Building Cooperative Communities

By RoMa Johnson

I sat down to write an article about giving and gratitude for all of the people who have been such staunch supporters of Citizens Project. Prior to writing, of course, I had to caffeinate. As I sipped my quadruple latte, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review of July-August 2011 entitled “The Unselfish Gene,” which posits that “people behave far less selfishly than most assume,” and that there is “evidence of a human predisposition to cooperate.” This runs contrary to what we have been taught to believe for well over a century. We have built systems and organizations “as though we are selfish creatures [and] by assuming the worst of everyone.” Organizations and systems were “built around incentives, rewards, and punishments to get people to achieve public, corporate and community goals.” Now we know that these old assumptions no longer serve us in our evolving communities—if they ever did.

Citizens Project was created under the new paradigm that assumes that cooperation generated from a common sense of purpose and identity achieves results. For over twenty years we have worked together without “incentives, rewards or punishments” to build and maintain a more diverse and vibrant community through dialogue, engagement and cooperative action.

As I read the article, I was particularly struck by the paragraphs that talked about voting. This section stood out because of Citizens Project’s commitment to civic engagement as well as the importance of voting and being active in the political process.

…voting is a puzzle for the rational actor model [in which our material interests provide good predictions about our behavior]. The probability that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of a policy he or she cares about is infinitesimally small, so much so that any cost, including a 15-minute detour should outweigh it. Still hundreds of millions of us around the world violate self-interested rationality in public every year. We vote.

Imagine there are such things as personality traits…Imagine one such trait is conscientiousness. People who have that trait…tend to be happier with themselves and do what they think is right according to the cultural context. Voting happens to be one way…

Conscientiousness within a cultural context could easily be a tag line to describe the work of Citizens Project over the last two decades and going forward. Through fostering conscientiousness, Citizens Project aims to build a cooperative, diverse, and respectful community in Colorado Springs.

The Harvard Business Review suggests seven preliminary ideas for building cooperative systems. As I read through these, I found it easy to match up the ideals that we—staff, volunteers and community members—consistently uphold: communication; framing and authenticity; empathy and solidarity; fairness and morality; intrinsic motivations; reputation and reciprocity; diversity. Not only does Citizens Project function as such a system, but we work to build that style of system in the Pikes Peak community.

I noticed that the seven key ideas were bracketed by communication and diversity, both touchstones in our mission. Citizens Project fosters multi-level discourse despite differences of opinion and has a deep commitment to the celebration and engaged experience of diversity.

Well, I started to write about giving and gratitude, and now that the last sip of foam has been slurped from my cup, let me return to topic to say how deeply grateful I am to be a part of Citizens Project, and how none of this would ever be possible without the support of so many “Citizens” like you, who see our work together less as a “Project” and more like a shared vision in action for the community we love. Thank you.

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