ENGAGING IDEAS – 10/12/2018

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: A look at inequality from city to city. Boosting citizenship engagement in a digital world. Enrollment instability in schools. Spotting troubled students; a new role for faculty on campuses. Exploring what the CVS and Aetna merger means for the health care and pharmaceutical industry.


Estranged in America: Both Sides Feel Lost and Left Out (The Upshot)
Nearly half of Democrats say they feel this way, slightly more than Republicans. Continue Reading

Could populism actually be good for democracy? (The Guardian)
A wave of populist revolts has led many to lose faith in the wisdom of people power. But such eruptions are essential to the vitality of modern politics. Continue Reading

Elections: Understanding democracy in a divided America (Stanford News)
A divided electorate and intense partisanship have led to a tense public mood where feelings of polarization run deep. People are now more attached to their party affiliation than any other social identifier - like race and religion - according to Stanford scholar Shanto Iyengar. He argues that this only amplifies polarization further. Continue Reading


This Map Shows Income Inequality in Every American Metro Area (HowMuch.net)
Wealth and income inequality are growing areas of concern. A report from Oxfam found that 82% of all wealth created throughout the world in 2017 went to the top 1%. 8 individuals literally own as much money as 3.8 billion people. It's hard to grasp what these numbers really mean, so let's reframe the issue at the local level. How bad is income inequality where you live? Continue Reading

Poverty, Perseverance and a PhD (Hechinger Report)
An elite university helped her climb but changing class can be a lonely journey. Continue Reading

Is Your State Serving Black Students? (Inside Higher Ed)
New report from the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center grades public institutions across the country. Continue Reading


Austin Ranks High In Voter Turnout In New Civil Health Checkup (KUT.org)
Residents in the Greater Austin area ranked high in voter turnout and knowledge of key issues, but have lent less of a helping hand, according to the 2018 Greater Austin Civic Health Index. Continue Reading

Bringing the e-commerce experience to civic engagement (eGov Innovation)
Boosting digital citizen interaction does not have to be complicated. Powered by the right technology and streamlined processes, both citizens and government entities benefit from a smarter approach to interactions. Continue Reading

PA Mention - Montana vote becomes a national referendum on public confidence in higher ed (Hechinger Report)
Fifty-eight percent of people polled by the think tank New America said colleges and universities put their own interests ahead of those of students. About the same proportion in a Public Agenda survey said colleges care mostly about the bottom line, and 44 percent said they're wasteful and inefficient. Continue Reading


In These Districts, Friday Is Not a School Day (Wall Street Journal)
For most students here, the weekend starts when the final bells ring on Thursday afternoons. Pueblo City Schools, in southern Colorado, this year joined a growing number of school districts hoping to save costs and attract teachers by shifting to a four-day week, a schedule once primarily used by rural districts that is now moving into suburban and urban areas. Continue Reading

Enrollment instability is a major reason why schools are struggling - so why isn't anyone tracking the problem? (Chalkbeat)
There's no question that Detroit schools are struggling with the serious consequences of students coming and going throughout the school year. What's less clear is how the problem compares to other cities and states. That's because no one is keeping close track nationally of these frequent school moves, known by academics as student mobility or enrollment instability. Continue Reading

You thought failing PE or art in high school doesn't matter? Not so, new Chicago study says. (Chalkbeat)
Failing a class like art or PE in the freshman year could be just as damaging to a student's chance of graduating as failing English, math or science, a newly released study of Chicago schools has found. Continue Reading

Higher Ed/Workforce

At a growing number of colleges, faculty get a new role: spotting troubled students (Hechinger Report)
For many faculty, this new role requires a culture shift. Some still don't consider it their job, said Patricia Rieman, an associate professor of education at Carthage who is an advocate for, and was on the subcommittee that created, that school's early-alert system. "I'm not somebody's mother,'" she said some faculty have carped. "A lot of professors also don't feel they have time. We're expected to do more and more, without additional compensation." Continue Reading

The Secrets of Getting Into Harvard Were Once Closely Guarded. That's About to Change (Wall Street Journal)
This year, 42,749 students applied to Harvard College, and only 1,962 were admitted. How Harvard decides who makes the cut has long been a mystery. That's about to change. A trial beginning Monday in Boston federal court will examine how the elite institution uses race to shape its student body. It will force Harvard to spill details about its admissions practices. Continue Reading

The Little College Where Tuition Is Free and Every Student Is Given a Job (The Atlantic)
Berea College, in Kentucky, has paid for every enrollee's education using its endowment for 126 years. Can other schools replicate the model? Continue Reading

PA Mention - Students, employees scour college finances for waste, proof of unfair pay (Hechinger Report)
As public confidence declines, university budgets and investments face growing scrutiny. Continue Reading

