Sorry, in a manner of speaking

The word sorry has so many meanings that I nearly got lost looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

There’s the perhaps less common lament – a sorry state of affairs – and of course the go-to apology – I’m sorry.

Interestingly, the word sorry seems to have the same Germanic root as sore, but not the same root as sorrow, though the words are often thought to be related.

As the OED explains, sorry and sore “denote both physical and mental suffering in early use (and are now largely restricted to aspects of pain),” while “sorrow and its cognates primarily express the idea of mental and emotional suffering.”

What I find particularly interesting is the varied meanings of the expression, “I’m sorry.”

While commonly used as an apology – I’m sorry about something I am responsible for – I am a particular fan of sorry as…a sort of universal acknowledgement.

I use “I’m sorry” colloquially in place of longer expressions such as, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” I’m sorry that reality exists the way it exists,” or perhaps more informally, “I’m sorry that what you just described totally sucks.”

I don’t think sorry needs to be an apology. I prefer to think of it simply as an acknowledgement. A quiet head nod, a moment of understanding. These things happen, it says. These things happen, and that’s too bad.



The Meaning of Being a Public Innovator

We are pleased to share another great thought piece from Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute, this time on what it means to be a “public innovator.” We hope you’ll take a few moments to read his reflections below or check out the original post here.


There’s an old adage that half of life is just showing up. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. But what about the other half? For public innovators, it’s critical. One of the key things that distinguishes public innovators is how they engage in the world around them.

I’ve been guiding people to become public innovators for over 25 years. Public innovators focus on how they can solve problems in communities and change how people and organizations work together. They are as interested in transforming how things get done as they are in moving the needle on specific challenges. These individuals hold and cherish firm ideals to improve society. They are equally pragmatic in wanting to see results. And they understand the necessity of taking risks but not foolhardy ones.

The best public innovators neverequate public innovation with creating something new or shiny. Nor do they think that the value of their public innovation is reflected in the complexity of their solutions. The challenge in communities is not a lack of complexity, but a lack of clarity. Too often there is a rush to embrace complicated initiatives, processes and structures while losing sight of what matters most to people.

Public innovators guard against these impulses and reflexes by doggedly understanding the world as it is. A clear view of reality allows them to gauge what needs to be done, where they want to go and how to begin. There is no substitute for being attuned to reality. Of course, this requires being open to learning about what is happening around you, figuring out how to adapt to it, and finding ways to re-calibrate one’s efforts as conditions change.

It means being ready and willing to see and hear others, especially those with whom we disagree. And to recognize that there are those we cannot even see or hear yet because they aren’t even on our radar. Public innovators want to know where or how they can find and engage such people.

The instinct of public innovators is not simply to adopt what has worked elsewhere but to focus on fit. They ask: What is the context in which I am working and what strategies will fit this context? Finding the right fit requires a certain fitness on the part of the public innovator: to make room to discover those answers that are harmonious with the surroundings.

None of this is especially easy. Public innovators must bring their full selves to their work in communities. They must be present, willing to listen, open to various signals, engaging with others. It means being intentional in the choices and judgments they make. It demands having enough humility to discern what they cannot control so that they can apply themselves to what they can affect. There is no room for resignation.

I’ve set a goal that by 2016 The Harwood Institute will train 5,000 public innovators and grow our Public Innovator Corps to 100,000 members. The good news is that every one of us has the innate potential to be a public innovator. You don’t need to have a certain title, live on a certain side of town, or have graduated from a certain college. I know public innovators who are presidents of some of the largest non-profits in the world and those individuals who work in local neighborhoods with little recognition. We need them all.

The original version of this post from the Harwood Institute is available at

where is the public on Common Core?

(Durham, NC) The Common Core standards are the most significant policy change in US education today, and they are increasingly controversial. Strong critics can be found on both the right and left. Meanwhile, the most influential proponents don’t exactly have fired-up grassroots supporters behind them. The main champions include several big foundations, Democratic and moderate Republican governors, and the Obama Administration’s Department of Education.

When read summaries of the Common Core, majorities of Americans and Californians do support it. But of course, how it is summarized will be highly influential if people are not very well informed about its content and origins. If the Common Core is described with hostility, people may be easily persuaded to oppose it. And plenty of political actors have motivations to present it critically–scoring some valid points along the way.

My own feelings are largely favorable, because I like the content of the Common Core, although I would acknowledge that everything depends on the tests that are now being developed to assess it. But even those of us who basically support the Common Core should try to understand what the public is thinking about it so that we can address their concerns.

