The civic agency project: field observations 2022

San Francisco, January 2023

Addressing equity in civic engagement is essential to advance equitable community outcomes. This shared understanding has energized our collaborations and grounded our experimentation with small group participation strategies. We have organized focus groups and interviews to elevate —and amplify— the voices and priorities of frontline communities. These "mini-public" strategies 1  have proven to be adaptable and effective participation tools. Their deliberative nature can hold complexity and deliver valuable insights, but the energy created around them dissipates quickly. How could they evolve to sustain deeper, long-term collaborations?

Going forward, balancing mini- and maxi-public strategies within comprehensive frameworks will remain a key challenge. We have collaborated in the creation of frameworks that (1) can support a shared agenda over a long-term implementation process; (2) span the full participation spectrum; (3) create feedback loops that leverage all strategies; and (4) bring people together, to go forth. Once institutionalized, these civic roadmaps will support the development of multi-directional partnerships with a shared agenda. With several public participation frameworks underway, we'll be monitoring progress over time to learn more about their effectiveness.

We are feeling more comfortable guiding our collaborators through emergent processes. Learning from the successes and set-backs of alliances, fronts, and movements advancing social and environmental causes, we feel better prepared to embrace unknowns, and adequately scale and pace relationship-building efforts. We work thoughtfully, with intention, at the speed of relationships. In this space we are actively exploring ways to also be in relationship with those not present. How can future generations weigh in on decisions that will impact their lives? Current policies and systems discount the future: we don't have the tools to discern the total costs of the decisions we make today. For now, we work on awareness, piloting future thinking exercises and advocating for youth representation across all strategies.

Inevitably, civic partnerships are shaped by existing —often imperfect— power structures. Power is invested in our collaborators' backgrounds, roles, and in the organizations they represent. Being intentional about who we reach out to, and ultimately partner with, gives visibility to the flows of accountability and power, and what is visible can be openly examined. This matters because empowerment is insufficient when power is not being shared 2. Intentional partnerships are an opportunity to redistribute some of this power with purpose. Beyond personal and organizational forms power, there are other sources that weave into our work. For thousands of years people have invested power in culture and place. We often wonder, how can these sources be fully harnessed to advance equity? To accelerate ecological restoration? To meet present needs and realize future hopes?