Sustainability and Democracy: An Interview with Carmen Sirianni

Back to Summer 2020: Volume 109, Number 2

Carmen Sirianni’s book, Sustainable Cities in American Democracy, will be published this year by The University Press of Kansas. It is the latest title in a body of published work on civic innovation and democratic governance by the Brandeis professor. Among his other books are Civic Innovation in America, with Lewis Friedland, (2001) and Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (2009). He was editor, with Jennifer Girouard, of Varieties of Civic Innovation: Deliberative, Collaborative, Network, and Narrative Approaches (2014). National Civic Review contributing editor Albert Dzur interviewed him in May of 2020.

 Albert Dzur: You’ve been writing about civic innovation for some time. I’m curious about how you started down this road.

Carmen Sirianni: In the early 1990s, several things converged for me. First, Harry Boyte and Bill Galston opened the door for me with the Reinventing Citizenship project through the Domestic Policy Council. That project really opened my eyes to people within the federal bureaucracy in ways that would have taken me years to discover otherwise.

Exactly at the time I was jumping into the Reinventing Citizenship project as the research director, the National Civic League under John Gardner’s leadership—along with John Parr and others, like Derek Okubo and Gloria Rubio-Cortes—began the Alliance for National Renewal. This brought groups together thinking about renewal in civic terms, in community building terms. Because those projects dovetailed, we started meeting together and that, again, opened doors for me in the National Civic League network. I developed a richer sense of community visioning as a range of tools that folks could use.

DeWitt John’s work was also particularly helpful. He was a National Academy of Public Administration fellow who had published the book Civic Environmentalism, and then a series of studies commissioned by Congress on different aspects of how to bring civics into thinking more robustly about the environment.

Those three things shaped me in those initial years and opened my sensibility up to civic innovation.

Dzur: The concept “civic innovation” is connected to community, but it doesn’t mean communities are able to take care of themselves. It implies that something needs to be done, but not to the extent of social engineering. Am I right in thinking that “civic innovation” is in this conceptual space in between a go-it-alone communitarianism, on the one hand, and overactive government, on the other?

Sirianni: Exactly. I’m sensitive to that concern about top-down government. Thinkers with a strong community perspective, like Amitai Etzioni and Bill Schambra, were part of the Reinventing Citizenship project. Clearly, in arenas that have powerful political, bureaucratic, and professional actors, it is easy for all kinds of folks, especially progressives and technocratic liberals, to go in that direction. Even some environmental groups will often work within the bureaucracy to passively resist doing community-based programs because they think it would weaken protections and regulations.

Climate change, however, just magnifies the challenges of complex problems, diverse publics, and the need to figure out how to get people on board with a mix of costs and benefits they can live with. There are technical tools and market tools, but it is clear that communities will have to adapt in ways that are complex and sometimes conflictual. People will not just wake up one day soon and say, “Oh yes, I now believe the climate science and therefore we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” Nobody should believe that this is anything but a decades-long process that must engage communities.

Dzur: You said your work in the 90s with the Clinton administration opened your eyes to people in the federal bureaucracy who were interested in civic innovation. Can you speak to this idea that bureaucrats can work with rather than for the public?

Sirianni: I remember meeting with EPA staffer Hank Topper. I had no idea what to expect when we sit down for lunch, and I find out he’s a guy who was a pretty radical 1960s student and labor activist. He said, “I thought about that, went back to graduate school, I got a PhD studying the topic of deliberative democracy.” My jaw dropped: this is a staffer at the EPA? “And then I started working on these projects with small businesses and communities.” I asked, “How many people are like you?” And he said, “There’s a whole network of us, of people trying to figure this out in ways that work constructively with small ethnic businesses and diverse communities.”

Some come from a background that would incline them in that direction, like Hank, and others move there more gradually. When I started working with Community Action for a Renewed Environment, the CARE program, I met Rob Brenner, who was the head of the policy unit in the Office of Air and Radiation and an assistant acting administrator. Rob was a technocrat and helped craft the market basis for the Clean Air Act Amendments. He told me, “We had some stuff for cities, we thought it was really good, and we would go to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council meetings, and the EJ people would just beat me up. And that’s putting it politely.”

Rob was a distinguished senior professional who saw himself making sure regulations got translated for urban communities. He sat down with Hank and other midlevel career people and said, “What can we do to bring together some people from the environmental movement, some industry people, and academics? Let’s talk about a way we can move this agenda at the level of communities so that the environmental justice people really feel like they have a voice in shaping what the strategies could be.”

I was blown away. The people I was meeting in the federal bureaucracy were doing more interesting deliberative, relational things than I ever imagined as a sociologist in the late 1980s and early 90s. I had to have a look at it.