Public Agenda’s Jean Johnson offers several reasons for the lukewarm level of public support.

First, parents are not primarily worried about low standards or inadequate academic achievement. Public Agenda has frequently found that parents put behavioral and social problems at the top of their lists of concerns. The public’s premise is that kids need the same kinds of educational content that their parents had, but they behave worse. Children either need more surveillance and tougher sanctions or else more care and attention (or, possibly, both). Either way, raising the academic bar is not a relevant solution.

I am not sure the parents are right. One of the striking developments of the last 20 years has been a decline in rates of teen crime and drug use. Kids are behaving better but face increasingly steep global competition. That is the expert’s framework, and it is based on data. But, as Johnson notes, many parents think that school is already hard enough and that testing is too pervasive and consequential.

I have no interest in trying to sell anyone on the Common Core, but would want to present it in a way that gets a fair hearing. To that end, I would avoid talking about tougher standards. After all, how “tough” they are will depend on the tests, which are still being designed. Instead, I would emphasize that they are simpler than traditional standards, easier to read and understand (and thus more fair), and less political because they are not negotiated by state legislatures and education agencies. They also give more flexibility to schools and teachers to decide what to assign.

The post where is the public on Common Core? appeared first on Peter Levine.

The Accelerating Universe

While we’ve known for decades that the universe began with a small, densely packed blob of matter that suddenly accelerated rapidly in all dimensions, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that we began to truly understand how the universe might end.

For a long while, there was the romantic notion of the oscillating universe.

If the universe began with a big bang, perhaps it would end with a big collapse. Beginning its life with a rich expansion, gradually decelerating, then ultimately collapsing back in on itself – only to explode outwards once again.

If only enough mass stayed at the universe’s center, this model could work. The gravitational attraction could overcome the initial explosive force of creation, and the universe would forever be caught in a poetic cycle of life and death.

But, alas, it is not to be.

In 1998, observations indicated that the universe was still accelerating outwards. Coupled with measurements of the density of the universe, these observations indicate that we have passed the point where collapse is possible.

Indeed, the universe will continue to accelerate – expanding ever outward into the inky blackness of nothing.

The skies will grow dark, the universe will grow cold, and finally, in this lifeless existence, everything will be forever static, unable to change.

Welcome to the accelerating universe.


NCDD Member’s Work Featured in Progress Magazine

We were pleased to see that the work of one of our newest NCDD members, Tim Merry of the Art of Hosting community, was featured in the latest issue of Progress Magazine. Tim recently helped guide a public engagement process for a number of new public buildings in Halifax, Nova Scotia: the Nova Centre, Halifax Central Library, and the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. And as the article details, the new buildings are more than just that:

 …these are more than just structures. They are fusions of ideas, dreams, and desires captured in a series of unique public-engagement activities. Their designs, from construction materials to landscape features, were shaped by comprehensive consultation processes that not only welcomed but also actively sought community input.

That consultation process was the result of a collaboration between Tim and Halifax city officials committed to engaging and collaborating with the city’s residents to really make the new buildings theirs. The engagement process was anything but ordinary:

The consultation processes merged both traditional and unconventional methods of public engagement to identify what Haligonians wanted in these buildings. From community gatherings to pop-up public-space dialogues—a strategy that aims to connect with people on the streets or in public spaces—these meetings and conferences offered residents multiple opportunities to participate both face-to-face and online. All of the meetings were live streamed. Participants exchanged views through social media, and websites acted as platforms to make public opinion visible and inform dialogue.

Many of the principles that Tim drew on for the Halifax effort are practices that are taught in the growing Art of Hosting community. One of the newer members of that community, Amanda Hachey, commented in the article on the AoH process:

Recently named one of Atlantic Canada’s Top 50 Emerging Leaders, Hachey was introduced to Art of Hosting when she was in Sweden pursuing a master’s degree in sustainability. She admits that she went from thinking the process was “flaky” to believing it was visionary… Hachey has since applied Art of Hosting’s conversational processes to a wide range of functions that she has facilitated, from visioning a marketing plan for organic farmers to action planning at the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council’s AGM. Indeed, the co-op she helped co-found, La Bikery, was created in typical Art of Hosting fashion, evolving from a dinner-table discussion among friends to an organization that represents more than 350 members.

We encourage you to read the full article on Tim’s work with Halifax at, and we hope the more of our NCDD members will familiarize themselves with the Art of Hosting processes. As we recently highlighted, NCDD members can receive a discount on AoH trainings, and are encouraged to share their experiences with them afterward.