Health Care

Providers are going digital to meet increased demand (Modern Healthcare)
As the U.S. population ages and develops chronic diseases more frequently, provider organizations are turning to digital tools to meet increased demand for healthcare, according to a new report from Ernst & Young. Continue Reading

CVS and Aetna merger a disruptive sign of the future (Healthcare Finance)
Two provider organizations have reacted negatively to Wednesday's announcement by the Department of Justice to allow the merger between CVS Health and Aetna contingent upon Aetna divesting of its Medicare Part D prescription drug plans. Continue Reading

Healthcare prices growing slowly: 4 findings (Becker's Hospital Review)
Healthcare prices in the U.S. showed low growth in the first half of 2018, according to an analysis from nonprofit health systems research and consulting organization Altarum. Continue Reading

curiosities from Wikipedia (an occasional series)

From the entry on Norfolk Island, pop. 1,748, which lies 877 miles from mainland Australia:

This common heritage has led to a limited number of surnames among the islanders – a limit constraining enough that the island’s telephone directory also includes nicknames for many subscribers, such as Cane Toad, Dar Bizziebee, Lettuce Leaf, Goof, Paw Paw, Diddles, Rubber Duck, Carrots, and Tarzan.

From the entry on the Scots Language:

The results from a 1996 trial before the Census, by the General Register Office for Scotland, suggested that there were around 1.5 million speakers of Scots, with 30% of Scots responding “Yes” to the question “Can you speak the Scots language?”, but only 17% responding “Aye” to the question “Can you speak Scots?”.

From the entry on Isaac Newton:

As Warden, and afterwards Master, of the Royal Mint, [Sir Isaac] Newton estimated that 20 percent of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. … Convicting even the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult. However, Newton proved equal to the task. Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered much of that evidence himself. … Newton had himself made a justice of the peace in all the home counties. … Then he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699. Newton successfully prosecuted 28 coiners.

See also: strange livesthe European country that spoke Esperanto; and Anson Burlingame and the duel that never happened.

Public Hearing – Campaign Financing

The following is a suggested structure. We recommend users follow these headings to make it easier to compare and analyze entries. Definition The prevision of public audiences in the Federal Supreme Court's (STF) field of action refers to the publication of Law No. 9,868, of 1999, being also referred to...

Public Hearing – Interruption of Pregnancy – Anencephalic Fetus

The following is a suggested structure. We recommend users follow these headings to make it easier to compare and analyze entries. Definition The provision of public hearings in the Federal Supreme Court's (STF) field of action refers to the publication of Law No. 9,868, of 1999, and Law 9882/99 should...

Regional Elderly Forum of the Northwest of Belo Horizonte, MG

The present work has, as a research focus, the performance of the Northwest Regional Elderly Forum of Belo Horizonte. The objective is to analyze how relations of representativeness are elaborated by part of the members, representatives of the forum, with regard to the elderly represented and the view of the...

I National Conference on Public Security: social participation in a public management process

The referred case study analyzes the National Conference of Public Security – CONSEG, a wide and participatory forum that innovated in the debate on public policies for public security, breaking paradigms discussing new solutions along with an organized civil society and a set of professional working with public security. Among...

Announcing NCDD’s October TechTues Feat Konveio, 10/23

We have an extra special treat for our upcoming October Tech Tuesday featuring Konveio. This FREE event will take place Tuesday, October 23rd from 2:00-3:00pm Eastern/11:00am-noon Pacific. Don’t miss out – register today to secure your spot!

Konveio helps change agents, community-builders and forward-thinkers turn their collaborations into action, not just a PDF! The software is a digital outreach platform that turns bland PDFs into actionable websites to better convey ideas, collect feedback and spark action. Konveio is one of the easiest-to-use engagement tools on the market. Users simply upload their PDFs to an online viewer so others can read and navigate them in their browser. They then add maps, videos, charts, and other rich content to make it more insightful and easier to explore. Finally, they can ask for feedback using embedded surveys or comments directly on the document.

Konveio is a proud sponsor of the NCDD conference. The software will be used to bring this year’s conference guide to life, with videos, maps, recaps, and presentations, as well as ways to provide feedback on sessions. On this webinar, we will be joined by Chris Haller, founder and CEO of Urban Interactive Studio, who created Konveio (which was initially called CiviComment). During this Tech Tuesday session, we’ll give a quick overview of the software, look at some real world Konveio examples, will showcase the #NCDD2018 conference guide and ask for feedback on how to improve it and make it more useful.

It’s great for leaders in the government space, non-profits or other fields who need to convey a draft plan, policy or finding, to make an impact or inspire action. Which is exactly what we’ve heard from early customers:

“We have been getting great feedback from our community on the use of Konveio. It was really easy to load our documents and it’s been easy to review and reply to comments within the document as well.”

