Jim Kent:

"Human change initiatives must work at social, economic, and ecological levels if they are to succeed."

Posts Tagged ‘Civic Culture’

Stories of Heart and Soul in Community

Posted by Jim on September 17, 2009


The Use of Informal Networks and Gathering Places, Essential Elements of Heart and Soul, Allows Denver International Airport to be Built

The newspaper Denver Post read: “The Colorado General Assembly brokered a deal in 1985 to annex a 40 + acre plot of land in Adams County into the city of Denver, and use that land to build a new airport. Adams County voters approved the plan in a referendum in 1989.”

 The back story of this announcement, the hidden action that produced the vote by the citizens of Adams County to approve this annexation, is one of risk taking by Roy  Romer, then Governor of Colorado and James Kent Associates (JKA) leaders in the understanding of gathering places as communication centers and informal network decision making. 


In Colorado there is a state law that does not allow annexation by one jurisdiction from another with out the approval of the voters of the jurisdiction from which the land is to be annexed i.e. Denver needed 40 + acres of Adam’s County land in order to have the right land base to build its then new Denver International Airport.  The Governor took charge of the campaign to persuade Adams County citizens and businesses to support the annexation effort.  The campaign to make this happen had spent approximately $1.2 million in media ads, slick brochures “selling” the benefits of a new airport and the usual newspaper interviews and ads extolling the virtues of  this new airport for citizens of Adams County.


Five weeks before the vote in November of 1989 Jim Kent’s phone rang and on the line was Judy Harrington from Governor Romers office.  Shee explained that the formal campaign was not going well, that if the vote were “taken today” Denver would lose by 5 points and the airport would not be built.  The Governor wanted to know what could be done to turn this election around i.e. “can JKA’s  informal networking abilities turn this election”.  No small order when there was only 5 weeks left to get into the field.  The Governor was asked for two days so a quick check on what was going on with Adams County people who would vote on this referendum could be done.  Dropping into several gathering places the JKA team found what turned out to be the fatal flaw that was bringing the campaign for annexation approval down to defeat. 


The people of Adams County from the brief gathering place descriptions had what is termed an imbedded issue.  In the gathering place talk was the belief that “there would be no jobs or business opportunities at DIA for Adams County people.”  This was not true but it had the characteristics of an imbedded issue–one that is re-enforced daily through trusted word-of-mouth communication.  What was known was that the formal campaign could not penetrate to persuade the people that this “no jobs, no business opportunities” was “just not true”. With the information in hand the Governor was called with the following message:


“In order to turn this election around in 5 weeks, here’s what we have to do and how we are going to do it.”  The Governor was told  that in the next 5 weeks he would be needed every morning from 6:30am to 8:00am to visit every coffee shop in Adams County.  He was to bring no paper to write on or handouts and was not allowed to use “sell” talk.  He had to “listen” to the people and if he needed to draw something “draw on a napkin”.  The team needed to find the issues that the people had and respond to those issues to get underneath the “theme of non-access to jobs and businesses at DIA”.  In addition every Saturday he would work the “flea markets” to visit the booths to talk to the vendors about their issues and observations.  Finally the Governor’s Mansion with Governor Romer present will be available every Sunday between 2 pm and 4 pm for all of the Barbers, Beauticians and Bartenders (The 3 Bs) to come in and talk over their concerns and issues.  From the gathering places to the Mansion all of the people i.e. waitresses, vendors, and the 3 Bs were natural communicators in their respective networks and they moved information informally throughout Adams County.


As the issue got clarified in these word-of-mouth networks the new knowledge enhanced by the Governor about the fact that indeed there were “jobs and business opportunities” replaced the “myths and rumors” that the formal (and expensive) campaign could not penetrate.  In five short weeks this informal network and gathering place campaign contributed to turning the election from a sure 5 point defeat into a 4 point win.


To this day the process is  known as the “Oat Meal” circuit.  The Oat Meal circuit is designed to assist local citizens to empower themselves through participating in finding the truth and facts and not be disempowered by rumors and half-truths. The finding of truth and facts is a part of a community finding its heart and soul.  The community found on their own, through information and knowledge development, that there were opportunities that they were being deprived from taking advantage of them.  Outsiders who had a corporate agenda that needed to produce a vote against the annexation for their own gain were the ones who planted the “rumors and half truths”.  Had they prevailed in their narrow interests they would have deprived the citizens of Adams County from this great social and economic opportunity.




