the world’s first and only Civic Studies rap

(Washington) And now for something different … My colleague Prof. Jonathan Garlick was a participant in last summer’s Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life. After two weeks of wrestling with theorists like Jurgen Habermas and Eleanor Ostrom–along with fellow academics and practitioners from half a dozen nations–Jonathan summarized it all up in a rap:

“Now, Habermas’ and Ostrom’s inquiries
Are still a bit unclear to me
So let’s elucudiate these mysteries
By clarifyin their philosophies
Picture them both in a rap repartee
As they exchange views and realities
A civic rap battle of history …”

Here are the rest of the lyrics in PowerPoint.

Turning Dialogue into Action & Other Skills for Engagement

You might have missed it, but the team at NCDD member organization Public Agenda have been running an incredible blog series on “Key Talents for Better Public Participation” this summer. The posts are a great set of resources for D&D practitioners, and we wanted to share an important one about making the often difficult transition from talk to action here. We encourage you to read the piece and find links to the 14 other series posts below, or find the original here.

Supporting Action Efforts

pa_logoIdeas for action emerge naturally in many different forms of public participation. When people talk about issues that are important to them, they often want to:

  • Develop new problem-solving partnerships and new ways to work with others.
  • Express their ideas, concerns, and recommendations to public officials and other decision makers.
  • Strengthen practices and policies within departments, agencies, community organizations, workplaces or other groups.

During participatory processes, people often think about action ideas they would like to take individually and as a community. It is important for participants to be able to hear one another’s ideas and decide together which actions to take.

In some single-day participatory processes, action ideas are shared at the end of the day. In others, there is a separate action-focused event where participants can come together to share ideas. Still others facilitate action efforts with online tools and tactics.

Two skills, planning action events and supporting action teams, can be helpful for all of these processes. (Many of these tips, along with more information on supporting action, are described by Everyday Democracy here.)

Planning an Action-Focused Event

Events that help people transition from dialogue to action typically have three elements:

  • Opportunities for dialogue groups to share their ideas. If participants brainstormed and prioritized action ideas, then the action event should include opportunities for each group to share their top ideas.
  • Prioritizing action ideas. During the action event, give people the opportunity to vote for their top three choices for action ideas (perhaps by using keypad polling or dotmocracy). Participation leaders sometimes encourage a mix of short-term and long-term action projects. Short-term projects keep the momentum of the dialogues going and provide an immediate success to share with the community. Long-term goals require more planning, but such efforts can result in lasting change.
  • Creating action teams. Identify the action ideas with the most votes or support. Ask people to divide into groups based on the action they would like to work on and explain that the people in these new “action teams” will work together to put the idea into motion. During the action event, give these new teams some time to introduce themselves, gather contact information and identify co-leaders who will help the group move forward with the idea.

Supporting Action Teams

Promoting team pride, hosting regular meetings with action team leaders and fostering a creative environment are some ways to help a group or team prepare a plan and then take action. Action teams should:

  • Set clear expectations. What needs to happen, by when, and who is responsible? If people know what they are expected to do and by when, they are better able to develop a roadmap for achieving specific tasks and goals.
  • Identify two leaders per team. Co-chairs can share the responsibility of keeping the team on course and moving forward.
  • Share skills and talents. Ask team members to write down some of their talents and skills, so when the group needs to complete tasks, requests can be made to people who have the requisite skills.
  • Foster a creative environment. Be open and welcome diverse ideas and ways of thinking. Show that everyone is valued and is an important part of the group.
  • Continue recruiting volunteers. Even if people were not involved in the initial conversations, they may be interested in taking action. Allowing new people to join brings in fresh energy and cultivates a larger network, greater inclusion and a stronger sense of ownership of the effort.
  • Keep in touch. Meet regularly and keep everyone informed via emails and calls. Consider forming an online network and using online tools and tactics.
  • Share documents and plans. Wikis can be used to help team members work together on documents and stay informed about plans.
  • Connect teams to resources. Participation leaders can provide information, contacts and resources to action teams.
  • Celebrate progress. Keep the work of the team in the public eye by engaging media and sharing success stories.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Part 8: Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Part 9: Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

Part 10: Managing Discussions, Blog 2 of 3: Recording and Online Moderation

Part 11: Managing Discussions, Blog 3 of 3: Ground Rules and Feedback

Part 12: Helping Participants Generate and Evaluate Ideas

Part 13: Helping Participants Make Group Decisions

Part 14: Supporting Action Efforts

Part 15: Evaluating Participation

You can find the original version of this Public Agenda blog post at

Node Overlap Removal by Growing a Tree

I recently read Lev Nachmanson, Arlind Nocaj, Sergey Bereg, Leishi Zhang, and Alexander Holroyd’s article on “Node Overlap Removal by Growing a Tree,” which presents a really interesting method.

Using a minimum spanning tree to deal with overlapping nodes seems like a really innovative technique. It made me wonder how the authors came up with this approach!

As outlined in the paper, the algorithm begins with a Delaunay triangulation on the node centers – more information on Delaunay triangulations here – but its essentially a maximal planar subdivision of the graph: eg, you draw triangles connecting the centers of all the nodes.

From here, the algorithm finds the minimal spanning tree, where the cost of an edge is defined so that greater node overlap the lower the cost. The minimal spanning tree, then, find the maximal overlaps in the graph. The algorithm then “grows” the tree: increasing the cost of the tree by lengthening edges. Starting at the root, the lengthening propagates outwards. The algorithm repeats no overlaps exist on the edge of the triangulation.