“I have been consistently pleased with how easy the platform is to use. Konveio has been a great experience for my government client; it has injected a feeling of transparency and customer-friendly service that they are thoroughly enjoying.”

About our presenter:

Chris Haller is a nationally-recognized User Experience designer and Online Engagement strategist, with a broad background in local government, urban and regional planning and communication technologies. These skills, combined with many years of experience in consulting for urban planning projects, are what brings Urban Interactive Studio’s mission – to provide interactive solutions that allow citizens to participate in making our cities better places to live, work and play – to life.

This will be a great chance to learn more about Konveio and see how it comes to life for the #NCDD2018 conference. Don’t miss out – register today!

Tech Tuesdays are a series of learning events from NCDD focused on technology for engagement. These 1-hour events are designed to help dialogue and deliberation practitioners get a better sense of the online engagement landscape and how they can take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to them. You do not have to be a member of NCDD to participate in our Tech Tuesday learning events.

Join the Online Facilitation Unconference on Oct 15-21

The fifth Online Facilitation Unconference (OFU) is happening on Oct 15-21! This digital gathering is hosted by the Center for Applied Community Engagement LLC, and is a great opportunity for anyone interested in virtual facilitation – no previous experience needed! The early bird tickets are available until Oct 12th, so make sure you register and get your tickets ASAP! Follow OFU on Twitter with the hashtag #OFU18 for more #FacWeek updates. You can read the announcement below for more info or find the original on the OFU Exchange site here.

Online Facilitation Unconference 2018

Your favorite online event on the art and practice of facilitating in virtual environments is back!

Join us October 15-21, 2018. Tickets on sale now!


What is the Online Facilitation Unconference (OFU)?
The Online Facilitation Unconference (OFU) is a learning exchange on the art and practice of facilitating in virtual environments. It is a community-driven event that brings together people from the public, private and non-profit sector from around the globe whose work includes, or who have an interest in, facilitating online.

OFU is a place to share, learn, make new connections – and have fun!

What is an unconference & how does it work?
OFU is an unconference. While traditional conferences come with a pre-determined schedule, an unconference allows the participants to create the agenda on the fly based on who shows up and what their interests are. In a nutshell, participants bring their questions and topic ideas and – in collaboration with their peers – suggest, schedule and host the sessions and workshops that meet their needs.

Unconferences require attendees to put in a bit of extra work, but the results can be magical.

How much time is involved as an attendee?
You can spend as much or as little time as you like. Based on past experience, the average participant tends to attend a handful of sessions over the course of the entire week. Sessions can vary in length but usually take anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes.

What do you mean by “virtual environments”?
“Virtual” refers to any process or experience that takes place outside a strictly in-person context. At OFU, we explore the methods for delivering facilitation using any tool, technology or channel that provides virtual venues, for example phone conferences, online chat, video conferencing, virtual reality, augmented or hybrid in-person processes and events.

Who’s organizing the event?
The event is run by the Center for Applied Community Engagement, LLC, a private institute and social enterprise based in San José, CA (USA) serving the growing professional field of community engagement and public participation practitioners from around the globe through market research, content publishing, industry events and other services.

What’s the history behind OFU?

  • In 2013, a group of people took this idea, which had been brewing for a while, and decided to run with it. Within a few short weeks, the first OFU was held.
  • In 2014 and 2015, OFU was organized by San José, CA-based digital engagement consultancy Intellitics, Inc.
  • In 2017, the Online Facilitation Unconference was moved under the ownership of the Center for Applied Community Engagement, LLC.
  • 2018 will be the fifth event.


When does the event take place?
OFU 2018 will take place October 15–21, 2018 – once again alongside and as part of International Facilitation Week, which is being hosted by the International Association of Facilitators (IAF).

What’s the schedule?
More details will become available the week prior to the event, but here’s a rough overview of how the week will unfold.

From now through October 15, you are welcome to:

  • Read this FAQ page to learn more about the event
  • Tune into the conversation on social media (see links below)
  • Think about topics you’d like to cover (either as a knowledge sharer, or knowledge seeker, or both)
  • Tell your friends and colleagues
  • Find out what areas of interest registrants have on their mind (sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll tell you)
  • Register for the event

Early in the week of October 15-21 (Tuesday through Thursday), you will have an opportunity to:

  • Attend one of several welcome mixers to get any questions answered, meet a first few of your fellow participants etc. (exact times TBD)
  • Join the online forum to introduce yourself, meet fellow participants, and discuss session topics
  • Attend one or more pre-scheduled warm-up sessions to help get your creative juices flowing (details TBD)
  • Add your sessions to the schedule

Later in the week of October 15-21 (Friday and Saturday), we hope you will:

  • Attend the unconference sessions
  • Add more sessions to the schedule (hey, it’s an unconference)

After the week is over, you can:

  • Explore on the session notes
  • Add your own notes and materials to the website
  • Read the conference report
  • Share your feedback and ideas for OFU 2019

We will announce specific times or windows for most of these activities shortly so you can plan ahead. Thank you for your patience!

