Gender and the Commons in India

The following is an interview with Soma Kishore Parthasarathy from the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on June 6. The interviewer was Ana Abelenda, and the piece is called “Reclaiming the Commons for Gender and Economic Justice:  Struggles and Movements in India.”  It is republished here with permission.

AWID spoke to Indian independent researcher and scholar Soma Kishore Parthasarathy[1], who has been studying and negotiating the concept of the ‘commons’ from a gender perspective and how women in rural India are contesting this reality by proposing a shared management of common resources.

AWID: How would you define the “commons"?

Soma Kishore Parthasarathy (SKP): There are varied conceptualizations about the commons. Conventionally, it is understood simply, as natural resources that lie outside the private domain and are intended for use by those who depend on its use. But, it is not just natural resources, it is also knowledge resources, heritage, culture, virtual spaces, and even climate plays a role. The concept of the commons pre-dates the individual property regime and provided the basis for organization of society. Definitions given by government entities today limit its scope to land and material resources. Attempts to release commons from the shared domain into the market, pose a serious threat to the commons as we know them, and to the way of life associated with the sharing principle embedded in their access and use.

It is about the cultural practice of sharing livelihood spaces and resources as nature’s gift, for the common good, and for the sustainability of the common.  But today commons are under increasing threat as nations and market forces are colonizing the commons.

AWID: Can you explain what you mean by colonization of the commons? How does it affect women in particular?

SKP:Colonizing the commons implies a predatory usurpation of the commons by parties in positions of authority and power, who impose their own set of rules and terms for the access, use, and regulation of the commons to serve their own needs, with little concern for rules and organizational principles that existed earlier and  with little respect for the needs and rights of those who have been dependent on the commons for centuries, ignoring the rights of traditional small users and gender and equity issues.

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Learning from the Albany Roundtable

We read a fascinating article that NCDD member John Backman wrote for our partners at CommunityMatters that we think you should read. John writes about an innovative civic experiment that has become an institution called the Albany Roundtable, and we hope you’ll read more about it below or find the original piece here.

CM_logo-200pxAppropriately, the idea for a bastion of civic infrastructure in Albany, New York—a luncheon series—arose from a luncheon organization.

“I had been attending Kiwanis luncheons downtown since high school,” said Paul Bray. “At one point in 1979, I got to thinking that an open-to-all civic lunch forum might be helpful in Albany. It was my idea that it be monthly, open to the public by reservation, and have a civic or business leader speak at the luncheons.”

Thirty-five years later, the Albany Roundtable  has become an institution in New York’s Capital Region. Speakers at the monthly luncheons, which typically draw 100 participants, include local leaders from healthcare, higher education, the arts, business, and other elements of the community. Just as essential, the Roundtable serves as a gathering place for civic leaders and other citizens to build their networks across sectors and industries and beyond. It helped create the basis for establishing the Albany Heritage Area which is now one of 20 state designated heritage areas. Heritage areas is a new concept of park that utilizes whole cities and/or regions as a park. Lowell, Massachusetts is the first national city as a park and there are now 49 national heritage areas including 4 in New York State that are all regions.

The Albany Roundtable’s network infrastructure barely existed when Bray first conceived the Roundtable idea. The mayor of Albany, Erastus Corning 2d, had completed 37 years in office and headed a machine with complete control over all things political. And many people believed at the time that all things were political in Albany.

“Local officials were generally deferred to on most matters,” Bray recalled. “Albany had a fair number of neighborhood associations, a historic preservation organization, numerous social service organizations, etc., etc., but they didn’t get involved in governance. There was little sense of the community at large.”

The initial meetings reflected that assessment. Speakers drew crowds largely from their own industry or venture, and attendance hovered around 35. At one point, Bray mentioned the Roundtable to Corning, a conversation that eventually led to the Roundtable’s hosting the mayor’s annual State of the City message. “Only when the mayor spoke was there a greater diversity of attendees, and attendance went up,” Bray said.

Today attendees comprise a broad cross-section of Albany, and the monthly speakers reflect that diversity. The chancellor of the State University of New York has addressed the Roundtable; so have the CEO of the largest local healthcare system, a business leader in the region’s burgeoning nanotechnology sector, directors of the best-known museums, the head of the local transit authority, and many others.

