Beyond the Outrage: Turning Protest Into Positive Force for Change

In many ways the rapid spread of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements is a healthy sign that people are not mere spectators in the public square. Instead, they are stepping forward to express what matters most to them. But outrage alone will never be enough to create the kind of society people want. It will not, by itself, create more jobs, improve health care, or make us safer. Nor does it build trust across fault lines in society. It ultimately leaves people and the country at loggerheads.

In my travels across the nation, what's clear is that Americans are yearning to come back into the public square. They want to re-engage and re-connect with one another, join together to make a difference, and become a part of something larger than themselves.

The question is how to break down the silos, and temper the shouting and name calling that keep people apart and make it impossible to see and hear one another and get things done.

Living in the digital age provides enormous opportunities to help break the gridlock and move forward. The bipartisan Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy found that communities need robust news and information ecologies if people are to be informed and engaged, and if they are to solve public problems and improve their own lives.

Certainly new technologies are helpful, but beware: not all actions will be productive, and some will be downright harmful. For instance, just increasing the number of blogs and RSS feeds, or building more Twitter followers and Facebook friends, may lead people to fragment further into isolated groups, exactly at a time when we need to come together.

Moreover, using digital tools to build bigger megaphones, gather more protestors, and occupy public and private spaces will not produce the kind of public discourse, engagement opportunities or problem solving people are looking for. People want less noise and acrimony, not more.

A different path is needed.

Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder, recently wrote that Steve Jobs' legacy could be summed up in two words, "Think Different." This catchy phrase was more than good Apple ad copy. It was rooted in an enduring faith in people and their capacity to engage, connect, and have a hand in shaping their own future.

We must apply this same faith, not to consumer products, but to a decidedly public purpose: finding new and practical on-ramps for people to return to the public square and participate in the life of their community and nation.

For starters, this will require that we turn outward toward our communities. Only then can we know what truly matters to people - including their individual and shared aspirations and concerns, and what we all need to better inform ourselves.

We need to focus on specific issues that reflect broad community concerns but are also manageable in scope. Keeping to well-defined problems makes the whole effort disciplined, which in turn creates greater coherence over time. Disciplined, coherent efforts at identifying and addressing public concerns will facilitate making clear choices about what actions to take.

We need to cultivate boundary-spanning groups. By boundary-spanning I mean those people and organizations who bring people together across dividing lines, incubate new ideas and spin them off, and hold up a mirror to the community so people can hear and see one another and their shared realities. In some communities, public radio and television stations, community foundations, public libraries and local United Ways are natural boundary spanners. But too many organizations spend too much time looking inward, obsessed with their own strategic planning, turf battles and positioning when what is needed are more active and engaged boundary-spanners.

Communities must make sure there are enough entry points for people to engage in the public square, offering ways for people to come together and helping them stay connected over time. No one can say for sure exactly which on-ramps will prove most important or the form they'll need to take. In fact, because there is no linear way forward, we will need courage to adopt a mindset of innovation - and with it, a willingness to tolerate fits and starts, even failure, along the way.

Outrage sits at the core of human emotions. It is a cry that something essential in our lives is spinning out of control and no one seems to be listening. When outrage in the public square is left to fester it produces gridlock, even despair.

What people want is to make a better life for themselves and to move the country as a whole forward. To do this, we must see and hear one another, and create ways to get things done together.

This essay appeared in The Huffington Post on December 22, 2011

Click here to read Rich's paper for the Aspen Institute on Assessing Community Information Needs