Are all the sessions delivered in real time? Can I dip in and out or catch up later?
Yes, all sessions tend to be offered live (via some synchronous form of communication, e.g., Zoom, WebEx or the like). In theory, sessions could also be run as an asynchronous conversation (e.g., on the online forum we will set up), though not sure if we have seen too many of those in the past.

We encourage all session hosts to record their sessions and make them available afterwards. However, some sessions won’t get recorded due to various reasons (e.g., because they contain sensitive conversations). In that case, we encourage hosts to at least share a brief write-up or any other notes or materials they can make available that would give others an idea what was covered and help them explore the topic on their own.

Based on our experience, the average unconference attendee will make it to a handful of sessions. We will try our best this year to get participants to

a)  populate the unconference session plan as early in the week as possible, and

b)  stick to the recommended session windows

so as to make it more likely for more participants to be available for more sessions.


How much do tickets cost?
A regular ticket costs $49. Our early bird rate is $29 (good September 24 through October 10).

Students, retirees and other low-income people can attend for only $15.

For everyone else, including people from developing countries, we offer a “pay what you wish” option. We strive to be inclusive and don’t want anyone to miss out on the event due to cost burden.

Members of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) will receive a significant discount. Details to be announced by September 25.

How do I register?

Please go to our Eventbrite page to purchase your ticket.


Who should attend?
Anyone with an interest in facilitating in virtual environments is invited to join.

Do I have to be a professional facilitator in order to attend? No.

While a good number of our attendees do facilitation for a living, many others come from other backgrounds and perform the functions of convener and facilitator as part of their regular job or event outside their day-to-day work.

Do I have to have prior experience with virtual facilitation or technology? No.

Whether you are a complete newbie or already and expert – anyone with an interest in online or virtual facilitation is welcome.

In the past, OFU has always attracted a broad range of expertise levels (beginner, intermediate, expert, and everything in between). Thanks to the unconference format, everyone can contribute to the best of their capabilities!

Who are the attendees?
The people who show up at OFU wear many hats. Here are just a few of the job titles we saw at OFU 2017 (in alphabetical order):

  • CEO
  • Coach
  • Collaboration engineer
  • Community organizer
  • Community strategist
  • Consultant
  • Director
  • Facilitator
  • Founder
  • Head of school
  • Independent scholar
  • Organizer
  • Planner
  • Program analyst
  • Program coordinator
  • Senior product manager
  • Trainer

You can find the original version on this on the OFU site at www.ofuexchange.net/.

new CIRCLE youth survey: high youth engagement in the 2018 election

From today’s CIRCLE release:

The 2018 midterms have the potential to be historic for youth political participation, with young people receiving campaign outreach, paying attention, and intending to vote at unusually high levels (34% “extremely likely” to vote) that come close to the levels of engagement seen in the 2016 presidential election. Young people who report being actively engaged with the post-Parkland movement for gun violence prevention are even more likely (50%) to say that they’re extremely likely to vote. Our poll reveals strong support overall for Democratic candidates in Congressional elections (45% plan to vote for Democrats, versus 26% for Republicans), but large disparities among different demographic groups of young people, with Black and Latino youth much more likely to support Democratic candidates, young white men actually favoring Republicans, and unaffiliated white youth spreading their support across various parties and ideologies. We also find that, for all the focus on young people’s engagement with political content online, family remains the most important way for youth to learn about the election and the most influential in their engagement and participation.

Much more is here, and this is just the first in a series of analytical posts drawn from a new survey of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18 to 21-year-olds.

The Insurgent Power of the Commons in the War Against the Imagination


at the Prairie Festival, hosted by The Land Institute

Salina, Kansas / September 29, 2018




Thank you, Fred [Iutzi] and the Land Institute for inviting me to this wonderful festival!   It’s a great honor to be speaking at an event at which so many illustrious thinkers, innovators, and activists have attended in the past. I want to thank the Land Institute for its pathbreaking research and leadership over the years – and give a special thanks to Wes Jackson for his vision, courage, and sheer persistence over so many years.


I’m not a farmer or seed-sharer, and I don’t have a specific role in the farm-to-table world except as a grateful eater. However, I do live in a small, somewhat rural town, Amherst, Massachusetts, a place of maple trees and CSA farms, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and… a town common.


It is in that capacity that I come before you today, as a commoner. Much more about that shortly, but suffice it to say that the commons, to me, is a vehicle for social and political emancipation. My new book, written with my German colleague Silke Helfrich and due out next year, captures three touchstones of commoning in its title -- Free, Fair & Alive. It’s all about lived experience, not ideology, and more about living systems that emerge from the bottom up than about policies imposed from above.