In recent years, the Roundtable has spread its activities beyond the lunch hour. Each year, it invites a visiting speaker to an evening gathering, and the roster of past speakers looks like a who’s who of livable cities. Last year’s gathering featured Jeff Speck, the author of Walkable City and an international advocate for smart growth and sustainable design; this year the speaker is Kaid Benfield, a senior leader at the National Resources Defense Council and one of the world’s “top urban thinkers” according to the city planning website Planetizen.

The Roundtable also gives out awards. The Good Patroon Award goes annually to a person or organization that makes the community a better place to live. (Bray himself won in 2004 for his work with the Roundtable.) Just last year, the organization founded the Albany Roundtable Scholarship, a $1,000 award given to a high school senior recommended by a Roundtable member.

Over the years, the Roundtable has catalyzed a number of civic projects. For example, one Roundtable attendee urged Bray to invite Fred Salvucci, the former Transportation Commissioner in Massachusetts who led the $15 billion “Big Dig” project bury a highway in downtown Boston. When he came to Albany, Salvucci met the Mayors of Albany and Schenectady, met with transportation planners about a transit connection that became the existing Bus Rapid Transit between downtown Schenectady and Albany and he saw a lot of potential for expanding Albany’s downtown and accomplishing other infrastructure projects. Salvucci organized a proposal for a diversity of projects in the Capital Region that was entitled Revest. Although many of the projects were not realized initially, it sparked the awareness the collaborative efforts are possible.

Though Bray no longer serves as Roundtable president (“It took me over 30 years to find someone who would take over”), he remains active as a board member and founder.

And he has the satisfaction of knowing that his brainchild has made a difference. “For me,” Bray noted, “the Roundtable experience has confirmed an important truth: that there is great value in community-wide opportunities for citizens to gather, break bread, and hear from the civic leaders whose decisions affect their lives.”

You can find the original version of this article at

Probing the Commons from the Inside: Heather Menzies’ New Book

With so much scholarship focused on commons as “resource management” and the measurement of externals, it’s refreshing to encounter a book that plumbs the internal dimensions of a commons –that is, commoning.  Canadian writer and scholar Heather Menzies has taken on this challenge in her recently published Reclaiming the Commons for the Commons Good (New Society Publishers), a book that she describes as a “memoir and manifesto.”  It is a three-part exploration of commoning as a personal experience, social negotiation and finally, as a spiritual quest.

The first part of Menzies’ book is the memoir:  an account of her trip to the land of her ancestors, Scotland.  She wanted to try to imagine their lives as commoners and understand the impact of the cataclysmic enclosures known as the Highland Clearances, in the late 1700s and 1800s. 

The Clearances, a landmark in Scottish history, saw thousands of small family farmers forced off their traditional lands to make way for “Improvements” -- that is, conversion to the profitable enterprise of sheep-raising.   Landlords raised rents, colluded with politicians to “legally” take the lands, and when necessary, resorted to violence to get the job done.   

The Clearances were not only a major economic and political disruption, but also a profound cultural, ecological and spiritual dispossession, as Manzies writes:

My forebears and their neighbors didn’t just lose their together-as-one connection to the land.  They lost all that these ties meant to them economically, politically, socially, culturally and even spiritually.  They lost ways of working the land and working things out together.  They lost ways of knowing the land directly, intimately through the soles of their feet, the tone of their muscled arms and hands….They lost ways of knowing the animals too, wild and domestic, and how they moved from woodland to water and claimed certain spots conducive to begetting.  As well, they lost ways of sharing this experience, this knowing as common knowledge, with that knowledge both informing and supporting the authority of local decision-making.

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Learning by watching

Somewhere along the line I seem to have become quite gregarious.

I’m not exactly sure how that happened – being outgoing has never exactly been in my nature. My sister used to tell people I was mute – a description which would often seem to be confirmed when I’d go whole social engagements without speaking.

It’s not necessarily that I didn’t have anything to say – but simply that there was so much to observe. I could spend whole evenings just sitting in the corner. Watching.

Eventually, I suppose, I decided I wanted to be more outgoing. Or at least to present the appearance thereof. You can learn a lot from talking with people – an action that’s somewhat challenging when you find yourself unable to talk.

For me, I’d say, socializing is a learned activity. My impression is that’s not the case for many, if not most, people. For some, it seems, socializing comes as naturally as breathing. For others, it is work.

I started by watching how other people acted and interacted.

Women, I determined in middle school, are supposed to be perfect while complaining about how hard it is to be perfect and while denying that they are perfect. You should be skinny, but eat junk food. Worry about what you eat, but say you don’t diet. You should do well in school, but call yourself an idiot.

