Community Democracy Resources

The following publications are representative of those that have deeply influenced Community Democracy Workshop’s analysis of the barriers to community democracy and provided key knowledge of the durable infrastructure, structure and practice which evaluation, often strongly, supports. In each report or volume we have found correlations between the observations and those of our Community Democracy Workshop participants based on community experience and knowledge.

The Promise and Challenge of Community Democracy, prepared by the Community Democracy Workshop

During long careers of trying in numerous ways to facilitate change in mostly low-income communities, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Here, we’ve captured what we’ve learned in the phrase “community democracy” and how we want to communicate it in the word “workshop.”

We have seen success and impact in efforts led by individuals and communities across the country, and across different cultures and demographics. At their core, their successes share one key attribute; they are led by, and realized in collaboration with, the people directly involved and affected. In these efforts, community members—working together and with others—build their own capacity, as well as the capacity of institutions whose decisions affect them. By understanding and learning to employ their communities’ many assets, they demonstrate their power to improve their own communities.

Such is our key learning from work on community democracy, and at the heart of what we explore in this report. In the end, the answers are practical and not at all romantic. Communities are romanticized or exoticized to their detriment. We use our own experience, the work of the Community Democracy Workshop, and what we’ve learned from others to deliver context and perspective. We also hope that what we’ve learned will reinforce and contribute to the work of people already walking the community democracy path, and help inspire others to reflect on their current practices.



Talk Matters! by Mary Gelinas

We create the present and future in our meetings and conversations every day. What can we do to increase the likelihood that we’re creating a future that we all want? We can start by talking more constructively and productively about what matters to us all.

After decades of advising groups in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, process design and facilitation expert Mary V. Gelinas has integrated her best knowledge of brain and behavioral sciences, mindful awareness, and effective process to create Talk Matters! Her eight essential practices offer us ways to avoid getting hijacked by our survival instincts, engage with people who differ from us, and open ourselves, our businesses, and our communities to real, lasting change. As she explains, good process can help us work better together to do good things for the world.

In this highly readable and accessible book, Gelinas uses real-world examples to illustrate the practices that can help you start achieving life-serving results in your interactions as a leader, participant, or facilitator today.

Community Land Trusts: A Powerful Vehicle For Development without Displacement, by May Louie

In the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Boston’s communities of color were hit hard. A 2009 map of foreclosures looked like a map of the communities of color—Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. The one island of stability was a section of Roxbury called the Dudley Triangle—home to the community land trust of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). Originally established to respond to the community’s vision of “development without displacement,” the land trust model was adopted to help residents gain control of land and to use that control to prevent families from being priced out as they organized to improve their neighborhood. They were successful. Today, DSNI’s community land trust—called Dudley Neighbors, Inc. (DNI)—accommodates 225 units of permanently affordable housing, commercial and nonprofit space, a park/playground, a mini-orchard and garden, a 1.5-acre urban farm, and a community greenhouse. The land trust has proven to be crucial in the community’s progress, an anchor for the continuing neighborhood investment toward its vision of an urban village and in preventing displacement in a hot real estate market.

For Communities to Work, by David Matthews

In For Communities to Work, David Mathews presents a broad framework intended as background for civic organizations that want to look at the state of the public in their communities. He explains how private individuals become public citizens and how publics form. The process of reinvigorating citizens in communities requires generating the political will for “public work,” or the work of citizens with each other experience.

We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Social Change, by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire

This dialogue between two of the most prominent thinkers on social change in the twentieth century was certainly a meeting of giants. Throughout their highly personal conversations recorded here, Horton and Freire discuss the nature of social change and empowerment and their individual literacy campaigns. The ideas of these men developed through two very different channels: Horton’s, from the Highlander Center, a small, independent residential education center situated outside the formal schooling system and the state; Freire’s, from within university and state-sponsored programs.

