Facing Our John Gardner Moment

“Civilizations rise and fall, and sometimes—if they are lucky—they renew themselves.” Author, former cabinet member and Common Cause founder John Gardner wrote these words in a seminal essay in the National Civic Review.

As chair of the National Civic League board from 1994 to 1996 Gardner believed that the difficulties facing urban America called for a concerted effort on the part of civil society groups, business leaders and government to strengthen the nation’s commitments to community-building, civic engagement and collaborative problem-solving.

Joel Mills, senior director of the Centers for Communities by Design, thinks we may be, once again, experiencing what he calls “our John Gardner moment.”

“To paraphrase revolutionary leader Thomas Paine, these are the times that try our souls,” writes Mills in the summer 2020 issue of the National Civic Review. “A global pandemic is sweeping our communities and leaving destruction in its wake. If ever there were a time for reflection and an assessment of our collective well-being, it is now.”

Joel decided to pen his essay after contemplating the impacts the Covid-19 crisis would have on urban communities. “Every jurisdiction in the world was facing crises before the pandemic took hold,” he writes. “When we reach the conclusion of the pandemic emergency, these crises will be magnified and will draw significant demand for assistance. Successful city-building is the great task of the twenty-first century because it is so linked to our global interdependence and the survival of our civilization.”

Mills, who heads up the Center for Communities by Design, is no stranger to the Review or the League. In 2010, we teamed up with Mills to publish a special issue of the Review on the “civics of sustainability.” The issue highlighted communities that had implemented citizen-drive sustainability initiatives.

A former League staffer, Mills joined the organization in 2001 as a program associate. During those years, the National Civic League had a federal contract with the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Safe Kids/Safe Streets Project. Joel provided technical assistance to communities for the project and helped organize the 2001 National Conference on Governance.

Before joining the League, Joel was in the international democracy promotion business. It was during the heady years of the 1990s when South Africa was emerging from apartheid and designing new democratic institutions. The congressionally mandated National Democratic Institute for International Affairs was helping the fledgling democracy by providing information on how other democratic nations—including the U.S.—structured local governments.

After leaving the League in the 2002, Joel consulted on a variety of community initiatives, mostly in Washington, D.C. In 2005, he helped facilitate the siting of a day labor center in Herndon, Virginia.

The local controversy blew up in the national media when anti-immigration activists around the country came out in opposition. Joel found himself being interviewed by reporters from the Washington Post, CNN and PBS News Hour.

Since 2007, Joel has worked at the American Institute of Architects, where he heads up the Center for Communities by Design. The center provides pro bono technical assistance for community-driven planning projects.

His experiences working in communities all over the country informed his ideas for the Review essay. “I was motivated to write the article because I see our contemporary challenges as our defining ‘John Gardner moment,’ explained Mills in a recent e-mail exchange. “Our solutions will not come from Washington. They will emerge from our communities and we all need to join in the important work to rebuild our civic infrastructure and facilitate that process.”

Read Joel Mills’ complete article, An Urban Reality Check: Lessons Learned from COVID-19.

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