There were a lot of unspoken rules, it seemed.

For a time, I tried to conform to these rules. I felt that awkward social pressure to feel above awkward social pressure.

But, I found, such behavior wasn’t really me, and therefore difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. At least I didn’t care to try any more.

Similarly, I adopted and abandoned behaviors linked to the importance of drinking coffee and wearing cowl-necked sweaters in the work place. I realized I would always be the kind of professional who engaged sharpies, paper clips and duct tape in attempting to appear in professional attire. I eventually came to the conclusion that if I wear heels, I’m more likely to fall unprofessionally than to stand out professionally.

Learning by watching was great, but none of it was me.

This is not a quandary I have yet resolved – nor one, I suspect that anyone ever fully resolves. But, I have found, this – what matters the most is that I’m genuine to myself. I can learn tips and tricks from other people. I can give myself practices exercises – like requiring I make small talk in elevators. I can watch others and I can learn from others.

But at the end of the day – I socialize in whatever way I feel so moved.

Even if that’s sitting in the corner. Watching.


from the achievement gap to empowerment

Harry Boyte argues that the “achievement gap” is the wrong framework for thinking about education. It “assumes the point is upward mobility — how to give poor people, especially racial minorities, resources and remediation so that they can make it in a hypercompetitive, individualist, meritocratic educational system and society.” But Harry asks, “What if the problem is the hyper-competitive, individualist education system itself, now largely a screening mechanism for personal advancement?”

I would elaborate as follows. The main policy debate about education is about individual human capital in a competitive global market. The premise is that individuals need skills to compete. Poor individuals especially need better investment to give them a leg up in the labor market. Communities’ welfare depends on the aggregate of individuals’ human capital.

The limitations of that narrative are at least as follows:

  • It omits non-cognitive skills that also redound to the benefit of the individual, such as being able to work in teams (and especially in diverse teams)
  • It overlooks social capital and collective agency as the basis of economic success for communities and nations. If we have a lot of people who know math but don’t ever work together, we will not prosper.
  • It has an implausible motivational theory: teachers, kids, and families must do whatever it takes to boost individual human capital. In reality, activities like service and politics can be more motivating.
  • It overlooks the importance of communities in education. James Coleman started the whole social capital research agenda by arguing that communities’  engagement with schools was a precondition of their success, even when success was measured in individual economic terms. It is very hard to engage communities in schools if they turn into machines for developing the individual labor market advantage of students. (Why should I engage with the school in my community if its job is to prepare each individual student to compete against my kids in the labor market?)
  • It overlooks other educative assets and resources, beyond schools.
  • It works best for the institutions that are drawing the most economically competitive students and faculty. The dominant narrative works fine for Stanford. But what is a local college supposed to do? Should it try to claw its way up the competitive rankings in search for students who already perform better before they enroll?
  • It overlooks democratic and civic outcomes, such as participating effectively in the democracy.

The post from the achievement gap to empowerment appeared first on Peter Levine.

Engaging Students & Youth in the NCDD 2014 Conference

As you may have read by now, the theme for the NCDD 2014 Conference is Democracy for the Next Generation. We chose this theme for many reasons. We wanted to bring more attention to the exciting and innovative ways that next generation technology is changing our field, to think about new ways to embed our work into old processes of governance, and to invite people to join us in envisioning what it would look like for dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement to take an evolutionary leap forward as a field of practice.

NCDD2014-blogimageBut another important reason that we chose Democracy for the Next Generation as the conference theme was because it invites us to think literally about the “next” generation(s) of people who we want not only to be effective participants in democracy, but who we also want to see join our field as practitioners.  We wanted the theme to encourage us to think about how we can involve more young people in the future of our work and the future of democracy – both 10 years from now and 100 years into the future. That is why we are making a special effort to invite students and young people from our communities of practice to attend NCDD 2014.

The “Why”

Involving young people in bigger ways addresses a number of the goals for our conference: expanding the scope of our work, connecting newer practitioners with seasoned veterans, and creating new partnerships, just to name a few. We think that having this kind of focus is particularly important for our field because in many ways, the current cohort of young adults – the Millennial generation – embodies the next generation of democracy as well as the challenges and opportunities for our field’s evolution.

