foundation for community visioning or strategic planning processes. Furthermore, many communities have used an asset-mapping process as a springboard to develop their own Quality of Life indicators, another innovative way for a community to know itself better and to track its progress by its own standards.
Leading resources include the book Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets by Kretzmann and McKnight (1997) and the organizations Integral City (www.integralcity.com), Sustainable Seattle (www.sustainableseattle.org), and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (www.livingeconomies.org).
Necessities & Exchange: Secure, Sustainable Stuff
Necessities and exchange systems concern the tangible practical stuff we people in communities need to live our daily lives. Necessities refers to the food and water supplies, air, land, shelter, clothing, energy, emergency medicine and services, and biodiversity we need to survive and thrive: the must-have abundant resources in a thriving, resilient society. Exchange involves the things we trade to fulfill our fundamental needs and the infrastructure systems we use to exchange them: transportation, business, finance, etc.
Leading resources include books Go Local by Michael Shuman and Sustainable World Sourcebook by Sustainable World Coalition and websites onthecommons.org, resilience.org, shareable.org, and greenamerica.org.
Developing Collective Wisdom in Groups
Groups are the fundamental “cell structure” where social healing and development happens. Group systems support intimate groups of two or more people: a couple, family, neighborhood, and so on. Think about all the community-oriented activities you have been involved in. They are usually sustained by a core group, even if they were initiated by one person: management teams, church trustees, town councils, knitting circles, presidential cabinets, and so on. Collective wisdom development requires the coherent energy and diverse talents of a group.
What are the conditions that maximize creativity and learning in a group? What principles of group process help create those moments of magic when collective insight, clear decisions, and decisive action emerge within groups? What is needed to support groups becoming greater than the sum of their parts?
Heart Centering and Opening
When people come to work together in a group, they bring the circumstances of the rest of their lives into the work. If someone is upset or sad about a family situation, mad at someone else in the group, or concerned about what will happen in a meeting, a simple opening practice at the beginning of a meeting can help them to relax and set the rest of the world aside to focus on what they really care about in the task at hand. Especially for new groups or meetings held over the phone or internet, hearing everyone’s voice by sharing names and a brief check-in is very helpful for group bonding. Check-in doesn’t have to take long; a check-in can be as short as a two-word personal “weather report” or as long as a two-minute update with agenda input. Centering practices include a simple ritual of lighting a candle, taking a few moments of silence, or dedicating the meeting to its greatest purpose.
Circle and Council Work
One of the simplest, most ancient, and profound methods for helping to elicit a group’s collective intelligence is circle work: the practice of people sitting in a circle listening deeply and speaking from the heart. The circle format encourages a focus on dialogue – people learning and exploring together in an open-ended way – rather than on getting through an agenda or completing tasks. As Tom Atlee (founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, www.co-intelligence.org) says, “Even the simplest, most unsophisticated circles are experienced as revolutionary by people who’ve known little more than the hectic, banal, adversarial or repressed communication modes typical of our mainstream culture” (Atlee, n.d., “Listening Circles”).
Leading resources include the books Calling the Circle by Christina Baldwin (1994) and The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle (2009) as well as organizations Peer Spirit (www.peerspirit.com), Art of Hosting (www.artofhosting.org), and Wisdom Circles (www.wisdomcircle.org).
Dialogue is at the heart of circle work, and it is also used in many other forums. There are many definitions of dialogue. We like William Isaacs’ simple one-liner: “Dialogue is a conversation in which people think together in relationship” (Dialogue, p. 19). Dialogue is often contrasted with other forms of communication such as discussion or debate in which participants typically assert their well-defended opinions and positions back and forth with a goal of finding flaws in the other’s arguments and affirming the rightness of their own view. Dialogue, on the other hand, is a shared exploration toward deeper levels of understanding and meaning in which all participants reflect on their own assumptions and allow them to be re-evaluated. David Bohm, the late quantum physicist who pioneered the modern understanding and practice of dialogue, observed that through dialogue “a new kind of mind comes into being, based on the development of common meaning.” Bohm’s new kind of mind appears similar to what we are calling the collective wisdom of the group.
Leading resources include the book Dialogue by William Isaacs (1999) and organizations National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD, www.thataway.org), The Co-Intelligence Institute (www.co-intelligence.org), and Art of Hosting (artofhosting.org).