A side story of how the Governor worked to win the heart and soul of people at the gathering places takes place at a Café in northern Adams County where planes from one of the runways at DIA would come close to overflying some of the land in northern Adams County.  The Governor was in a booth with several people in the booth and several standing around.   Kent was standing with a waitress by the counter.  The Governor had been listening intently to Mildred a chicken and egg farmer in the area who was concerned about the planes flying overhead head and making noises.  Here’s the dialogue:


Mildred:  “Governor I don’t want that airport because the planes using the new runway will make so much noise that my chickens will stop laying eggs.” 


Governor without pausing and in the blink of an eye said:  “Tell you what Mildred, if you will consider the benefits of a new airport I will talk to our College of Agriculture to see if they can breed some chickens that are deaf.”  Every one relaxed and had a good laugh and the Governor had several more supporters.


Kent to Waitress:  “I didn’t know noise affected the ability of hens to lay eggs?”


Waitress to Kent:  “I don’t know about that, but I do know that Mildred’s chicken never did lay eggs very well, noise or no noise!”

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Deep Democracy: A Movement Towards Heart and Soul Governance

Posted by Jim on September 1, 2009

This op.ed. piece was written right after President Obama won the 2008 election for President.  It is about the informal systems in our world society that maintain deep democracy and how formal systems of government can come into alignment with this phenomena for a new era of governance as illustrated by President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic discussed below.

Deep Democracy:  Reflections on a National Movement toward Heart and Soul Governance–by Jim Kent

Inspired by a heartfelt message of hope, Americans have set a new national precedent for the core principles by which we govern ourselves. In our recent presidential race, Barack Obama campaigned on a heart and soul vision of personal responsibility, participation, compassion, shared sacrifice, social justice, democratic economic systems and change that benefits everyone. In doing so, the unlikely candidate of hope became the 44th United States President Elect, as well as an inspiration to millions of people around the world. During his breathtaking road to victory, the philosophy on which he ran propelled attributes of heart and the soul to the forefront of public consciousness. Citizens in astounding numbers rose up to act on his powerful slogan, “Yes we can,” and so began reversal of the appalling social and governmental trends that had been devouring our nation.

The world has witnessed other examples of rapid social and political change that were driven by deeply held core principles of a society. In a similarly historic election, presidential candidate V’aclav Havel galvanized the people of Czechoslovakia for a precedent that also swept the nation.  In 1989 a movement known as the “Velvet Revolution,” saw the relinquishment of political power by the communists and set the first free elections since 1946. Through this peaceful revolution, Czechoslovakia moved from a dark and closed centralized society to a vibrant, free, enterprise-centered civic order with astonishing rapidity. By l992, only three short years after Havel came onto the scene, individual business vendors in Prague lined the Charles Bridge, churches were well on their way to complete historic restoration, and private enterprise flourished throughout the city and countryside—an amazing phenomena given the long oppression.

One can point to two underlying factors for democracy’s fast recovery that bear on our recent electoral experience.  The first factor is whatever culture is in place when autocrats or elected officials with self-serving interests gain power is the culture by-and-large that will emerge when the oppression is overcome. Prior to the communist takeover, Czechoslovakia had a high degree of civic order and culture that quickly returned after the peaceful overthrow of the regime. The second factor concerns the cultural mechanisms that continue functioning when a government pursues an agenda based on rewarding the few and oppressing the many. These cultural mechanisms are the informal communication and caretaker networks invisible to the oppressors that grow stronger under top-down pressure in order for the people to survive and maintain their culture. They operate within natural gathering places and preserve the heart and soul of their civic order. Coffee shops, barbershops, beauty parlors, bars, restaurants, schools, soccer fields, open air markets, town squares and parks, as well as the newer public arenas of blogs and email, give people the chance to interact with each other, daily and intimately.

Informal caretaker and communication networks are strongly linked to our gathering places, because here personal exchanges freely flow and bonds of trust are maintained. It is in these informal networks that the beliefs, traditions, stories, and values are preserved, usually out of sight of formal systems such as government. Informal networks and gathering places are the horizontal elements that bind together society’s heart and soul, while top down, hierarchical and vertical administrative orders tend to breed internal cultures of their own that often fall out of sync with the communities and societies that they supposedly serve.  The power of these societal elements occurring within the gathering places and informal networks held the pre-1989 Czech culture together and thus offered a foundation for survival during the many years of occupation and oppression. Informal networks and gathering places are the horizontal structures that hold a society’s heart and soul together. Top down, vertical administrative structures, do not hold a society’s heart and soul.

