There’s a disconnect happening in towns across the country. Our communities are rich in civic assets — innovative problem solvers, passionate organizers, willing volunteers. But it’s easy to feel a sense of distance and competition that keeps us from working together. We need new approaches to cultivating community collaborative, both nationally and locally.

The Civic Collaboratory is a replicable mutual aid society and solutions incubator for civic catalysts of all kinds.

It’s a way for community leaders to join together across geography, ideology, and area of expertise to spark new solutions to our nation’s challenges. We have hosted our own National Civic Collaboratory over the past decade. It’s generated dozens of nation-spanning partnerships involving immigrant rights, voting reform, civic tech, civic education, faith-based organizing, civic arts, and more. Now, we’re working with organizations across the country to develop local Civic Collaboratories.

About the Civic Collaboratory model

A Civic Collaboratory gathering isn’t your everyday meeting. This framework of collaboration serves to expand our idea of what is possible — to prove the power of non-zero-sum thinking. When repeated over time, it creates a generative, imaginative space where unlikely partnerships take shape. Big ideas emerge from small acts of mutuality and reciprocity. Here are just a few elements that make the Civic Collaboratory model special.

Bonds of Trust and Affection

The Civic Collaboratory was created to be relational, not transactional. Taking the time to get to know one another, break bread together, and join in shared rituals allow us to forge the bonds that underlie collaboration. Ultimately, we are investing in relationships and trust.

Rotating Credit Club

At the heart of each meeting is our Rotating Credit Club. A few members of the group take turns presenting an idea or project they are working on, and the rest of the Collaboratory offers not just commentary or critique, but firm commitments of help. What spurs members to make commitments? Because, in the best sense, what goes around comes around. Soon it’ll be your turn in rotation. This mutual investment of capital — social, intellectual, and institutional — has made the Collaboratory a uniquely influential cross-silo network of action.

A Model for Intergenerational Collaboration

At Citizen University’s National Civic Collaboratory, our gatherings span generations. Each meeting includes the current cohort of our Youth Collaboratory high school students and seasoned leaders alike. Together, they gain thought partners, inspiration, and mutual mentorship.

The Civic Collaboratory is a critical incubator for our democracy. It is the place where committed citizens provide the kindle needed to start fires that burn well past the time we are together.

Sayu Bhojwani New American Leaders Project

Evolving collaboration

The Civic Collaboratory provides an inclusive, simple, and collaborative approach that sparks participation and responsibility-taking. It’s an opportunity to shift the current paradigm of individual achievement towards collaboration and shared success. It connects a wide range of innovative leaders who are united, not necessarily by thought, but by a shared set of values that include responsibility, trust, and purpose.

Our approach is inspired by models of mutual aid that hearken back to communities of enslaved African Americans who sought to build power. To immigrants shunned by the dominant power structure. To small-town farmers lacking access to capital and social capital. And this kind of mutual aid works best when reinforced by the structure, habits, and norms of repeated gathering.

Starting the national network

Since 2011, Citizen University has run a successful nationwide Civic Collaboratory, connecting civic innovators across lines of geography, political ideology, race, and domain. It’s sparked hundreds of joint projects and partnerships. We have held over 30 Collaboratory meetings over the last decade in cities around the country, with hosts ranging from The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in California.

Spreading the model locally

Building on the success of our national-scale model, we are excited to begin working with local leaders to create Civic Collaboratories in cities across the US. Today, amidst a society-shifting pandemic, people are rediscovering the value of mutual aid. Many spontaneous mutual-aid efforts have sprung up and inspired new ways of working together. The Collaboratory approach provides a scaled framework for civic action.

In 2018, we partnered with the Chicago Community Trust to pilot the first-ever Local Civic Collaboratory, bringing together civic catalysts from different sectors and segments of Chicago. In many ways, we see the Civic Collaboratory framework as being more effective locally than nationally. We are ready to share the model with other cities and towns around the country, together designing a new element of civic infrastructure.

We are in the process of expanding this program to partner with local community organizations who want to bring the Civic Collaboratory model home. Please sign up for our email newsletter to learn when and how you can get involved!

The Civic Collaboratory is the most important personal and professional network I’m part of. The people I met in the first 24 hours changed the trajectory of my thinking and my work.

Lisa Kay Solomon Stanford University’s Institute for Design