For both men, real liberation is achieved through popular participation. The themes they discuss illuminate problems faced by educators and activists around the world who are concerned with linking participatory education to the practice of liberation and social change. How could two men, working in such different social spaces and times, arrive at similar ideas and methods? These conversations answer that question in rich detail and engaging anecdotes, and show that, underlying the philosophy of both, is the idea that theory emanates from practice and that knowledge grows from and is a reflection of social experience (Temple University review).

Pedogogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Portuguese: Pedagogia do Oprimido), written by educator Paulo Freire, proposes a pedagogy with a new relationship between teacher, student, and society. It was first published in Portuguese in 1968, and was translated by Myra Ramos into English and published in 1970.[1] The book is considered one of the foundational texts of critical pedagogy.

Dedicated to what is called “the oppressed” and based on his own experience helping Brazilian adults to read and write, Freire includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between what he calls “the colonizer” and “the colonized”.

In the book Freire calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model” because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like a piggy bank. However, he argues for pedagogy to treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge (Wikipedia).

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, by Akinyele Omowale Umoja

In We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, Akinyele Omowale Umoja argues that armed resistance was critical to the Southern freedom struggle and the dismantling of segregation and Black disenfranchisement. Intimidation and fear were central to the system of oppression in most of the Deep South. To overcome the system of segregation, Black people had to overcome fear to present a significant challenge to White domination. As the civil rights movement developed, armed self-defense and resistance became a significant means by which the descendants of enslaved Africans overturned fear and intimidation and developed different political and social relationships between Black and White Mississippians.

This riveting historical narrative reconstructs the armed resistance of Black activists, their challenge of racist terrorism, and their fight for human rights (NYU Press review).

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

Fred Ross, Sr. was as close to the perfect embodiment of the myth of the organizer as is humanly possible. Cesar Chavez called him “my secret weapon”. In Finding and Making Leaders, Nicholas Von Hoffman, Saul Alinsky’s favorite organizer, said, “The good organizer…judges his work a success when he can leave the organization without even being missed. He is rare, rarer than first-rate leadership, but he exists…and he can work in almost any situation.”

In America’s Social Arsonist, Gabriel Thompson captures Ross’ life story and core ideas. It is among the books to be read by anyone interested in labor or community organizing and the future of democracy as more than marketing politicians to consumer “citizens” when real power lies in the hands of those with money. (Continue Mike Miller’s review of the book here)

Racial Equity Tools

Racial Equity Tools is designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity. This site offers tools, research, tips, curricula and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level – in systems, organizations, communities and the culture at large.

Voices from the Field: 10 Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong, by Tom Wolff

Tom Wolff articulates ten important issues and concerns that Collective Impact fails to adequately acknowledge, understand and address – failings which have serious consequences for the engaged communities.

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, by John McKnight and Peter Block

This book is a reminder that people in neighborhoods and communities have wisdom about the problems they face and a willingness to take on tough challenges of creating just, equitable and nurturing communities.  It also helps us understand that in order to sustain improvements over time and keep up the momentum communities have to be organized and powerful enough to influence public and private sector institutions, especially government. The authors provocatively challenge us to understand the power of being organized and the potential of working with powerful institutions. They also suggest new ways for local governments to connect with residents to develop the assets available in all communities.

Philanthropy and Resident Engagement: The Promise for Democracy, a special issue of National Civic Review

Fall 2013
Volume 102, Issue 3

Essays on the role of resident engagement explored from the perspective of its potential place in the work of community foundations and similar organizations. More advanced resident engagement described in several essays fits within the sphere of community democracy.

The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, by Aldon D. Morris

An analysis done with great insight and specificity of the structure, infrastructure and systemic evolution of the Civil Rights Movement with significance for successful community democracy today.

The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future, by David Matthews

The work of democracy is work. Here are some ideas about how it can be done in ways that put more control in the hands of citizens and help restore the legitimacy of our institutions.