As work like Tim’s continues to thrive, we are optimistic that participatory democratic processes like the one in Halifax and those NCDD members build and engage in every day will continue to occupy more mainstream space. Onward!

a day of two provosts

Today is the board meeting of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, where I work. Immediately after that meeting, I will fly to Durham, NC, to begin chairing the external review of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, which plays a somewhat similar role to Tisch College. It’s a day of thinking about strategic plans for scholarly/activist centers at fine universities.

The post a day of two provosts appeared first on Peter Levine.

Learning from the NH Listens Initiative

Our partners at CommunityMatters recently shared a wonderful blog piece about the continuing success of a dialogue initiative in New Hampshire called  NH Listens. NH Listens is an NCDD organizational member, and the author of the post, John Backman, is an NCDD Board member. We hope you’ll take a moment to read about this innovative program below or find the original by clicking here.

Listening to New Hampshire: Grassroots Groups Assemble Civic Infrastructure for Dialogues


The need was clear. All the pieces were at hand. The challenge was to mold them into a robust civic infrastructure to support dialogue about pressing issues in New Hampshire’s cities and towns.

Bruce Mallory and others took up the challenge, and NH Listens is the result—a network of local groups (currently nine in all) that bring residents together for facilitated, small-group conversations about the issues that matter to them.

“Before this began, there was little ability to convene dialogues on either a statewide or local level,” Mallory remembered in a recent interview. “All communities have issues that need conversation—school reform, master planning, taxation, disaster mitigation, you name it. Historically, few communities are prepared to have those robust dialogues, and there has not been a statewide infrastructure to support them.”

Many communities, however, already had the right pieces: strong webs of local relationships, neutral conveners willing to help, community champions respected across divides. As a civic engagement initiative of the University of New Hampshire since 2011, NH Listens has supported those people and organizations as they build local capacity for neutral, open, inclusive dialogues.

Mallory’s approach takes its cues from the principles of slow democracy. Rather than approach communities with the idea, he responds to requests for a Listens chapter. He works with a local, neutral convening organization to create an advisory committee with a diverse blend of people across local constituencies: business, healthcare, youth, the school district, religious institutions, and law enforcement, among others.

Perhaps most important, he allows the development of each local Listens organization to proceed at its own pace, within the comfort zone of local organizers. “Dover Listens existed for two years without ever having a community forum,” he recalled. “They eventually put a toe in the water by having small, facilitated candidate forums instead of a larger community forum about a controversial issue. It’s only recently that Dover Listens sponsored a city-wide conversation on the future of its schools.

“But that is hardly abnormal. In fact, it can often take one to two years to develop Listens projects to the point where they’ll be sustainable.”

The impact of these organizations is getting attention. Recently, a Listens chapter in New Hampshire’s North Country hosted a bipartisan dialogue with its elected state representatives and senators. The contrast between the local gathering and the climate in the federal government at that time—then in the midst of a shutdown—was striking. “The state representatives were so proud of their ability to engage in civil dialogue in light of the partisan gridlock at the federal level,” Mallory said.

All this local activity is starting to reverberate on the statewide level. “With local Listens groups in place, it’s much easier to trigger a statewide conversation when a major issue comes up,” Mallory noted. “We simply get in touch with the local leaders and ask them to organize dialogues on the topic on the same day.”

The results can be eye-opening. Last year, NH Listens used this infrastructure of local partners to organize a statewide dialogue about mental health, part of the White House’s national conversation on the topic. More than 400 people took part.

Not surprisingly, the state itself has begun to collaborate with NH Listens. Mallory and company have built dialogue capacity in three governor’s commissions, as well as in the Department of Environmental Services (to initiate dialogue with employees) and the Department of Transportation. With its successful model—and 140 trained volunteer facilitators currently in place,–NH Listens has further growth in its sights. Mallory envisions 15-20 active groups two years from now, as well as steps to build statewide capacity further.

In advancing this agenda, he will continue to leverage what he sees as keys to success: “frequent check-ins, a local champion to keep the effort moving forward, passionate volunteers who are seen as neutral brokers, continued recruitment and training of facilitators, and a deep respect for community dynamics,” he said. “As long as we use these ingredients, I believe we will continue to respond to a need. There is a tremendous hunger for this work.”

The original version of this blog piece is available at

Empty Time

Time can be described with a number of different moderators. Work time. Nap time. Free time.

But what about empty time?

