The Saguaro Seminar held meetings from 1997-2000.

The Saguaro Seminar evolved from an executive session model developed at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. This model has proven effective in developing actionable strategies for and solutions to multi-faceted problems facing the United States. Two hallmarks of this approach are: the self-conscious dialogue between "thinkers" (those who spend more of their time thinking conceptually about the issues) and "doers" (those who spend the bulk of their time confronting the issue directly); and the growth in the group's understanding of the issue over time.

For the Saguaro Seminar, participants helped organize the work of the seminar by meeting for seven two to three-day sessions from 1996-2000. And the Saguaro group was responsible, with help from the Saguaro staff, for developing recommendations for strategies that would help foster the growth of social capital and civic connectedness in America.


The Saguaro Seminar’s mission was challenging: To develop a handful of far-reaching, actionable ideas that will significantly increase Americans’ connectedness to one another and to community institutions over the next five years. Toward this goal, the Saguaro Seminar held its first meeting, Saguaro I, from April 17-19, 1997. It was a great success, surpassing even our most optimistic expectations. We knew that the Saguaro participants were clearly talented and diverse, but the meeting demonstrated that a useful alchemy would arise and that even people this busy would be prepared to invest six weekends over two years in the Saguaro project to ensure achieving a worthwhile goal.

We had three goals for the first meeting: To begin building community within the Saguaro group and deepen the group’s discourse; To gain group commitment to the Saguaro Seminar’s undertaking; and To reach agreement on the highest-priority issues to investigate in future sessions.

Along all three dimensions the meeting succeeded.

GROUP INTERCONNECTEDNESS: our fears that a group as diverse as Saguaro (demographically, politically, and professionally) would not easily "gel" were misplaced. One group task parallels the challenge facing America -- building connectedness and respect for differences within a diverse group. We were heartened by a four-hour "Personal Life Experiences" session on Friday, April 18: each participant shared a personal experience (relevant to the task of reconnecting Americans to their communities) followed by group questions/comments. These discussions spilled over into dialogues during breaks, meals, and evenings. Such discussions helped the group advance beyond the stage where participants are polite but reluctant to criticize others, to where they begin to learn from differences.

Some examples are helpful. Coming out of the meeting, several pairs of participants agreed to collaborate on future work on civic engagement. Two political opponents conversed earnestly in public and private about how to renew our political culture and discourse. Two participants (one conservative, one liberal) discussed over lunch whether there was bipartisan consensus that income inequality was wrong; while they didn’t agree, both took away fresh perspectives. A practitioner skeptical of the role of academics in Saguaro was converted; a case discussion of the relevance of the Progressive Era to today showed this practitioner how the practitioner-academic dialogue strengthened the group’s insights into current-day America. One participant ended the session with a contemporary rendering of a Jewish prayer capturing the group’s mood: "Isn’t it amazing, given our separate lives and histories, that we are all here, together, now."

GROUP COMMITMENT: Participants in Saguaro I evinced a strong commitment to the Seminar: some proposed extending the two-year endeavor in order to deepen the group’s impact and attain a higher deliberative level. Participants took ownership of the Saguaro process and suggested that the group catalogue its resources/networks, recognizing that the participants could have significant impact as "evangelists" for Saguaro Seminar ideas within their own networks, in addition to the individuals and organizations outside the groups influenced by Saguaro.

TOPICS TO INVESTIGATE: The group spent Saturday, April 19 brainstorming possible issues for the Saguaro group to investigate: potential intervention strategies that the group thought may prove to be promising broad, actionable strategies for improving community connectedness or topics from which the group believes they could take away ideas and concepts conducive to developing these broad strategies. We focused on three questions:

Where is social capital already being created? Where is community connectedness being thwarted or are negative forms of connectedness being fostered? Where could positive community connectedness be created where it does not currently exist? The discussions generated a host of ideas regarding civic engagement opportunities and threats. For example, participants thought promise may lie in evangelical churches or an adaptation of the Internet or in increased cross-sectoral partnerships. Participants saw rising threats to inclusive community engagement in areas such as: gated communities, the lack of political conversation about "tough issues," and the infusion of the culture of "prisons and prisoners" into our cities. Emerging from these discussions, the Saguaro group members prioritized what they thought were the most promising avenues to explore further in the upcoming Saguaro sessions.

The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America - Harvard Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, Phone: 617-495-1148 - FAX: 617-495-1589
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