Voices from the Field III: Lessons and Challenges from Two Decades of Community Change Efforts, by Anne Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown and Tom Dewar

By assessing the evidence from over 20 years of evaluation and research about what comprehensive community initiatives and related community change efforts have accomplished, summarizing key lessons, and providing commentary from a variety of practitioners and observers, this volume offers a framework for thinking about place based investing in the future.

Philanthropy and the Regeneration of Community Democracy, by Peter Penekamp and Anne Focke

This founding case study of Community Democracy Workshop raised many of the questions from on the ground analysis that are still being explored today.

The Diarist Project

The Diarist Project is a new approach to documenting and learning from efforts to strengthen struggling communities and improve the lives of children growing up in these communities. The diarist work has grown out of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, a decade-long effort to transform neighborhoods in 10 cities across the country.

The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference, by Harry Boyte

Nationally known community organizer and activist Harry C. Boyte incites readers to join today’s “citizen movement,” offering practical tools for how we can change the face of America by focusing on issues close to home.

Targeting useful techniques for individuals to raise public consciousness and effectively motivate community-based groups, Boyte grounds his arguments in the country’s tradition of “populism,” demonstrating how mobilized citizens can be far more powerful than our frequently paralyzed politicians. He then offers practical tips on identifying potential citizen leaders and working through cultural differences without sacrificing identities.

Fight for America’s Soul, With Bill Moyers preface, Huffington Post, by Harry Boyte

The Huffington Post recently published this article by Harry Boyte, senior fellow in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, in which Boyte argues that the current political climate in the U.S. has undervalued the community-building and participatory aspects of democracy. The essay centers around conflicting accounts of the “American Dream: One version focusing on American superiority and the other on the value of “cooperative endeavor” and social justice.

Seeing democracy as more than just a way of electing leaders, Boyte examines the Civilian Conservation Corps as a model for infusing Americans’ work lives with a purpose greater than materialism. He states that, “As work has come to be seen only as a means to the good life and not of value in itself, the public dimensions of work and recognition of the importance of workers have sharply declined.”

Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe, by Xavier de Souza

Complexity, division, mistrust, and “process paralysis” can thwart leaders and others when they tackle local challenges. In Democracy as Problem Solving, Xavier de Souza Briggs shows how civic capacity – the capacity to create and sustain smart collective action – can be developed and used. In an era of sharp debate over the conditions under which democracy can develop while broadening participation and building community, Briggs argues that understanding and building civic capacity is crucial for strengthening governance and changing the state of the world in the process. More than managing a contest among interest groups or spurring deliberation to reframe issues, democracy can be what the public most desires: a recipe for significant progress on important problems. Briggs examines efforts in six cities, in the United States, Brazil, India, and South Africa that face the millennial challenges of rapid urban growth, economic restructuring, and investing in the next generation.

Community Mobilization and Action for Results: A New Approach to Building Local Movements to Strengthen Families and Transform Neighborhoods, by Garland Yates and Tim Saasta

A more traditional mobilization approach emphasizes the need to build the power of residents (or workers, women, minorities) to demand change. The CMAR approach sees the power to make change coming out of the process of mobilizing both residents and key institutional stakeholders around an agenda that they forge together. The commitment to a mutual goal generates a sense of momentum and accountability. Therefore, this guides explores a way to mobilize not just residents but also many other stakeholders. It also shows how to build no less than a movement for change led by residents and other stakeholders who are pulled together by a common agenda for change, an agenda they’ve forged together.

A Story of Making Connections Across the Divide of Race, Class and Culture, by Kristin Senty, the Making Connection Des Moines diarist

This reflection was written by Tim Saasta, diarist coordinator: A cadre of Diarists worked to capture strategies and insights of the people who were leading the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections, a comprehensive community change initiative in 10 cities across the U. S. The diarist worked closely with the staff people who led the work in each city, the Site Team Leader and a Local Site Coordinator. The journey of one Making Connections Des Moines staff person – a self-described “white person from the suburbs” – suggests some answers to the question: “How do you tackle sensitive issues of Race, Power and Culture” in comprehensive community change strategies?” The changes that she and others in Des Moines went through also suggest why addressing these subjects is so important. Many in Des Moines have come to believe that building meaningful relationships among diverse people should be the first step for any initiative designed to make a difference in struggling communities.