I want to start with a blunt and perhaps jarring statement, that we are embroiled in a deep and serious war – a war against the imagination. This phrase comes from Beat poet Diane di Prima, who wrote:   


The war that matters is the war against the imagination

all other wars are subsumed in it….


the war is the war for the human imagination

and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you


The imagination is not only holy, it is precise

it is not only fierce, it is practical

men die everyday for the lack of it,

it is vast & elegant.


“The ultimate famine,” di Prima warns, “is the starvation of the imagination.”


When an artist-friend shared these lines with me, I realized how profoundly they speak to our times. In today’s world, there seems to be very little room in respectable circles for wide-open dreaming and experimentation, or for stepping off in new directions to explore the unknown. But the realm of the unknown is precisely where we really start to see and live.  


In today’s world there are certain presumptions that serious people aren’t supposed to question, such as the necessity of economic growth and capital accumulation, and the importance of strong consumer demand and expansive private property rights. The more of these we have, the better, we are told.


These dogmas have sucked all the air out of our public life and politics.  Which is one reason that I have come to see the commons as a precious patch of ground -- an important staging area for thinking and living our way past the prevailing orthodoxies. The commons is a space from which an insurgency might be launched – indeed, it IS being launched, if you train your eyes to see it. 


In the next few minutes, I’d like to suggest how the commons paradigm can help us develop a new social and cultural vision, and new strategies for practical change. Paradoxically enough, redirecting our attention away from conventional politics and policy may offer the most promising possibilities for developing a transformational vision.   


We’re surely reaching a point of diminishing returns within the existing system. Real change and regeneration are going to require that we jump the tracks somehow. We need to start imagining different ways of being, doing, and knowing – and we need to invent new institutional structures to support such a paradigm shift.


Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Let me first clarify what I mean by the commons – a term that is greatly misunderstood and misused. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the word “commons” is tragedy – as in the “tragedy of the commons.” 


That idea was put into circulation by biologist Garrett Hardin in a now-famous essay published by the journal Science in 1968. Hardin said, Imagine a pasture on which farmers can put as many sheep as they want. The result, he said, would inevitably be the over-exploitation of the pasture. No individual farmer would have a “rational” incentive to hold back, and so the sheep would over-graze and ruin the pasture, resulting in the tragedy of the commons.


What a tenacious little smear this has been! Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues have embraced the “tragedy parable” as a powerful way to denigrate the collective management of resources, especially by government. Hardin’s just-so story has also proved useful for celebrating private property rights and, by implication, free markets and government deregulation.


The problem is, Hardin was spinning out a fantasy. It has no empirical basis. He was not describing any actual commons. He was describing an open-access regime – a free-for-all -- in which there is no community, no rules for managing resources, no boundaries around them, no penalties for overuse or free-riding, etc. That’s not a commons. A commons consists of a community plus a shared resource and a set of social agreements, practices, traditions, etc., for governing it.


The scenario Hardin was describing more accurately describes market economics in which everyone is a disconnected individual defined by their “utility-maximizing rationality” and competitiveness, which makes you a sucker to restrain yourself. You might say that Hardin was really describing the tragedy of the market – “Grab what you want and forget about the mess you leave behind.”


            The late Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole “tragedy of the commons” fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work in 2009 – the first woman to win the award. Ostrom and hundreds of scholars explained how countless communities around the world have self-organized themselves to manage natural resources without over-exploiting them – all of this outside of the market and state power.


Why, then, are these systems generally ignored by economists?  Because when you’re studying market transactions as the main event of life, anything that doesn’t involve cash and market exchange isn’t all that interesting.


And yet commons are everywhere. They are the ancient heritage of the human species. The International Land Coalition has estimated that there are over 2.5 billion people in the world whose daily lives today depend upon forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, and wild game managed as commons. It’s the default mode of provisioning through nature! Yet to we moderns, commons remain mostly invisible – or misrepresented as ineffective and marginal.  Doomed to failure.


The huge achievement of Ostrom and her academic colleagues was to provide scholarly validation for the commons as a system of governance and provisioning. Ostrom showed that cooperation is actually economically consequential, something that her colleagues, most of them males, scoffed at.


A Movement of Commoners Arises

Meanwhile, outside of academia, a related story was developing on a parallel track over the past twenty years. A self-replicating movement of commoners was arising to build an empire of their own – an insurgent, diversified network based on the ideas of commoning. Yes, the commons is not so much a noun as a verb.


