Collaboration: New Civic DNA?


Curtis Johnson


While neither as noisy nor as rapid as the rushing forces of globalization, there is a sorting out within and among communities making up American regions. This chapter explores the prospect that a new civic approach is the underlying explanation for reports of progress. Using selected accounts of actual experiences in different regions across the country, a pattern emerges that is distinct from most of the past century’s experience. Previously controlling institutions are carving out new roles as catalysts and sometimes champions for change. Where there are stories of progress in rebuilding a sense of community, in overcoming devastating conditions, there is a recognizable chemistry to the explanations. Most prominent in this chemistry is the spread of collaborative processes. Mutual listening. Deciding together. If this modest trend grows and proves strong enough to alter the culture of more than a few communities, it may be the leading edge America’s maturing capacity for self-governance.


From the churning civic chemistry of America’s regions a new formula may have been forged from the conflicting forces of the late 20th century. The core element is collaboration. Veteran voices from major community initiatives increasingly declare it as the organizing medium for reaching forward across boundaries of class, geography, race, age and political philosophy. They claim that even in an era in which individualism may have reached its apotheosis, collaboration is an enabler to recapture a sense of the collective good.

Though no comprehensive analysis exists to provide evidence that collaboration is forming the core of a new cultural “DNA,” stories of community collaboration – from small neighborhoods to large metropolitan regions – are a proliferating phenomenon. This chapter presents selected historical accounts in which the application of a collaborative formula appears to have made impacts on the governance of communities.

Many, perhaps most of these accounts, show that major crisis is the common, precipitating civic spur, leaving the question as to whether any successful response can become a new norm. And whether people should reasonably be expected to organize and pursue a complex process that affects governance decisions, unless they are driven by crisis conditions.

Of equal interest is the pattern of what these communities do with collaboration – the agenda that it produces, the philanthropy it attracts, and what observable changes in the civil culture seem lasting.

The case stories also reveal a pattern of leadership, showing not so much new sources as new combinations, as well as what appears to happen when collaborations take on more institutionalized forms. Does the leverage provided by early philanthropy lead to new traditions of widespread voluntary giving?

Drawing on experiences in several American regions, but especially the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, this account traces the record of citizens organizing and acting to improve their society, describes how they altered the relationship to governments, and poses the question of whether such collaborations can become lasting coalitions whose work continues to affect decisions within the formal structure of governance.


The first evidence of serious change in the civil society is the character of communications between public officials and citizens. And despite the numerous pilgrimages made in recent years to Portland, Oregon to see what many regard to be America’s most systematic process of citizen engagement, the place to see a new culture may be Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In the 1970s with foundries and textile factories closing, the shock of the cost of being the Pittsburgh of the South shook the community’s confidence at the roots. Driving around at noon with headlights on to penetrate the polluted air was common. A civic gloom set in. Racial tensions, along with economic woes, were high. A quarter century later, this community sparkles with livability, and radiates a level of civic confidence hard to match anywhere. Talk to the people who lived through the transition and the notion of a new governance culture is palpable.

Mai Bell Hurley was the first chair of Chattanooga Ventures, the name applied in 1984 to the collaborative initiative. The air was getting cleaner but not much was happening to pick the community up. She remembers how Stroud Watson was recruited to come down from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s architecture school and help citizens think about how to rebuild the community. Watson, along with a growing number of students mixed in with a core of community leadership, worked out of an old storefront (drive by it today and see that it has become, not without irony, the “CHAOS” clothing store). Hurley remembers how the numbers grew, citizens and students “hanging out at the store talking about what to do (Hurley interview, February 19, 1999).” They took a group to Indianapolis to see first hand civic progress they had read about. They sent out some 10,000 surveys to citizens, realizing, as Hurley puts it, “we weren’t exactly the grass roots ourselves.”

The numbers involved grew and surprisingly patient process produced conclusions, a first agenda for action. More than 1700 people volunteered to work on priorities, settling eventually on more than 200, with early emphasis on civic spaces downtown and laying out a set of plans to reclaim the community’s connection to the river. Among the first projects was a $45 million aquarium, now widely acclaimed as the largest freshwater aquarium in the country and every year attracting more than a million visitors. What followed were the first stages of a river walk, destined to be more than twenty miles long, starting with a eye-catching collection of switchbacks built around a downtown bluff, with centers of interest artistically decorated in the spirit of the Cherokee nation. An old iron truss bridge, scheduled to be taken down, was re-engineered and designed for pedestrians and became a popular gathering spot. Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises was born amid a commitment to eliminate all substandard housing, a far-reaching, maybe even unachievable goal, but producing $30 million of progress each year.

