Our work in the Growing Democracy Project is finding out how to grow a deeply embedded/embodied democracy throughout the US from within individuals and from the ground-up. The Transformative Communities of Democratic Practice (TC) would be a basic unit of participation in this Project. 

Each TC would be an autonomous learning community where diverse everyday citizens can come together to talk with and hear each other’s political and personal concerns. They can be grounded in a variety of local venues: a neighborhood, an association, a community center, school, organization (profit or nonprofit), housing cooperative, etc.

To realize its potential for growing democracy the TCs would need a broad diversity of participation from across several spectra:

  • Political orientation (Blue/Red /Purple/Independent/etc.)
  • Ethnic subcultures
  • All gender orientations
  • All sexual orientations
  • Class
  • Age
  • and more if we have missed any.

The purpose and primary task of the TCs would be to develop lived democracies where its diverse members are continuously learning to think and act together. Their practice would involve working through real conflicts of interest as well as their failures of mutual understanding without sacrificing either truth, caring for one another, or real differences. 

The Lungs

Hearing and understanding each other are the lungs of every functional group. This is what we do when we make a family, when musicians make music, when a work team gets a job done. When an attacked country defends itself. 

We call this relational breathing. The basic requirement for its success is two-fold: inhaling and exhaling information: 


wanting to hear and understand each other so we can think and act together,


willing to move into our vulnerabilities by speaking our relevant responses to what we are taking in—whatever they may be. Speaking truth to one another, face-to-face as well as we can and learning how to do it better. Then wanting to hear back the responses to what we put out. 

Then, back to inhaling.

The Community of Practice

The TC is a specific adaptation of a dynamic social learning model—the Community of Practice (CoP)—for developing, sustaining, and spreading relational breathing. The CofP is a well-established learning space. There is a vast amount of experiential knowledge about how the CoP works, and even more about organizing networks. (See the short list of resources at the end of this section.)

So, this would not be inventing a new kind of wheel. Rather, TC participants would be adapting and evolving the instrument. This is what people have done for ages with all cultural things like the bicycle, guitar, printing, stove, etc. 

Combining transformative objectives with the CofP model would present an interesting challenge. Although CoPs are an ancient tool with a lot of modern updating, they have not, to our knowledge, been used as a transformative tool for achieving the transformation f a nation’s political culture. 

The TC

The specific responsibilities for a TC be would be fourfold: 

  • provide the social space and the learning culture for personal transformation that will involve re-thinking some of the fundamental ways we have been disposed to see, understand, act, and be a part of the world; 
  • support its members in the public work important to each; 
  • be active in local networks in ways that grow democracy in a TC’s locale; and 
  • help build the GDN in order to grow the project broad scale. 

A single TC cannot do all of this alone. To pursue this agenda will require a supportive network of TCs. This network would also be the home of a Participatory Action Research & Development program for TL and whatever else the people active in the GDN would decide is appropriate. 

(We briefly discuss our ideas for the Growing Democracy Network (GDN) and the nature of Transformative Learning (TL) in other parts of this section on The Project.)


Adapting the CofP

Communities of practice usually involve multiple levels of participation. Since it would be ideal for TCs to be well connected with the world around them, this provides a good model. Also, it’s important to note that the boundaries between the levels within a CofP are rather fluid and flexible. 

We will use two tools here to illustrate its multiple levels of participation and how our TC can adapt the CoP for its specific purposes. The first tool is a table showing a) the levels of participation, and b) how a TC would employ these levels to serve itself, its local area, and the GDProject as a whole. 

The second tool is a graphic that pictures the dynamic interaction between the levels. It follows the table, and gives us a taste and a feel for what a community of practice can be. 

The Table


Core group: a relatively small group of people whose passion and engagement energize and nurture the community The TC core group (CG) would be 10-20 people from either a neighborhood, an association, a community center, school, organization (profit or nonprofit), housing cooperative, etc. Their “passion and engagement” would be what develops and sustains a small transformative democratic culture. This is their primary citizen activism, or one of them.
Active participants: members who are recognized as practitioners and define the community (though they may not be of one mind as to what the community is about) Many members will participate actively, but

other commitments and/or dispositions will limit their commitment to a TC.  Or, they may be more ambivalent about personal transformative change than the CG members. Their contributions to the project, however, will be essential. Along with CG members, they will be sources of democratic value and practice in their local world as well.

Occasional participants: members who only participate when the topic is of special interest, when they have something specific to contribute, or when they are involved in a project related to the domain of the community. Some people may move back and forth between “active” and “occasional” participation. Occasional members might be thought of as “fellow travelers.” Core and active members would be bringing their social networks to the TC simply by virtue of being part of such networks. There will probably be some people from those various groups who will be supportive of the TC and its mission, but not available for active participation. They might become more actively involved when the TC is working on stuff that relates more directly to their interests.  
Peripheral participants: people who have a sustained connection to the community, but with less engagement and authority, either because they are still newcomers or because they do not have as much personal commitment to the practice. These people may be active elsewhere and carry the learning to these places. They may experience the community primarily as a network. There will probably be many similarities between “occasional” and “peripheral” members in how they are interested in the work of a TC. The main difference would probably be one of degree. Also, some people may move back and forth between these two levels given the ebb and flow of events in their life.
Transactional participants: outsiders who interact with the community occasionally without being members themselves, to receive or provide a service or to gain access to artifacts produced by the community, such as its publications, its website, or its tools. The CofP description here is quite sufficient. They may have little interaction with the TC, but they hold them in good-standing.


Note that people would undoubtedly move in and out of these categories over the life of a TC. The interactions and knowledge exchanges between these constituencies create many opportunities for learning and are a sign of community health. Different types of participants in a community of practice have different perspectives, needs, and ambitions. The value of this kind of diversity cannot be underestimated.



Some Resources 

Major components