Dzur: Those interactions led you to examine the ways EPA supported citizen action. You’ve written about this previously and now also in your current book. Your perspective challenges the argument that the more that government does, the less citizens can do.

Sirianni: Well, sometimes government works in ways that are not conducive to community involvement, for reasons you’re sharply attuned to, given your work on democratic professionalism. Sometimes, bureaucrats worry that if they work with local organizations and neighborhood groups they will we be exposing themselves to the critique—from people upward in the hierarchy or people in the organized environmental community—that they are not enforcing enough. Nobody among the career staff at EPA is going to develop something that is going to skirt regulations. It’s not what they want to do. But what they are saying is, “Can we add? Can we enrich?”

We have a Clean Water Act, the big one enacted in 1972, and then the amendments in 1987, which, just to focus on one little piece, created the National Estuary Program. We’ve got all kinds of enforcement tools, but it is clear that stakeholders have to come together: business, scientists with well-attuned understandings of particular estuaries, and other institutions and environmental groups come to the table and say, “How can we add?” And to some extent, of course, it’s “We don’t expect to get new federal regulations.” Today we are in an unfortunate situation where there is such a rollback that it is clear that there are just a lot of things that have to be defended.

People were saying, “We need more than that. We need to engage communities and stakeholders.” So the National Estuary Program (NEP), learning from various places like the Chesapeake Bay, came up with a template that said, “If you want to get federal money, in your initial five-year grant you have to manage in such a way that you have these multiple stakeholders at the table. There has to be an environmental group, a university so there is scientific clout, some business folks, and then you can add others.”

NEP asked grantees to map the field, saying, “Your responsibility is to go out and tell us who are all the actors in the field that might contribute to solutions. In some cases, you’re going to need new local and state regulations. Figure out how you’re going to get those. You’re not necessarily going to get these in the form of federal regulations. You’re going to need to vote bonds. How are you going to get your public behind that? You’re going to have to convince them this is worthy, that it actually can generate business in tourism and other kinds of things. NEP helped to engage economists who could provide the toolkits needed to make a compelling public case to voters that protecting and restoring estuaries would be in the broad public good.”

A range of civic toolkits emerged in these kinds of processes, to say, “Now that you’re engaged as multiple stakeholders, we’re supporting you—you can get money from the state, you can get money from foundations—but if you follow this governance template, i.e. collaboration to develop a management and restoration plan.”

Dzur: Do you find support among federal bureaucrats for your pragmatic mode of engaging communities under the present polarized conditions? Are there people who will carry this torch even given the pervasiveness of the toxic, impulsive governance style of the moment?

Sirianni: Extensive damage is being done in terms of intimidating people, people retiring or early retiring, people being shifted around for their protection. Political scientists studying the current administration are having trouble even getting genuine interviews. We have to operate under the assumption that there needs to be reconstruction, that we’ll have to recruit new people, and make sure significant efforts are made to enable civic collaboration of various sorts. It will definitely take a while. In your terminology, how do we build a reconstructive strategy for democratic professionalism in the relevant agencies and associations.

Dzur: You have a book coming out in a few months, Sustainable Cities and American Democracy. What is your definition of “sustainability?”

Sirianni: I start with the basics, the three “Es” if you will: environment, economy, and equity. We do need a robust economy, but we don’t necessarily need a certain model of growth. The issue of social equity has developed over a couple of decades, via terms like “environmental justice.” Julian Agyeman and others say you always need to modify “sustainability” with “just” so you have “just sustainability.” Also important is the healthy cities and communities framing and set of practices supported early on by the National Civic League in the 1980s and more recently articulated by Jason Coburn and other health planners and theorists. “Sustainable cities” has to mean that you are working on holistic factors that shape community health.

Green building is also relevant. Over the course of the 90s, people started seeing the need for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) framework for neighborhood development. And now we have a LEED for cities and communities. The first sentence in the strategic plan of the U.S. Green Building Council affirms that the green building movement is part of sustainable cities and communities. Figuring out how to bring together the owner of the building, the architect, and then piece together other players makes this more about democracy. The Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, developed an especially robust visioning and collaborative strategy engaging all types of blue and pink-collar school staff, teaching and building professionals, as well as parents and students. In this case, the head of district building operations served as the community organizer and deliberative practitioner.

Dzur: You see sustainability and democracy as connected. In the environmental movement, however, as you have mentioned, there can be distrust of public opinion and public action—and sometimes for good reason. How is democracy important to sustainability in your view?

Sirianni: Looking empirically at what it took for planners, architects, transportation officials, and others to say we need to really focus on the environment, a lot of it stemmed from decades-long challenges by citizen movements and community groups. These were groups who said, “You’re not putting this road through, we will stop it.” These were groups who could impose tremendous costs. And then some of the norms and rules of new legislation, like environmental impact assessments, created pressures to listen and invite people to the table.