Marshall Rosenberg’s (2003) Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a simple but profound approach to resolving differences peacefully. NVC is an interpersonal practice that can help us to develop non-judgmental consciousness through bringing awareness (and providing alternatives) to our habitually judgmental ways of thinking, as mirrored by our habitually judgmental ways of talking. The basic NVC process to resolving conflicts is to express:
- the concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being;
- how we feel in relation to what we are observing;
- the needs, values, desires, etc that are creating our feelings; and
- the concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives.
In our experience, the capacity to work through differences consciously through NVC or similar approaches has been the single most important factor in eliciting a group’s collective wisdom.
Leading resources include the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (2003) and the organization The Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org)
The hidden psychological dynamics inherent to participation in groups can often prevent them from functioning effectively. For example, we all tend to negotiate between conflicting feelings of wanting to belong, yet wanting to maintain our individual identity, whenever we join a new group. What do we have to give up in order to belong? Becoming more aware of dynamics such as these can help us to not act them out unconsciously, but rather to use them to deepen our own self-understanding, leading to more freedom in how we relate to groups. Also, groups have been shown to typically follow distinct stages of development. Understanding these stages can help us to maintain our equilibrium and perspective during challenging moments in group life. We are far from experts in the vast realm of group theory, but we consider it an important component of building collective wisdom.
Leading resources include the book Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics by Kenwyn Smith and David Berg (1997), as well as the organization Systems-Centered Training (www.sct-institute.org).
Working With Differences
A common principle of many contemporary approaches to working with groups is the need to acknowledge and then integrate differences between group members. Particular mindfulness is called for when working with differences in social rank and power, such as differences in sex, race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. Individuals who are members of groups that historically have been systematically mistreated by society-at-large often face special challenges in finding their voice in a group and having their contributions respected. Working with these issues can be challenging, since it usually involves bringing to the surface very painful feelings and deeply ingrained habits of thought. Since many people have only ever experienced these issues being dealt with in highly charged conversations or public forums mainly characterized by blame, guilt, and defensiveness, many groups tend to minimize or avoid these issues. Yet it is possible to create a space in which all group members can intelligently participate in freeing themselves from these limiting patterns of thought and behavior. Neither the role of victim nor oppressor serves our best interests as human beings. It can be profoundly liberating to participate in encounters that heal, in a small yet significant way, some of the ancient divisions and wounds that have split humanity. As Martin Luther King Jr. (1986) taught, we all have a stake in building “the beloved community.”
Leading resources include the book Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity by Arnold Mindell (2000), as well as the organizations National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI, www.ncbi.org), Commonway (www.commonway.org), and National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD, www.thataway.org).
Working With Intuition
We believe that some of the most mysterious experiences of deep connectedness and collective wisdom in a group occur when attention is paid to building connections between group members on subtle levels of consciousness. For example, practicing meditation together can open deeper channels of connection between group members. In our experience, this practice makes subtler group dynamics more readily discernible and also helps to develop greater harmonic or empathic resonance in the group field. We have also found that when the intuitive capacities of group members are explicitly welcomed and cultivated through intuitive sensing practices, a group can experience a quantum leap in the number of powerful collective insights that emerge, and group members may experience in their lives a higher-than-usual amount of uncanny synchronicities that seem to suggest mysterious, nonlocal connections having been made with each other. Research suggests that the development of intuitive ability may play a crucial role in the development of collective consciousness and wisdom. As Robert Kenny (1999, 2004) notes, with a refined intuitive capacity, individuals may be able to directly experience their union with the interconnected wholeness of life, and directly apprehend the unspoken thoughts and feelings of others in the group, leading to levels of coordination and wisdom in group functioning that far surpass the individual capacities of its members.
Leading resources include the books Frequency by Penney Peirce (2009) and Blessing by David Spangler (2001) as well as the Collective Wisdom Initiative (www.collectivewisdominitiative.org).
Maximizing group capacity is easiest and most rewarding when members take responsibility for their own participation (are self-responsible) and develop their own capacity as group leaders. We define a leader as anyone committed to listening to and taking action for the benefit of the whole group. Today’s professional leadership models typically stress the necessity for power-with instead of power-over relationships. The Co-Active Coaching Leadership motto is “relationship first; task second.” Collaboration and co-creation are popular terms for the crucial transition toward shared leadership. The challenge for the nominated leader of any group is to “lead from the center” of the group through developing their own facilitation, hosting, delegation, and leadership capacity-building skills.
Leading resources include Art of Facilitation, Art of Hosting artofhosting.org, and many leadership institutes including Co-Active Coaching (cti.org) and more.