AustinPic2-350Millennials are the most diverse generation of Americans ever as well as the most tech savvy, so thinking about their inclusion means opening up discussion both around technology’s role in our work as well as the challenge of making sure we are ready to engage with diversity and go beyond “the usual suspects” in terms of participants in our work. And since most Millennials are currently in or just a few years past being in college, engaging them in our work also means engaging institutions of higher education in promoting democratic practices and processes, as well as doing more of our own teaching – and learning – about our work with a new wave of potential recruits and participants.

Additionally, let’s face it – the leaders in our field are not getting any younger. ;) As we see some of the pillars and pioneers of our work getting closer to retirement age, it is vital to have an eye on the development and inclusion of the younger folks in our network who will be the ones to pick up the slack when our contemporary leaders leave the work. If we are thinking about our work on a generational scale, we want to be making conscious decisions around mentoring tomorrow’s leading engagement practitioners and scholars today.

The benefits for youth & students

With all of that said, we at NCDD are putting our money where our mouth is with incentives for students and young people to attend NCDD 2014. We are offering a reduced student registration rate for the conference of just $250 (early bird registration is $375), and we are offering even lower group rates for teachers and other practitioners who are bringing groups of students from their youth-oriented programs. The group rate will be worked out on a case-by-case basis, but one group that came with 8 students to NCDD 2012 worked with us to receive two free student spots in addition to the already-discounted rate. The more students you bring, the bigger the discount!

Student attendee at NCDD Austin workshop in 2010Plus, we are excited to announce that we are looking to identify a cadre of mentors that will support and guide the students and youth who attend this year’s NCDD conference in how to best make use of the conference and get involved in the field. The mentors who are selected will be seasoned D&D/engagement practitioners who are willing to spend some time with the students and youth who attend to mentor them during the conference. We hope that some of the mentors will continue in that role after the conference, to help pave the way for the next generation of practitioners and leaders in our field. It’s a very exciting opportunity for anyone looking for a way into the field!


We know that attending NCDD conferences is a great opportunity for students and young people. But you don’t have to take our word for it – you can hear about it yourself from student attendees and their teachers who have shared their feedback about the NCDD 2012 conference with us.

Kacey Bull, a Colorado State University undergraduate, had this to say about her experience in Seattle:

Attending NCDD was an incredible opportunity for me. It opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t know existed. I had been involved in the Center for Public Deliberation for about a year before I attended the conference and I had no idea how vast the world of Dialogue and Deliberation was.

I learned so many different models and activities, I was encouraged by all the people doing great work, and ultimately it led me one step closer to dedicating my academic efforts and career pursuits to the world of Deliberation. I wish every college student could be inspired by such an event.

And Dr. Martín Carcasson, who helped 8 of his students attend NCDD Seattle in 2012, shared with us his reflections on why bringing students to NCDD 2014 is a great opportunity:

CPD-MartinAndStudents-borderClearly NCDD is the ideal conference for college and university students interested in dialogue and deliberation. It provides students with an excellent overview of the overall field, and a chance to meet and work with many of the national leaders. Over a few short days, they will get exposure to multiple methods and strategies for supporting dialogue and deliberation back on their campuses and community. NCDD’s lively, interactive sessions will put the students in the middle of the work, working side by side with academics and practitioners.

Those experiences will not only be valuable to the students, but the students also provide a great service to the deliberation community by providing new voices and fresh perspectives to the conference events. I had several students attend the conference in Seattle, and those students came back incredibly invigorated, passionate about deliberation, and newly equipped with great ideas and fresh skills.

Several of those students have decided to stay at CSU for grad school, mostly in order to continue their journey with deliberation. Their wonderful NCDD experience certainly played an important role in their growing interest and commitment to the field. As the D&D movement continues to expand, attracting bright new voices will be critical, and bringing your best and brightest students to the NCDD conference is a great step in that direction.

Martín and his students also helped us make a great video, produced by our friends at Song of A Citizen, about their experience at NCDD 2012.

How you can get support this effort

  1. Bring a group of young people or students to the conference this October (connect with NCDD’s director, Sandy Heierbacher, at or our conference manager, Courtney Breese, at for info about discounts and more)
  2. Serve as a mentor at the conference or suggest people who work with students/youth we should reach out to (contact student/youth outreach coordinator Roshan at or Sandy)
  3. Make a donation to NCDD at earmarked for sponsorships for students and youth
  4. Encourage ALL the students you know to take advantage of NCDD’s Student Membership rate, which is only $25/year for full access to all membership benefits
  5. At the conference, do all you can to help the young people who attend NCDD 2014 to feel welcomed and valued
  6. Help us spread the word to students at your schools, youth who are part of your work, and other young people who might be interested in attending — we’d love to have them! Direct people HERE to this post for details.