What makes this place, as City Council President Dave Crockett likes to say, “a living laboratory,” is their commitment to constant renewal of the process, setting more goals, continuing the engagement (Crockett interviews 1999). By the early 1990s, they had completed most of the priorities, and it was time to start over, which they did in 1993 with a “Re-Vision” process, attracting another cadre of volunteers and setting more priorities. Hurley says that Chattanooga Ventures (now, by the way, in mothballs) was a means to capture what they had found “in the air,” and that the engagement of citizens around complex problems “is the one thing that has stuck….We have our arguments…and consensus isn’t always golden, but the thing to notice is the way we make decisions. There is something in the culture here, and it’s just as important not to understate it as it is not to overstate it.”

For a community of still modest scale, all these projects have formidable price tags. But raising money seems to happen once the civic process has yielded the commitments. As Jack Murrah, now the head of the Lyndhurst Foundation that staked Ventures to its first serious resources, describes the money-raising dynamic, “Money will go where people believe that success is likely. Otherwise it hides. If we’re afraid there’s not enough to go around, we will hide what we have.” (Murrah interview, February 19, 1999)

Stroud Watson never went back to Knoxville. He’s still downtown, though the quarters are nicer. In fact, his office is the community’s urban design center. It’s a birthing and nesting place for development and redevelopment ideas. Those ideas then take the form of renderings, of computer simulations, and they’re on the walls for anyone to look at. Watson is confident that “seeing what something might look like” has become one of the most powerful techniques for community redevelopment. But as he looks back on the past two decades, he professes pure amazement that people actually still show up. “All this inwardness these days, shopping on the net, watching so many hours of television….do we still think we can knit together what the community is like? Or do we search for community because of all these things? I don’t know.” (Watson interview 1999).

The pot-bellied stove that warmed the room in the old storefront is just a memory. But the new way of doing things, Watson says, is now the culture. What started as student exhibits on creating a better downtown and the beginnings of the River Park has become an expectation. You could call it “transparency,” he said, but it’s really just the confidence to let people in on building a high quality place to live.

Hurley and Crockett both suggest how rooted participation is now in the culture of decisions by pointing to the Eastgate Mall story. On a busy boulevard in east Chattanooga, amid the commercial “generica” one sees anywhere, sat this mall, a typical, tasteless strip of retail stores like thousands of others draped indecorously on the shoulders of thoroughfares, nearly always destined to age badly. They’re routinely abandoned when the retail action shifts farther out. Too often, these old malls serve as the canary in the mine for the whole community. The empty tarmacs, with weeds growing through the cracks and the shuttered stores are a reminder of the fickle and fleeting nature of modern American retail centers.

Here is where the Chattanooga culture takes over. Through a charrette process, the community concluded the mall should become a town center, including apartments and townhouses, retail and offices, with trees and wide pedestrian walkways. (Crockett interviews, 1999) A company was formed in 1997 to do just that, and has since found serious tenants to fill office space, even a church that wants to be on the new town commons. Gerry Chauvin, vice president of Eastgate LLC now thinks of himself as in the community building business and says “it’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.” (Homsy 1999: 21).


Collaboration might be little more than the warm stirrings of community activism, a brush with consensus that feels good compared with confusion and conflict. Collaboration may seem to succeed and still be somewhat irrelevant unless the results show up in governance. How important is it to be connected to what government actually does, if collaboration is to be regarded as having serious impact?

Making this connection is no small matter. So much has the contempt for government risen, fed by cynical campaigning for office as well as the steady pounding of pseudo-libertarian talk radio, that it is now common in many circles to dismiss the relevance of the public sector in making community progress. Polls often show smoldering anger toward government; indeed a sort of presumption of bad intent has become the starting place for the press and many citizens.