Commoning is the social process by which people come together, figure out the terms of their peer governance, learn how to devise fair systems, how to deal with rule-breakers, how build a cohesive culture, and so forth. Who are these commoners? They include:


  • farmers, villagers, pastoralists, and fishers who use community systems to manage crops, pastures, irrigation water, trees, wild game, fish….
  • “Localists” who want to restore the self-determination of their communities through community land trusts, CSA farms, alternative currencies and time-banking systems, among other commons.
  • There are Croatians fighting enclosures of their public spaces and coastal lands, and Greeks developing mutual aid systems to fight the neoliberal economic policies that have decimated that nation.
  • There is a rich Francophone network of commoners, and others in Spain, Italy, the UK, and India.
  • A new “municipalism” of urban commons is arising in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, and Bologna to establish commons-based Wi-Fi systems, public spaces, social projects, limits on development, and more. 
  • Indigenous peoples are arguably the oldest commoners, fighting to defend their ethnobotanical knowledge and biocultural practices.  
  • A vast network of digital commoners are creating free and open source software….building open-access publishing systems….“platform cooperatives” as alternatives to Uber and Airbnb….wikis and makerspaces and Fab Labs.


Through some form of spontaneous convergence – or rising of a collective unconscious – these various groups are discovering the commons and using it as a lingua franca. While they all traffic in very different resources and in very different circumstances, most of them have a least one thing in common -- a victimization by global markets and capital.


Enclosure and the War Against Imagination

This brings us to the word “enclosure.” It is a word that helps commoners fight the war against the imagination. Enclosure names the great harms that occur when the market/state system privatizes and encloses our common wealth. Enclosure happens when something managed by a social cohort or rooted in an ecosystem is redefined as a market commodity. It is ripped from its context, converted into private property, and sold. Its price becomes its value.


This is an act of radical dispossession – the kind that defined the English enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which millions of commoners were evicted from their forests and pastures, and forced to migrate to cities and England’s dark satanic mills.


We are now in the midst of a second major enclosure movement. This time, it is using less violent but even more effective weapons of dispossession. These include intellectual property law, digital technologies, Big Data and algorithms, and, as needed, raw state coercion and market power. As in the past, the mission is to seize the common wealth for private profitmaking.


Enclosure happens when the Hunt brothers buy up vast tracts of groundwater in the Midwest, turning priceless repositories of life into speculative commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.


Enclosure happens when biotech and pharmaceutical companies patent genetic information about plants and seeds, and medicines and diseases. One fifth of the human genome is now owned by companies as patents. The German company BASF owns more than 6,000 patents derived from genetic sequences in 862 marine organisms.


Enclosure happens when industrial agriculture converts a living landscape into a vast, quasi-dead vessel of soil to grow monoculture crops. It occurs when the traditional sharing and cultivating of seeds are criminalized – which is happening today.


Enclosure is happening today in Africa and Asia, as sovereign investment funds and hedge funds collude with governments to buy land that have been used for generations by subsistence communities and indigenous tribes. It’s a huge land grab that is displacing millions of people and triggering new migrations to urban shantytowns and future famines: the English enclosure movement revisited.


Amazingly, American politics and economics don’t have a name for the idea of enclosure.  Instead it’s usually called “innovation,” “wealth creation,” and “progress.” The language of the commons helps us debunk these modern-day fairy tales.


The Commons and Place-Based Stewardship

What does all of this talk of the commons have to do with rural America and farming, ecosystems and human well-being?


I’d like to propose that the commons discourse can help us break out of the claustrophobic mindset of contemporary politics and economics, especially as they apply to rural America. The concepts and language of the commons – and scores of real-life projects – can open up new ways of thinking that go beyond the traditional “progress narratives” of growth and “development.”


As the era of climate change descends upon us – as we begin to recognize the fragility and costs of global supply chains for food, energy, and water; as we learn how giant corporations work with government to consolidate market power and squeeze out small players; as we discover how markets tend to flatten the distinctiveness of place and identity, and propagate inequality and division – we are learning what pre-moderns have known for millennia: Place-based stewardship and community self-reliance can offer more ecologically rooted, humane, and satisfying ways to live.


But how can we possibly work for such a vision? One thing is for sure, it won’t come via Washington, D.C., or new trade policies or farm bills, at least not primarily. It will first require some deeper cultural and personal shifts from us – and the development of new sorts of commons-based institutions.


It will require that we wean ourselves away from a mindset that is transactional – which is the essence of capitalist markets and culture, a mindset deeply embedded within each of us – and learn to embrace a mindset that at its core is relational, where we see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent, and can show our vulnerabilities as humans without being taken advantage of.


That’s where I see the commons helping to catalyze a transformation. The language and framing of the commons helps name this different order of life. Evolutionary sciences are showing that the hyper-individualistic story told by conventional economics is an utter fantasy. As E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (among others) have shown, we are a species that has evolved through cooperation.