Why Our Moral Norms Are Eroding

I fear that the deep trends unwinding social mobility cannot be reversed merely by modest short-term fixes like increasing the minimum wage. Of course we should do as much as possible to ensure that people with full time jobs do not fall below the poverty line. These are necessary but not sufficient actions.

We also need a long-term strategy to restore our economic and moral vitality based on a sound understanding of the deeper forces at work and how to reverse them. The least understood of these deep forces is the one undermining our social and ethical norms.

Increasingly, we equate doing wrong with breaking the law, thereby condoning selfish, irresponsible behavior as long as it is lawful. In my last post, I described this phenomenon as “anomie” -- the state of normlessness.

The causes of this condition of anomie are clear if one knows how to connect the dots.

Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1950s remember when our society was too norm-ridden, too rigid and conformist, too restrictive of the freedom of individuals to choose their own life styles. Then came the 1960s and the cultural revolution of the decades that followed. Individual freedom exploded; conformity to cultural norms weakened.

It is too glib to state that the pendulum simply swung too far -- from too much conformity to too much individual freedom. Rather, what happened was an unintended consequence of the increase in individual freedom. It wasn’t intended to weaken our culture, but it did so to an extraordinary degree.

The main source of ethical norms is culture: the thick web of religious faiths, unwritten rules, expectations, rituals, beliefs and norms that represent the cumulative experience of successive generations.

Every society has its own distinctive culture. “Distinctive” doesn’t equate with “sound;” some cultural norms promote barbarous and indecent norms, especially in relation to sexuality. The only thing worse than normlessness is a brutal system of norms.

In our hunger for greater individual freedom we have inadvertently weakened the cultural values that strengthen civility, concern for the other and the common good.

We wouldn’t survive without the constraints of a strong culture. It would mean the collapse of civilization and stability, and war of each against all. The constant tension in all societies is the relative strength of culture in relation to the individual autonomy. It is hardly surprising that in our hunger for greater individual freedom we have inadvertently weakened the cultural values that strengthen civility, concern for the other and the common good.

We are, I believe, moving into unexplored territory. We have created a society where individual expressiveness is a “right” that all can enjoy.

But we have not yet learned how to manage the coexistence of individual freedom with the need to maintain universally respected moral norms designed to advance the common good.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.

Order and chaos

Order and chaos seem like they might be opposites. Order is, well, orderly, while chaos is, perhaps, not.

In chaos theory, chaos arises when a minor change in initial conditions leads to a dramatic change in outcome. I used to do this in computer programming – randomly choose a seed number between, say, .01 and .05, put it through a complex equation, and see what comes out. When the output value has a range dramatically beyond the .04 difference in starting variables, you know you have a chaotic system.

Fractals are a visualization of this principal. Chaos at it’s finest.

Chaos may also be interpreted as entropy – the lowest level energy state possible. By definition, entropy is disorder, but more subtly so than colloquial uses of that term might indicate.

Order takes energy. It takes work and thought and effort to create an ordered system – to build a tower of blocks, to clean a room, to maintain a molecule.

Eventually, that order degrades. Even the mightiest towers must fall. The thoughtful ordering of the universe degrades to its lowest energy state – entropy.

But does all of this mean that order and chaos are antonyms? I’m not sure.

While one describes an ordered state and the other a random state, the terms don’t seem mutually exclusive.

Fractal are certainly ordered, chaotic though they may be. The art of Jackson Pollock is chaotic, perhaps random, yet it shows a deep symmetry, a subtle meaning amid that randomness.

The connection between the terms seems more complex than language would typically imply.

Chaos is a natural state, Order is an interpretation.


Be Registrant #100! And don’t miss the Early Bird rate!

Hi everybody! Andy here with a fun little milestone for NCDD’s 2014 conference. We are now at 99 regular registrations for this fall’s event. Which means you, yes you, can be registrant number 100! Not only can you take advantage of the soon-to-expire early bird registration rate, but you also receive the bragging rights that only come with being #100. Please feel free to have a tshirt made and wear it to the conference. :-)

So register today and claim this auspicious moment as your own. But seriously, the Early Bird rate for the conference ends in a week and if you would like to take advantage of the discount you need to act fast. Use the form below to grab #100 for yourself and take advantage of the discount.

You can learn more about our upcoming national conference and all our programming here.