Motivating Communities to Overcome our Civic Blerches

There's a bait-and-switch at the heart of the social change we need. (Reading Time: about 5 minutes)

We’re approaching the 2024 calendar page turn, so let’s get a jump start on New Year’s resolutions.

The cold, sobering truth is that the vast majority of our New Year’s resolutions don’t succeed.

Our brain just isn’t hard-wired to make changes based on a single commitment. We can’t simply will ourselves into new habits or perspectives. The gravitational pull of the easy, familiar, and short-term gratification is too much.

There’s no shortage of advice from behavioral scientists about how to overcome our inner Blerches (thanks The Oatmeal!) to form new habits. Start small. Make yourself accountable. Reward yourself.

But the most effective life-hack is to simply graft your resolutions onto existing habits.

For example, let’s say you want to start a new meditation practice. Try stacking five minutes of meditation onto your daily morning cup of coffee. Ta da!

This grafting approach is also relevant for when we jump scales to talk about our social and civic challenges.

We are facing incredible crises of social disconnection, fragmentation, and polarization. We desperately need to build new civic habits and social muscle memory for fostering belonging, connection, and tolerance.

However, the forces pulling us apart and keeping us from such action – our social Blerches – are really strong. And like our New Year’s resolutions, we can’t simply wave our hand at new commitments and expect some sort of systemic change.

I read fairly widely on these topics and find there is no shortage of insightful analysis of our socially fragmenting trajectory. But I carry a healthy dose of skepticism towards most of the solutions presented by authors and organizations.

Again and again, their solutions are analogous to our destined-to-fail New Year’s resolutions. Some common examples: You just need to learn to have better conversations with people different than you. Or you should talk to your neighbors more. Or you need to join a group. Or start a new one. On and on.

Yeah, sure, this is all well-founded advice and you shouldn’t ignore it. For a precious few of you, this will spur you into action and you will make a difference. Go get ‘em.

But given the scale and urgency of our crises, we can’t afford the rest of us lamenting another year’s well-intentioned social commitments falling by the wayside.

So then, what existing social habits, institutions, or structures can we graft onto to build enduring systemic change?

What existing social habits, institutions, or structures can we graft onto to build enduring systemic change?

There are multiple entry points for answering this question, but let’s focus on the one I’m head-over-heels for and most relevant to this audience: engaging communities to shape the built environment. It turns out this is just about the perfect social habit to hitch a ride onto for restitching our fraying social fabric.

It’s like we’re at the gym already, wearing our exercise clothes, finished up a light workout, and are all warmed up. Why not add in those 10 minutes of upper body reps?

Community engagement processes already leverage the things that motivate people to show up, get involved, and interact with one another.

What are these motivating factors?

  • A change (of significance) is coming: There is nothing more motivating than change – either the fear of it or the excitement for it. As shapers of the built environment, we are typically stewarding some change to the physical or social world significant enough to spur people to pick their heads up and get involved.
  • At the appropriate Place-Scale: We are evolutionary hard-wired to feel attachment and ownership over the places where we live. This motivates people to get involved when a significant-enough change is brewing nearby, but only if it’s perceived to be at a scale at which we feel agency and belonging. As I wrote about last time, that sweet spot is the scale of our neighborhoods.
  • With Results attached: Why participate if it feels like your contribution is just going to sit on a shelf? People motivate when there will be obvious results from their involvement. For example, when construction is already budgeted, or a real policy change is on the line.

All of this adds up to a sense that there is “something at stake.”

And yes, there are big things at stake with our society right now, but let’s face it: no one is going to come to your “depolarization” or your “community building” event. Or the people that show up will be a very, very select group.

But folks will come out when some sort of change is happening in the neighborhood. Try this one out, for example: “We have a few hundred thousand dollars to renovate the park down the street. Come help us figure out how to spend that money.”

If you do your engagement work right, lots of different people will show up to share their perspectives. And they may not know it, but in the process of sharing hopes and dreams for the future with each other, communities can begin to weave the threads of connection to make a cohesive social fabric.

It’s a kind of a bait and switch, but the good kind.

Here’s my beef: For 90-plus percent of community engagement practice, we let this opportunity slip away. We draft our outreach plans, do on-line surveys, table at community events, have our one-on-one conversations with community members – without any of the interactions that bridge identity groups or build meaningful relationships amongst the communities we are engaging.

We pat ourselves on that back for community engagement “mission accomplished,” but miss the opportunity to graft on approaches that will get our civic hearts pumping and create the civic muscle memory for a connected and tolerant democracy.

So in the spirit of our upcoming New Year, let’s do a little reflection: Why do we keep walking out of the gym at this moment? Why do we settle for community engagement that merely solicits input and misses out on cultivating inter-group connection and tolerance? How do we provide the resources to graft on approaches that will spur the larger social change we urgently need?

If we can start 2024 with some commitments at least, the future looks a little bit brighter.

What Else I’m Reading

Wowza! Wanna see all this stuff I talk about in action? Check out this wonderful New York Times expose about Silverton, Colorodo : Divided by Politics, a Colorado Town Mends Its Broken Bones. It’s the story of a rural town divided by the winds of national politics, and a community visioning process led by the group Community Builders that helped heal it’s divisions. I’m not intimate with the approach of Community Builders, but from what I can tell from the article they used techniques that employed Optimal Contact, whether they knew it or not. They maximized the interaction between different identity groups in low-anxiety environments that induced empathy and perspective taking. And it worked. I tell ‘ya, I’m not making this stuff up!