In his New Year’s Address to the Nation given in Prague on January 1, 1990, President Havel offered profound insights on his country’s political experience that have meaning to us. The powerful factors of gathering places and informal networks held the pre-1989 Czech culture together so that it survived years of occupation and oppression. The inter-generational heart and soul of the country actually thrived through these word-of-mouth informal networks – the  underground so to speak, in the gathering places.

Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all. If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts.

The recent period—and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution—has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. And let us ask:

Where did the young people who never knew another system get their desire for truth, their love of free thought, their political ideas, their civic courage and civic prudence?

How did it happen that their parents—the very generation that had been lost—joined them?

How is it that so many people immediately knew what to do and none needed any advice or instruction?

Havel’s answer to these questions also can be relevant to us.

I think there are two main reasons…First of all, people are never just a product of the external world; they are also able to relate themselves to something superior, however systematically the external world tries to kill that ability in them. Secondly, the humanistic and democratic traditions, about which there had been so much idle talk, did after all slumber in the unconsciousness of our nations and ethnic minorities, and were inconspicuously passed from one generation to another, so that each of us could discover them at the right time and transform them into deeds.”

When deeply held core principles and values re-surfaced, Havel’s government was able immediately to adopt related tenets and visions for a successful realignment of the people with the administrative order bringing together the informal and formal systems.

The U.S. election of 2008 and the Czech election in 1989 show us that the more closed the formal system, the stronger and more effective the informal caretaking and communication networks become. We have seen this at work in our own society over the last eight years.  In 2000 America also was a democratic and prosperous nation whose citizens were filled with excitement, individual opportunity, creative enterprise, hope for the future, and a surplus in our Treasury. By 2008 we suffered economic collapse and a lose of hope.

Barack Obama responded to this lose of hope by campaigning relentlessly in informal networks and gathering places. In these networks he found our will, our sense of purpose and our best intentions.  Even his acceptance speech illustrates this – delivered to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans in Grant Park – a vast public gathering place, he said, “This is your victory. Yes we can, Yes, we did it.”

Barack Obama accessed and awakened the slumbering desire for participation that is deeply held and imbedded in our people. We were ready to be awakened.  He clearly understands that when the beliefs, traditions, spirit of change, and hopes of our people are aligned in our formal administrative bodies, we can whole-heartedly look forward to a new era of successful citizen-energized governance that will bring about a rapid recovery in the same manner that the Czech Republic experienced.  Understanding this cultural process that harbored our heart and soul in the informal networks, and keeping the cultural process successfully engaged in our governance will accelerate the changes we are about to experience and in which we will participate.

Realizing that our new government is based on the pursuit of freedom, liberty, justice, and democratic principles of life we will once again have a government that is “of and by” the people.

Jim Kent is a community organizer and social ecologist. He carries out his work through the Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy and James Kent Associates. He can be reached at jkent@jkagroup.com or www.jkagroup.com

©JKA Group 2009

Jim Kent is known internationally as a community organizer, a social ecologist, social activist, and an entrepreneur. He has successfully built three businesses that foster a crisis prevention social and cultural model for action.

His first company, the JKA Group, trains and consults locally, regionally, nationally and internationally with private and public organizations. The non-profit organization, The Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy teaches policy formation through the lens of social ecological principles. Natural Borders, LLC is a human geographic mapping company using the overlay of human and cultural boundaries for mapping social landscapes within which people live and work and play. He developed a social, economic and ecological model for action, known as The Discovery Process. This process applies specific tools used to assist governments, businesses and individuals, to use their culture to gain participation, predictability and control of their lives.  He lectures and teaches widely on the importance of the use of these informal systems.

Jim Kent’s work within the informal cultural systems of South China assisted in opening telecommunication opportunities for several American businesses in the late 1980’s.  He developed the hallmark Social Responsive Management system within the United States Forest Service, and was awarded the 75th Anniversary Gifford Pinchot Award. Mr. Kent assisted with the development and implementation of the Great Society Programs that included:  Head Start, Neighborhood Health Centers, and Administration of Justice and Teacher Corps. He has worked 12 years with the Bureau of Land Management in assisting
Field Offices to work with community based stewardship and adaptive management principles.  The BLM has adopted his Human Geographic Mapping system.

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