A Reflection on Why Social Networks Are Critical to Sustainable Change, by Tim Saasta

To some people, strengthening social networks in struggling communities is a nice thing to do, helping reduce the isolation of many families. But while these people think it’s good to encourage residents to interact more, they just don’t think it is nearly as important as work that leads more directly to concrete results: better jobs, more assets, kids who do better in school. Audrey Jordan disagrees. Jordan, a former senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, thinks that strong social networks are “fundamental to the transformation of struggling communities.” Given her strong belief in their power, Jordan was asked to develop the Casey Foundation’s work around social networks.

A Reflection on How Social Networks Can Become a Powerful Tool to Meet Basic Needs and Build Momentum for Change, by Mikaela Seligman

This reflection focuses on another area of the Casey Foundation’s work: its exploration of the Southwest border area and Native communities. When Maria Gomez-Murphy began working in and around Nogales, Az., in 1990, she saw that, while these communities often lacked resources, they did have much strength, including strong social networks. Many people knew and often helped each other. These existing networks became a building block when Gomez-Murphy and a group of promotoras created The Way of the Heart: The Promotora Institute in 1999. The Institute trains residents to reach out to other residents and provide a broad range of services, education and advocacy.

The Organization-First Approach, by Richard C. Harwood and John A. Creighton

This report describes the barriers to community engagement created by culture and structures within the NGO sector. Harwood Institute research demonstrates that “just when leaders and organizations need to turn outward toward their communities, they turn inward toward their organizations.” It is astonishing how constant this is demonstrated to occur, even when the explicit organizational goal is to turn outward to the community. Community by community, this may be the immediate dynamic most disruptive to community democracy.

The Colonization of Civil Society, by Derek W. M. Barker

This outstanding essay delves concisely into the beliefs and history that have resulted in part in the problems described in Harwood Institute’s The Organization First Approach. Combined the two reports explicate problems that, being both close to home and billed as progenitors of solutions, often are difficult for communities to identify, much less address.

An excerpt (pg. 10): “Any shift of power to citizens may imply a loss of power for the agency, and citizen participation in decision making is likely to be viewed as risky, unpredictable, and disruptive.”

Not Quite Chaos, by James Hyman

The report’s central theme is that the variety and complexity of communities need not demand that we approach them in awe or without tools. Community building for change can be an orderly process, deliberately managed to achieve good results.

Ideas That Matter, Vol 3 Num 2

This issue of Ideas that Matter provides readers with a glimpse of a remarkable community in transition. Ideas that Matter has been making the case in their convening and writing that as cities go, so too the regions, even countries in which they are located. They’ve been interested to take this down to the most basic level, to the most local, of what comprises a city: its neighborhoods. This volume includes contributions from Laurie Green, Jane Jacobs, John Stapleton, Garland Yates, Anne Peters and Mary W. Rowe.

The work of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School establishes a voluminously researched ecology of management of common pool resources. From fish to libraries and from knowledge to bridges, these volumes delve into questions such as when and how the participation of those most affected by decisions improves upon them and how effective relationships between different types of institutions happens. Some of many relevant books co-authored or edited by Elinor Ostrom: Governing the Commons; Understanding Institutional Diversity; The Commons in the New Millennium.
In 2012, CFLeads launched the Cultivating Community Engagement Project to uncover, document and promote practices among community foundations and other community philanthropies that support stronger resident engagement in shaping the community’s future. The national task force that led this process was by design comprised of more community leaders and activists than community philanthropies, leading to an unusually frank assessment of both the state and potential of the field.