This sentiment may have taken its severest toll on police forces, especially where crime has become more serious and crackdowns have been the response mode. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, neighborhood leaders were so alienated from police by the early 1990s, that in the most crime-infested places, they say they simply stopped calling them. What good could it do, complained one activist, if there were already people dead, or the drug dealers had control of the whole block? A new chief, Dennis Nowicki, who cut his community relations teeth policing the neighborhoods of Chicago, set out to create a new understanding about the relationship between the community and the police. His challenge: “You be our eyes and ears. Call us before the bad stuff goes down,” he said. “We’ll get there quickly and quietly,” (compared with squad cars roaring in after the shooting is done, sirens at full volume). In interviews with a roomful of neighborhood leaders, the stories flowed about learning to stand up for the neighborhood. Freezing the dealers out. Several women in particular reached in their purses and pulled out the pager numbers of the cops on their beat; they knew them by their first names. This perhaps does not rank as elegant civic theory, but in the street it seems to have the force of a new covenant, a new understanding about accountability and mutual responsibility. (Charlotte interviews 1996).

One night in early fall 1994 Mary Nelson and about 50 neighbors in the Bethel New Life part of Chicago gathered in a church basement across from a $40,000-a-day crack house. Drug dealers, mixing menacing glares with loud laughter, loitered just fifty feet away. Nelson’s little group was almost too afraid to come out of the church. But out they came, with a table, candles, campaign flyers, and a microphone to broadcast their promise to take back the streets of their crime-ridden neighborhood.

It was the beginning of 40 days and nights of continuous activity – of demonstrations, church functions, concerts, a door-to-door leaflet campaign. “We’d do something every day,” recalls Nelson. “One day we had a job fair right in the middle of the street.”

This campaign was a working partnership, with the feel of a contractual relationship, between the neighbors, area business owners, and local government, which in this case was the city of Chicago and Cook County. The county agreed to assign inmates serving time to help clean up the neighborhood, mow those vacant lots, get the trash out of the alleys. The city agreed to put in new lighting in places that were too dark, to fast-track the demolition of vacant buildings not worth saving. Streets and sidewalks were to be repaired. Drug dealers would be sentenced to do community service.

Mary Nelson and her courageous neighbors could have carried out their campaign, but if the local governments hadn’t followed through, progress would have been short-lived. (Johnson 1995: 52)

It may be fashionable these days to regard government as the gardener with the five-hundred dollar hoe and only weeds to show for a crop, but nearly every story of enduring change in communities finds government as a partner and something resembling a new relationship with people who live there.

Even where government is well positioned to be a partner in community improvement and comes in sincerity to citizen groups, a wall of skepticism is often there to be overcome. In San Diego back in 1998, staff from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), tell how they went into south San Diego to talk to citizens about blighted blocks and what could be done, particularly in an environment crying out for more affordable housing. They encountered fierce resistance. People remembered the shabby six-plexes and high-rises dropped on to lots in their community in the past. Mike McLaughlin directs the planning unit for SANDAG and he is quick now to say that you can’t get anything done in a neighborhood without making a new deal. In this case, McLaughlin started with straightforward questions about what changes people wanted in their community. They used computer simulations to show citizens what projects might look like – before they were approved and built (San Diego interviews 1999).

John Nalbandian, an experienced city manager, now a University of Kansas professor, believes these new arts of engaging the community are the indispensable practices of public management. He says this facilitative work is “not designed to make people feel better. It is designed to help promote a problem-solving orientation and to develop consensus among diverse interests.” (Nalbandian 1999: 195).

Catalysts and Champions

In the late 1980s, Professor Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University raised what seemed like a lonely voice calling for a return to “communitarian” values in society and has since created a network of like-minded citizens. In the early 90s, the National Civic League, founded a century ago as a civil society reaction to corrupt government, organized a coalition called American National Renewal. Other champions for some version of civic renewal showed up in the mid- to late-1990s, from the high symbolism of the Million Man March of African Americans in Washington, D.C. to the hundreds of thousands of men showing up in city after city for Promise Keepers meetings. Former senator Sam Nunn joined former education secretary William Bennett to launch the National Commission on Civic Renewal.

Opportunities can be created or dashed, and movements seem to wax or wane by the push or pull of catalytic organizations that bring influence or resources. Foundations, for example, essentially managing society’s loose change, often achieve powerful leveraging effects. The Topsfield Foundation has been promoting study circles since 1990 as a means of mobilizing the minds of citizens on troubling issues in society. The National Issues Forums have been around for nearly 20 years, making the Kettering Foundation one of the philanthropic veterans in the quest for more civil society. Its president, David Mathews often lifts a phrase from Ernesto Cortes about “reweaving the social fabric…to invigorate public life at a time when many Americans are seeking security in private sanctuaries” and suggests that maybe “a democratic society takes centuries to develop, building layer upon layer, like a coral reef.” (Mathews, Independent Sector conference 1996).