Devolution, Revolution and Evolution

Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings

We in the United States are on the eve of an election season that finds a majority of citizens disenchanted and aware that our political and economic institutions are stagnant—or worse, intransigent—in the face of economic, social, and environmental distress. For some of us, wholesale dismantling seems the only way out. Our communities are a mirror of the discontent that’s rising globally, often manifesting as devolutionary and revolutionary pressures. Beyond the much-publicized Brexit vote, there are 38 cities and regions in Great Britain that have filed for devolution, the opportunity to re-localize some economic and political power. Secessionist movements are burgeoning in every continent. Revolution likewise is seeping into global dialogues and action—including in our own country. Our climate is likened by some to the 1930s, when fascism and communism were on fire across the planet. 

Underneath many of these efforts is a chafing against global and centralized power and the resulting destruction of local communities. While re-localization and the refusal to succumb to the monocultures and systemic racism of global finance and industry are healthy responses to our interconnected crises, even a brief glance at history shows how problematic devolutions and revolutions can be if they substitute one demagogue or ideology for another, or result in tribalism, violence, or the building of literal and philosophical walls. 

A third strategy is the rapid evolution of ourselves and our institutions. Evolutionary leaps have the benefit of bringing the resources and strengths of current institutions into the future. Perhaps more importantly, evolution can help us to avoid the blame and recriminations that hamstring our creative responses. Cooperation and conversation can be tools of rapid evolution. 

For the past several decades, multi-disciplinary conversations and research have been a counter-current to increased disciplinary specialization, sparking some of the most interesting discoveries and patterns in science and academia. Sustainability, for example, is the ultimate multi-disciplinary investigation--calling on (at least) economics, physics, biology, sociology, political science, and chemistry. Multi-disciplinary conversations build bridges between the self-generated silos of knowledge and remind us of the essential connections between us and the world within and around us. 

Multi-institutional conversations likewise provide the space for reimagining the divisions that we have thought of as irrevocable. What are the real differences between our economic and political systems, if any? What is the pedagogy implicit in banking? What assumptions about work and family are built into our educational systems? 

A physical conversation between institutions is exploding. B-Corporations and work-study pro- grams are one manifestation. Another are the multi-stakeholder collaborations that are enabling communities to re-occupy their local assets in ways that benefit community members. An example is the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Sparked from a social impact investing interest of the Cleveland Foundation, the cooperatives have enabled the purchasing power of several large institutions to build thriving, neighborhood-based, worker’s collaboratives throughout some of the most economically-stressed communities in the city. 

At Community Solutions much of the work that has been spawned from our recent strategic planning process is likewise systemic and involves multi- institutional, multi-cultural, and multi- stakeholder collaboration. Our work in Resilient Communities, Regenerative Agriculture, Energy Democracy, Community Economics and Being the Change examines re-localization from multiple angles and perspectives, and is reflected in the projects you’ll read about here, including: 

• The One Hundred Year Plan film, a conversation between cultures; 

• Our soils projects, which bring together citizen scientists, scientific activists, and farmer-teachers; 

• Student research investigating the gaps in our regional food system and the student entrepreneurial opportunities involved in closing them; 

• Our Community Economic Incubator dialogues, through which our collaborative network is investi- gating social enterprise opportunities that increase regional resilience; 

• Our Community Fellows and the Miller Fellows programs, which bring the creative energy of students and community members to the problem-solving table; 

• And a suggestion that a conversation with neighbors could begin to re-weave the net of neighborhood resilience for all of us. 

We hope you enjoy these reflections, and consider becoming part of the conversation by fostering collaborations in your own profession or neighborhood, and by attending our Charting a New Course conference and dialogues this October 21-23 in Yellow Springs. We look forward to evolving with you. 

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