Free time is free of structured content. You may or may not do something with your free time – well, by definition, I supposed you must do something with your free time – but you can do whatever you want with your free time. It can be productive time or unproductive time. It doesn’t matter – it’s free for you to use.

But empty time is different.

Empty time is like empty calories. The time is there. The seconds pass. But the substance is gone. The meaning is missing.

Empty time is both productive time and unproductive time. Something is happening. Something is getting done. But your brain isn’t there. And your brain isn’t accomplishing anything, either.

You might encounter empty time while stuffing folders, waiting for the bus, or, quite possibly when someone you don’t care about is going on about something that you don’t care about.

Empty time.

Ideally, I suppose, no time would be empty. Every second you would live in the moment, focused on the here and now, excited by whatever you could glean from a given opportunity.

Waiting for the bus is a chance to reflect on your day, observe the world, or learn something new. Every person who speaks to you should have your complete an undivided attention. Even stuffing folders can be meditative.

But is that really possible, or feasible, and is it ideal after all?

I don’t know, but perhaps I’ll ponder that next time I’m waiting for the bus.


Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government

We recently heard from NCDD supporting member Archon Fung of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government about an exciting new award for public engagement that we wanted to make sure our members knew about. The award is aimed at helping effective engagement practices grow and develop, and we hope some of you will apply. You can read more about the award below or find more information at


Ash logoHarvard Kennedy School invites you to apply for the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government.

Administered by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Innovations in American Government Awards are given to programs that serve as examples of creative and effective government at its best.

This special Innovations Award will recognize government-led innovations that demonstrate novel and effective approaches to increasing public engagement and participation in the governance of towns, cities, states, and the nation. Applications are welcome from citizen engagement and participation programs, policies, and initiatives that encourage or expand public participation and promote collaborative problem-solving in government.

All units of government—federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial—within the United States, along with their partners, are eligible to apply.

The winner of the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government will receive a $100,000 grant to support replication and dissemination activities.

Applications and additional information for this special award and for the broader Innovations in American Government Awards are available now on the application website:

Applications are due by June 20, 2014, so don’t delay!

discrimination and educational ambition

I thought this was a crucial moment in the recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehesi Coats:

Chait: The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

Coats: What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily “bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”? Chait believes that it’s “bizarre” to think otherwise. I think it’s bizarre that he doesn’t bother to see if his argument is actually true. Oppression might well produce a culture of failure. It might also produce a warrior spirit and a deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you. There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable.

Indeed, here is some pertinent evidence, courtesy of Angel L. Harris.* She He analyzes a very large survey of Maryland families, black and white, to investigate the connections among race, discrimination, and commitments to education. The results are important for anyone interested in debates about the (alleged) culture of poverty, cultural determinants of success, and racial achievement gaps.

Harris finds that black parents are more likely than white parents to think that succeeding in school is crucial to their children’s success. Blacks also place more importance than whites do on academics; they report spending slightly more time on educational activities; and they are more likely to seek academic help.

African American parents are more likely to believe that they and their children are subject to racial discrimination, although some white parents also see themselves as discriminated against on the basis of their race. The more that black parents perceive that their families are subject to discrimination, the more they see educational success as crucial for their children. But the more that white parents see themselves as discriminated against, the less they believe in education.

These results support the thesis that for African Americans, a perception of ongoing discrimination is a motivation for struggle and uplift. It is evidence of Coats’ “warrior spirit” and “deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you.” But for some whites, a perception that they are being treated unfairly is a reason not to focus on education. Or perhaps they are not succeeding educationally and need an excuse that blames other people.

Given those findings, you might predict that black students would be achieve more educational success than comparable white students. In fact, when white and black students of similar socioeconomic and family backgrounds are carefully compared, blacks are sometimes found to have higher graduation rates and more years of education. (The bottom line of the second cited study: “African American men and women achieve greater years of education than white men and women, respectively, raised in identical family environments.”) But there remain stark aggregate differences in high school and college graduation rates by race. If those cannot be attributed to differences in educational ambition, then the remaining explanations would seem to include: subtler disconnections between the dominant culture of schools and those of some African American families; unequal resources outside the school (including lower numbers of committed parents and other adults per child); unequal quality of schools; unequal treatment within the same schools; and discrimination in admissions and labor markets. I think all of those factors have been demonstrated.

*Angel L. Harris, “Can Members of Marginalized Groups Remain Invested in Schooling? An Assessment from the United States and the United Kingdom.” In Danielle Allen and Rob Reich (eds.), Education, Justice, and Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp 101-132

The post discrimination and educational ambition appeared first on Peter Levine.