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The Institute for Everyday Democracy: Strengthening Collaborative Intelligence

In November of 2016, Pomegranate Center and I became reflective about our country’s fractured state and how our work and mission should evolve to address it. What came out of our conversations and planning is a natural extension of the work we’ve already been doing for thirty years: determining the best ways people can work together to improve our communities.

Since retiring from the role of Executive Director, I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time engaging with the Pomegranate community through thoughtful conversations, which have in turn inspired me to focus more on thinking and writing. I’ve been fortunate to spend the last three decades doing the hands-on work of collaborative community building with Pomegranate Center, and now I plan to take that experience and focus on the invisible work that is so critical for our world now, what I call the work of “everyday democracy.”

We at Pomegranate don’t see “everyday democracy” like politics. It isn’t about one side versus the other—a contentious battle played out live on cable news. We believe society will improve when we stop seeing those with different views as the “other.” Everyday Democracy happens not only when we listen to each other’s ideas, but when we also learn about each other’s backgrounds, acknowledge our differences, and empathize with each individual’s challenges—when we stop seeing the “other” and start seeing people. Collaboration begins when we recognize others’ insights. It takes both courage to step beyond our firm land, and generosity to appreciate the excellence that can reside all around us.

With these ideas as our foundation, we are creating the Institute for Everyday Democracy as a new program within Pomegranate Center. It will exist symbiotically with the work we’re already doing: building artful public spaces, teaching people a better approach to facilitation, and partnering with communities to transfer our processes for local and long-lasting change. The Institute for Everyday Democracy will serve as a Research & Development department of Pomegranate Center to improve our engagement practice and explore new applications. We don’t yet know how this will look, but we invite you to imagine with us. If Pomegranate’s other programs are the hands-on work of collaboration, the Institute for Everyday Democracy is the think tank asking the questions needed to strengthen our collaborative intelligence.

The hypothesis that the Institute will explore is that our society is inevitably moving in the direction of cooperation. Our world is a system so multifaceted that it takes thousands of insights to help us understand its complexity. To continue to act as if one expertise and ideology are adequate is a problem that we will need to change together by consulting, actively listening, and learning from each other. We have thousands of specialists pushing their ideas and priorities. But what we lack are leaders who think on behalf of the larger systems and who manage the interactions between those ideas, which is where the real work begins to happen.

My colleagues and I see a tremendous opportunity if we can invite new habits for how we practice democracy, instead of the old ways that lead to increasing polarization and fragmentation. We will explore:

  • How can we improve the relationship between local governments and citizens?
  • Can comprehensive planning, civic projects, design reviews, etc. also double as classrooms for democratic collaboration?
  • Can representatives from government, business, and nonprofits better cooperate?
  • What can be done to unlock the collective wisdom of those living in today’s diverse neighborhoods?
  • How can young people better develop collaborative and civic intelligence?
  • Would our country benefit from having a roster of trained “neutral conveners” who focus on how we talk and protect the “marketplace” for ideas from being occupied by any single group or agenda?

Next Steps and How you can be Involved

In typical Pomegranate fashion, we invite you to help us envision how the Institute’s work can be of greatest service. This invitation begins now with two simple questions:

  1. What additional questions do you think the Institute should explore?
  2. Who are the people I should meet?

I welcome and look forward to your ideas. Please email me directly at milenko@pomegranate.org to share your suggestions. As the next steps and opportunities for involvement develop, I will continue to reach out. In the meantime, I hope you will consider answering the above questions. The Institute for Everyday Democracy is by no means a monolog; this is a conversation I hope will thrive from the contribution of many voices.