Struggle from the outside, from the bottom up clearly shook things up. Take a field like transportation and bicycle planning. The bicycle associations organized, and they were sometimes very militant in terms of their tactics. Cities like San Francisco and a few others had democratic systems that were open enough such that officials said to these groups, “OK, what would you do? Come to the meeting. Why don’t you talk to the engineers in transportation?”

Also useful, Daniel Moynihan and others in the Senate helped to push through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which had funds for transportation enhancements of different sorts. Now these bicycle associations that are beginning to challenge their local and city governments can say, “Actually there is an incentive. We might get hundreds of thousands of dollars to do some of what we propose.” And the mayor says, “Well if we get hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe we can talk about this some more.”

This is where the field of sustainability starts to become more established. In 1995, for example, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) was founded partly because a lot of transportation engineers were not happy with the broader professional association. Now there are citizens –bicycle people, and then pedestrian associations, and later the AARP advocating for age-friendly communities—saying, “Come to the table, there’s money.” And from NACTO’s point of view, why wouldn’t officials want citizen support to do some of the things they know are good but are sometimes hard and controversial and lead to professionals getting beaten up in public meetings.

Dzur: This gets to a concept you use in your work, “democratic institutionalism.” Part of the story you tell about democracy and sustainability is about citizens organizing, putting pressure on the insiders. But there’s another side, too, which is how institutions and those inside them can bring people together, facilitate reflection, and spark action. What does democratic institutionalism look like when you see it operating well?

Sirianni: I grew up in the 60s and was socialized around participatory democracy. My dissertation project, which turned into my first book and a series of articles, looked at the example of workers’ councils in earlier revolutionary periods. I was under my own great illusion when I started, wishing for my own L’Ordine Nuovo—the new order of the young Antonio Gramsci. And it became clear to me that if you didn’t engage institutions and keep them working well, and you didn’t look at capacity and how to build it, that you’re not going to achieve much change.

I think that you can have a more complex view of institutionalism, people working on the inside and the outside, without losing a great vision. We can do democracy from many different points and angles. And not everybody is going to do them all. Some people are going to be bridges between one and the other. And some people are going to be really good outsiders who become insiders and some people will remain as outsiders.

Dzur: Hank Topper is a good example of an outsider who became an insider.

Sirianni: Exactly. Same is true of Charles Lee, who wrote the first environmental justice report, in the 1980s when he worked at the United Church of Christ (UCC). He became a movement leader who then joined the EPA. He decided that we need more collaborative forms to get things moving on the ground, to get results, and to mobilize people to generate solutions. He then coordinated the interagency working group across more than a dozen federal agencies.

Dzur: Let’s talk about what motivates people on the inside. Hank Topper and Charles Lee brought an environmental movement way of thinking with them in their new positions inside. What about rank and file insiders with no roots in that movement? What motivates people like this to take a democratic institutionalism approach?

Sirianni: Some of it is community spirit. Give people that opportunity and some rise to the occasion. As the head of the Northeast Ohio Sewer District said at a River Rally recently, “It is more fun and more genuine in terms of doing your job.” This dovetails with your work on democratic professionals. Legitimacy is also important for people like this, who are trying to manage storm water systems and all kinds of other complex systems. Legitimacy can be enhanced, but it can also be undermined if they can’t find constructive ways to work with the community. They can also see their own professionalism enriched when they come to recognize knowledge being generated by community actors.

Dzur: Consider someone who says, “Professor Sirianni, my job is hard enough as it is. On top of being a good administrator, you’re telling me I’ve got to engage with these unruly citizens’ organizations? They have no clue about my budget constraints. You’re adding another 10 hours a week to my job if I have to find constructive ways to work with them.” How do you respond?

Sirianni: Well, I would say that citizens’ groups can add to the headaches of your job in any number of ways if you ignore them. They can catch you up and make you look like a failure with your colleagues and with your bosses.

I remember interviewing Norm Rice, who was the mayor of Seattle through most of the 90s. This was the period of neighborhood planning, the Sustainable Seattle plan, and he didn’t get the importance of this at first. He thought there were simpler and more direct ways of improving the lives of people than through democratic neighborhood engagement. “But once I got it,” he said, “I really got the proposition that you have to have everybody on board.”

As one former community organizer named Jim Murphy who worked in the Superfund community involvement division at EPA’s region 1 told me, “Everyone wants a Cadillac [site remediation plan] at first.” But when you explain budgets, that they might not need a Cadillac and might have to wait ten years to get one, when you explain that other communities might have to wait even longer and other taxpayers like yourself will have to pay more, they are willing to deliberate and negotiate. As long as there is a safe and healthy alternative for moving forward. It’s truly inspiring to see complex civic virtue produced at the interface of active community and public agency.