We are not free-floating individuals without histories or social ties, untouched by geography or community. In reality, we are all nested-I’s – individuals nested within larger biological webs and within social collectives that profoundly shape us. Land and natural systems are not mere resources as the price-system implies. They are what I call care-wealth.


It’s this relationality that needs to be brought to the foreground. As Thomas Berry put it memorably: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” This is the ontological shift – the OntoShift – that we need to make as a culture and find ways to enact through projects and express through language.


            In a sense, that’s the purpose of the commons. It’s a rediscovered term that is being used to describe some ancient realities. It expresses the spiritual connections of indigenous peoples to the land and the cosmos. The commons is about the land ethic that Aldo Leopold wrote about. It echoes what Rachel Carson said about the subtle interconnectedness of all living things, and what Wendell Berry has so beautifully written about the human satisfactions of working with a landscape.


            A commons is about having responsibilities and entitlements that flow from them; stepping up to long-term stewardship; making up the rules of governance from the bottom up, with an accent on fairness, participation, and inclusiveness; and the inalienability of certain things. Some things just aren’t for sale.


In short, it’s all about relationality!  It is here where a new vision for rural America needs to begin. 


            Much has been made about the linkages between rural America and Trump voters – a linkage that I think has been vastly overblown. Trump brilliantly exploits genuine needs, and preys upon fears and desperation. But if we think more deeply about what’s important to us and what makes for quality of life over the long term, the answers won’t be ideological. They must be human, and they must grow their own new legal, economic, and institutional vessels.


The standard wisdom is that farmers, agricultural suppliers, and rural businesses should double-down and try to compete more effectively in integrated global markets. They should get leaner and meaner and smarter, goes the pep talk. They should demand greater government subsidies and new forms of support. This is fair enough, so far as it goes.


But we’ve seen how this approach is fraught with problematic risks. Are we really prepared to accept permanent subordination to the corporate seed, biotech, and chemical giants? Do we really want to build a future based on volatile energy and food prices in an era of Peak Oil and climate change? Can we depend on dwindling supplies of water from elsewhere and owned by someone else, and on the shifting sands of international trade policies and tariffs? 


The Commons and Rural Futures

            I’d like to suggest that the a more constructive and secure long-term vision is for communities to become more locally autonomous and self-directed….. to become less dependent on the global and national markets, many of which treat rural America as sites for neocolonial extraction in any case.


The more promising answers lie in greater relocalization and community self-reliance….in decommodifying our daily needs as possible; in working with the land and not abusing it; in sharing infrastructure and collaborations with other commoners; and in mutualizing the benefits that are generated.

This was roughly the strategy that civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer used fifty years ago when she and others purchased 680 acres of Mississippi Delta land and named them “Freedom Farms.” The goal was to provide access to land so that African-Americans could grow their own food cooperatively. “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around and tell you what to say or do,” she said. 

That is the beauty of commoning. It’s practical. You could say that it draws from the best of all political ideologies: Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the market. It’s all about cultivating a mindset of mutual support and building durable systems of relationality.

In the few minutes that remain, I’d like to quickly review some of these cooperative, benefit-sharing, relational approaches.

It seems appropriate to start with the Land Institute’s Kernza wheat and other perennial crops. Could one imagine an agricultural innovation more in sync with natural systems? It absorbs more water than conventional wheat, prevents runoff and erosion, captures more carbon, and provides year-round habitat for wildlife – while of course providing a tasty food for we humans. Kernza has enormous potential for bringing humans into a deeper, more regenerative relationship with the land itself – which will surely enhance the stability of agricultural towns.           

I am thrilled by another commons-in-the-making, the Open Source Seed Initiative. Its basic purpose is to decommodify seeds to make them freely breedable and shareable, under terms set by commoners themselves. Currently, more than 400 varieties of seeds and fifty-one species have become what I would call “relationalized property” – legally shareable seeds that can participate in the gift-economy of nature and yet cannot be privatized.   

Of course, land is another precious resource that has already been enclosed by capital or faces constant threats of enclosure. How can land be made more affordable and accessible, especially for young farmers, and be deployed as an object of stewardship, not simply ruthless market exploitation?

We know that community land trusts are a powerful vehicle for land reform. They are a way for communities to take land off the speculative market and use them for long-term community purposes, such as workforce housing, town improvements, sustainable agriculture, and recreation.

Again: the strategy of decommodify and share. A CLT is a kind of commons because it socializes and collectivizes economic rent, and then invests it back into the community that helps create it. It’s a social organism for regenerating value, through democratic governance and open membership in its classic form.

More recently, the Schumacher Center has been developing an offshoot of community-supported agriculture – community-supported industry. The idea is to use community land trust structures in novel ways to help decommodify land and buildings in a town. They can then be used for all sorts of “import-replacement” enterprises – production, retail, food – that recirculates dollars within the region. 