Impressively, this algorithm runs in O(|V|) time per iteration, making it a fast as well as an effective algorithm.


Participatory Budgeting in the Town of Mutoko

Initiated in 2001 Participatory Budgeting (PB) was introduced to the Town of Mutoko, Zimbabwe, as a governmental response to protesting and other civil unrest due to corruption within government. To rekindle democratic engagement from the grassroots level 74% of the Mutoko Rural District Council budget was opened for discussion within...

the grammar of the four Noble Truths

We’re reading about Buddhist ethics in my Introduction to Philosophy course, and the Four Noble Truths are our focus. Here is how the first Truth is presented in the Sermon at Benares (attributed to the Buddha himself):

“Now, this, O bhikkhus [monks], is the noble truth concerning suffering: Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, bodily conditions which spring from attachment are painful. This, then, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering.”

The remaining three Truths take similar forms. First comes a headline or name for the Truth (respectively: suffering, the origins of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the way to the destruction of suffering). Then–at least for the first two Truths–comes a list of factual claims, e.g., “Birth is attended with pain.” The paragraph ends, “This is the noble truth concerning [the topic of the truth].”

Presumably “this” does not refer simply to the preceding factual claims. The Truth is broader than that; the claims are illustrative or supportive. My instinct is to translate the final sentence into a proposition, a statement or assertion that expresses a judgment or opinion. I don’t think my instinct is uniquely “Western” (whatever that means) or philosophical. Buddhist thinkers have been debating the propositional content of the Truths for two millennia. This debate persists because it’s not self-evident how to restate the Truths as propositions. Should we say: “All life is intrinsically suffering”? “All human (or sentient) life is intrinsically suffering?” “All life includes some suffering, even if there are also happy moments”? “All life begins and terminates in suffering”? Etc.

This choice seems worth debating; the resulting conversation is fruitful. But there is also a good reason for the final sentence to take the form that it does. To assent to a proposition about suffering will not change your life. Your life may change if you really internalize the significance of suffering. In that case, you will understand the “truth of suffering.”

It’s like saying that social injustice in the US is not just a list of injustices. It is an overall condition of the society that you can absorb until it influences your whole stance toward politics. Whether you should take that stance depends on all the separate propositions about particular injustices, so you should evaluate those propositions critically. The (ostensible) Truth of Social Injustice is debatable among reasonable Americans. But the question is whether you should–and whether you have–absorbed that truth.

The Buddha’s way of thinking reminds me of Epicurus and the other founders of Hellenistic schools. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion follows logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.” (Note that this is a proposition.) But Epicurus knows that such conclusions will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you” (my translation). The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” You will be better off if you internalize the truth concerning death; but that takes practice, and it requires a community of people devoted to the same end. The same is true, it seems to me, of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

See also: three truths and a question about happinessPhilosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); and on philosophy as a way of life; and when East and West were one.

On the Rights of a Black Man

I was struck by a comment from today’s coverage of the shooting death of an unarmed black man. To be clear, this was coverage of the death of an unarmed black man – whose name has not yet been released – in San Diego; not the recent shooting of Keith Scott in Charolette, or of Terence T. Crutcher in Tulsa.

In San Diego, a woman called 911 to get help for her mentally ill brother. Details are contested, but police shot and killed the man they’d been called to help.

In an interview this morning, a woman protesting the murder said: “Because he was black he automatically had no rights.”

That was a profound statement.

Because he was black, he automatically had no rights.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with that statement, the mere perception of that reality should be disturbing. And, incidentally, if you don’t agree with that statement, it is worth noting that it is factually indisputable that many, many unarmed black men have been killed by police under questionable circumstances.

We are a country that prides itself on individual rights, inalienable rights. Rights that can never, ever, be taken away from us.

Unless you are black.

Because he was black, he automatically had no rights.


Thom Hartmann Gives the Commons Some Rare National Visibility

Yesterday evening, Thom Hartmann, the progressive talk show host, interviewed me on his "Conversations with Great Minds" national TV show.  The first 12-minute video segment can be seen here, and the second one here. I don't think the commons has ever had this much airtime on American (cable) television.

A big salute to Thom for hosting this kind of material on his show. He is a rare creature on American TV and radio -- an intelligent progressive willing to give airtime to ideas from outside the Washington, D.C. echo chamber. Since the retirement of Bill Moyers, there are very few American TV personalities who actually read history, understand how it informs contemporary politics, and give sympathetic exposure to movement struggles seeking social and economic transformation. 

Since I'm sharing links, let me also share the link to my 20-minute presentation yesterday at Ralph Nader's conference, "Breaking Through" conference, which is being held this week in Washington, D.C.  My talk, "Controlling What We Own -- Defending the Commons," can be seen here at the timemark 5:35:15.

Check out the other presentations on this eight-hour video from Real News Network -- some amazing segments by folks like John Bogle, William Lerach, Ellen Brown and others focused on corporate governance, power and financial abuses.

read more

Florida Council for the Social Studies Conference Sessions

Have we mentioned that the Florida Council for the Social Studies Conference is coming soon (and that you should register)? No? Well, it is and you should! And we are happy to share with you information on sessions that will be taking place at the conference! Take a look at the matrices below for Saturday and Sunday, and then click here to get a description of each session: 2016-fcss-session-descriptions!



Through out the next few weeks leading up to the conference, we will be highlighting sessions of interest, and just why you may enjoy them. Please be sure to take a look at the session descriptions (2016-fcss-session-descriptions) and of course register and join us for a great weekend in Orlando!