Dzur: Your example of Norm Rice suggests officials can realize that convening public discussions may be a new task, but one that will help their work go better. Just by beginning such discussions, officials can start to think differently about their jobs.

Sirianni: One of the interviews I did for the book that was striking to me was with Suzanne Malec-McKenna in Chicago. As a young staffer in an environmental land trust civic association, she went to meet with Mayor [Richard M.] Daley in the first few years of his administration to pitch sustainability ideas. And within a minute he said, “I don’t want to hear any more about this. We’re privatizing the Bureau of Forestry. That’s all there is to it.”

She had a 20-minute slot and decided to argue with him. This went on for 45 minutes and it was reasonable but vehement. “I left that meeting crying,” she said. “I thought we were defeated.” A few days later Daley calls her up and says, “How would you like to be the assistant commissioner for natural resources within the environment department?” She realized that he respected people who pushed passionately for something—in this case trees and reforestation. Civic groups helped him fall in love with trees and he planted trees everywhere. He could see the value of these ideas. And then of course, he could also sell the city’s sustainability image.

People have multiple motives. Some are really good and deep, others less so. But that’s part of the political and strategic game, to better align these various institutional and cultural logics, to promote business but also greening and also environmental justice.

Dzur: Some cities you talk about in the book such as Portland, San Francisco, Chicago have had major achievements. What lessons can you draw for cities that may not have as much of a mix of favorable conditions for sustainability and democracy?

Sirianni: Some of these cities, like Portland, had an easier path, while others had years of struggle. But we don’t have too many years to struggle. In a time of climate crisis, we need to move forward quickly and to leverage the various civic innovations that have emerged slowly before now.

We need some kind of Green New Deal public policy that says, “Here’s some help in regional planning, city planning, attracting new industries, restoring watersheds, retreating from the shore in some cases. And, of course, job training in a green economy.” We need a mix of genuine money for helping coal miners retrain, for example, and to enable others who are not well positioned right now to join in.

Dzur: You argue that we need both economic and civic investments. What do you have in mind by “civic investment” for a Green New Deal?

Sirianni: I don’t endorse a particular Green New Deal proposal and am wary of some of the rhetorical and programmatic overreach. But however we go about this, we need some genuine civic investment. There are at least four ways of thinking about civic-oriented grants. First, we have a track record with federal grants that go to communities to build partnerships. We have them in environmental justice collaborative problem-solving grants, we have them with the CARE grants where communities get funded for multiple years to convene partners to take action on a whole array of things, we have watershed examples. These are models we can ramp up, always with the proviso that they are working properly.

Second, we should look at the professional challenges your work has highlighted and develop a grant program that incentivizes professional associations to reflect on their civic mission and how they engage with communities. We need to develop this attitude within professions with pilot projects, tool kits, and strategic connections to professional schools.

I would also include grants that go to trade unions, central labor councils, and chambers of commerce to figure out how to work collaboratively. We want to make sure the workforce is not only being retooled for this but is being retooled in such a way that they have the democratic skills to be engaged, productive, insightful people, who generate things from the shop floor, who generate technical and organizational innovation from their networks of other unions.

And then another well-worn path: to ratchet up AmeriCorps so that we have hundreds of thousands more people who have a pathway to national service. Reforestation, sustainability in cities, all kinds of things. Some of those groups already exist. There is the AmeriCorps network at the national level, the Corps Network, and YMCA has its own Earth Service Corps, and there is a FEMA Corps, which should be serving its 2011 mission of a “whole community approach” to disaster and preparedness planning. Even the textbooks for such professions now emphasize this. So, let’s do it!

Those are four specific kinds of federal grants, and certainly there are more that extend downward to states and cities. What I propose is a 1 to 5 percent rule, so that for every trillion dollars that you invest in, say, green infrastructure, broadly defined, a 1 to 5 percent civic GND rule would yield 10 to 50 billion dollars for civic development. There would then exist a normative foundation in the law that says we will invest in the civic side of this. The agencies and their civic partners will figure out how to do this work. That way you’re not always begging for the crumbs to do some civic work, to get teams together. Congress needs a policy and funding design that fundamentally signals the commitment of our republic to civic and collaborative work to address climate and sustainability challenges at the community and regional levels.

Dzur: Your book is coming at a critical time. You’ve documented the different layers of value that come from connecting sustainability and democracy. It’s an important and very well researched argument.

Sirianni: Thanks so much, Albert. My work has been inspired and enriched by your work, as well as that of the National Civic League for many years.

My working paper, “The Civics of a Green New Deal: Towards Policy Design for Community Empowerment and Public Participation in an Age of Climate Change,” is available at the Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, CivicGreen website.

My forthcoming book, Sustainable Cities in American Democracy is available from Amazon.

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