In terms of re-purposing land, I recently learned about the FaithLands movement. It’s a small but growing movement of churches, monasteries, and other religious bodies offering up their land for community-minded agriculture, ecological restoration, and social justice projects. It turns out that religious organizations own a lot of tax-free land, and so they can potentially act like conservation organizations or land trusts.

A farmer working on church land said: “Our scripture starts with Genesis in the garden and ends with Revelation in a garden in the city—with Jesus in the middle inviting us to a meal. If we’re seeking to transform our food system in a way that’s going to be beneficial not only for ourselves, but for our great grandchildren, how can the church put [its] land into service?”

Simply asking, “What does the land want?” and “How can we feed the hungry?” lets us consider the radical idea of food itself as a commons. Why shouldn’t food be recognized as a basic human need available to all, and not merely as a private, transnational commodity? A famous essay published in 1988 called for returning a vast portion of the Great Plains to native prairie as a “Buffalo Commons.” That never happened, of course, but it did provoke valuable debates that have sparked some actual projects that move in this direction. A dialogue about food commons could have similar effects.

If a larger Commons Sector is going to arise and flourish, however, we will need more than small-scale, one-off projects. We need larger shared infrastructure to take things to the next level. This can open up new opportunities for commoning while thwarting the possibility of business monopolies and proprietary lock-ins, as we see in seed patents, exclusive supply chains, and the like.

I am thrilled to learn of the supply infrastructure created by farmers in the area north of Boston, along the seacoast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The Three River Farmers Alliance has brought together a variety of local producers to aggregate and distribute their foods. The shared distribution system helps them escape a dependency on powerful middlemen and build new bonds of trust among themselves. An open source farm-management software platform lets each farm function independently while also letting each opt-in to share knowledge and cooperate with others. This works only because there are shared data protocols managed as a commons.

Or consider the Fresno Commons in Fresno, California, which is reinventing the whole farm-to-table supply chain under the control of a series of community trusts. This is helping farmers, distributors, retailers, and others to mutualize risks and benefits throughout the value-chain. The “profit” doesn’t get siphoned off to investors, but is used to improve wages and working conditions, grow food without pesticides, make food more affordable to low-income people, etc.

These stories point to the critical role that digital network technologies can play in bringing gig-economy efficiencies down to the local level. But this is not just about market efficiencies and automated administration; it’s about building tech-based affordances for new forms of cooperation in today’s world.

Another such platform is called cosmo-local production. This is an emerging production process in which knowledge and design – the light-weight stuff – are co-developed and shared with collaborators around the world via the Internet. Then the heavy, physical tasks of production are done locally, in open source ways -- which is to say, in ways that are inexpensive, modular, locally sourceable, and protected from enclosure. This is the idea behind Farm Hack, a global community of open source designers of all sorts of farm equipment.

Cosmo-local production is also being used to design electronics (Arduino), video animations (Blender Institute), cars (Wikispeed), houses (Wikihouse), and furniture (Open Desk). The same general logic of global collaboration can be seen in the System for Rice Intensification, a global collaboration in which thousands of farmers around the world share their own agronomy innovations with each other, open-source style. It has improved rice yields four- and five-times over without chemicals or GMOs.

I haven’t touched on innovations in local government. Let me just quickly mention the ingenious uses of government procurement to help strengthen the local economy such as the pioneering work led by the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland and more recently, in Preston, England. In Italy, dozens of cities are developing “public/commons partnerships,” also known as “co-city protocols.” These are systems through which city bureaucracies collaborate with neighborhoods and citizen groups, empowering people to meet their own needs more directly and on their own terms.

Lest I leave the impression that the commons amounts to a bunch of white papers and policy ideas, let me underscore that the commons is about providing convivial spaces for us as whole human beings. A commons can only work by drawing upon our inner lives, sense of purpose, and cultural and spiritual values. It is therefore imperative that artists and cultural organizations play a conspicuous role. They can express insights and feelings that our hyper-cognitive minds cannot. They can express embodied ways of knowing.

I think you can begin to connect the many dots. No single one of them is the answer, but together, they help us to begin to think like a commoner. That’s liberating. That opens up new vistas of possibility. It helps us fight the war against the imagination and give us hope.     

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Thatcher defended the harsh neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, with a line that was often shortened to its acronym, TINA: “There Is No Alternative!” she would thunder. In truth, as I hope I’ve shown, the more accurate acronym is TAPAS: “There Are Plenty of Alternatives!”

But these alternatives are only available to us if we can learn how to develop a new mindset, cultivate a new language to express our shared vision, and embark upon the hard work of building it out through commoning, project by project. That’s our challenge, which I am grateful to be able to share with this remarkable Prairie Festival! 

Thank you.