A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism – Reflections and Recommendations by Rob Work

We are pleased to share here the Preface and Prologue of this new book, now available from Amazon and elsewhere.  Rob Work is a long-time ICA colleague, and was keynote speaker at the 8th ICA Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu in 2012 – see also his bio below.


This book is being published now because of the urgent need for a compelling vision, practical actions, and effective tools to catalyze what has become necessary in this moment of multiple crises. It is offered as an opportunity to reflect deeply on what is happening in our communities and societies and how we can each help create a better world for all. In this book, you can participate in a conversation about this most critical decade and century. My heartfelt hope is that by dialoguing with these reflections, you might be challenged, inspired, and equipped to participate further in the adventure of realizing a compassionate civilization day by day.

I invite you to reflect on my analyses and recommendations related to our current systemic crises, the idea that a civilization of compassion is emerging at this very moment, and six arenas of transformation. We will also explore the “movement of movements” and the innovative leadership approaches that will get us to where we need to be. Finally, the book outlines the underlying self-understanding of global-local citizenship that is required and ends with over a quarter of the book devoted to a few trustworthy practices of care for self and others for those who would undertake this transformative work.

This book aims to serve the growing number of activists and caring citizens in the United States and around the world who know that these are the times and we are the people. It is not a technical book for experts; it is for everyone who cares. This is the moment for this book to be in your hands.

Most of these reflections were written between 2013 and 2015, each one an inspiration. After this creative period came to a natural conclusion, I organized the reflections into parts, chapters and subchapters.

Over the past seven years, I have given several speeches about these topics at four UN global forums on public service, a global human development conference, a nonprofit think tank, a university peace symposium, an elite high school, a community development conference, and classes at NYU Wagner. These took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Kathmandu, Nepal; Manama, Bahrain; Seoul, Republic of Korea; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Colquitt, Georgia. For the past four years, I have written the blog A Compassionate Civilization to a worldwide readership about principles of sustainability, equality, justice, participation, tolerance, and nonviolence. In addition to speeches and blog posts, this book also contains some of my poetry and autobiographical material as a way to ground macroreflections in personal stories and images. I became convinced to share these thoughts in book form to encourage and assist those who care in their own thinking and action.

Even though I wrote this book before the November 2016 US presidential election, I have been well aware for several years of the national and global trends of oligarchy, misogyny, systemic poverty, racism, intolerance, and violence and the necessity to resist, persist, insist, and enlist. This book is not in the first instance about the US political landscape in 2017; however, it may provide some relief for the sadness and despair some citizens and activists feel concerning the present environment and generate new inspiration, energy, perspective, and action. This book is about lifelong commitment to social transformation. As author Naomi Klein says in her new book by the same name, “No is not enough.” We must dream a new world and create it through our own efforts.

My social and historical perspective is a product of three phases of professional engagement. First, for twenty-one years I was national or regional director of a nonprofit, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), conducting community, organizational, and leadership development projects and programs in Chicago, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Dallas, Jamaica, and Venezuela. Next, I worked for sixteen years with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York City as principal policy advisor of decentralized governance assisting developing countries around the world in formulating policies and programs in local governance, urban development, and decentralization. Third, for the past ten years, I have been teaching innovative leadership and strategic management at New York University (NYU) Wagner Graduate School of Public Service in NYC, as well as consulting for the UN and the Fulbright Specialist Program and advising Trusted Sharing, a social media start-up. Therefore, because of this journey, my perspective on sustainable human development includes grassroots projects, national and global policies, and individual capacity development. Since most of my work has been in developing nations, it is only in the past few years that I have been engaged as an activist in my own country. In the past nine years, I have, among other activities, knocked on doors to get out the vote, called my representatives, written on social media, signed petitions, joined the local party precinct, and attended Our Revolution meetings.

HOW TO READ THIS BOOK. It is recommended that you begin at the beginning and read the parts, chapters, subchapters and reflections sequentially for the unfolding logic. The first half of the book is more about the why and what of a compassionate civilization, whereas the second half deals with the how and who. Or you can dive in and out of chapters, subchapters, or individual reflections that are of particular interest or importance to you. The table of contents gives you the major themes and the index gives you alphabetized reflection titles.

My intention for this book is that if it is anything it is a “multilogue,” a conversation among many people—between you, me, and everyone else. I will write something, and you will reflect on some aspect of it and then offer your own thoughts, words, and deeds. Of course, others and I would love to know what you are thinking, and in fact it could help us a lot. But what is most important is that you have them and are them. In the same way, my written words are the result of my reflections on things I have experienced and thought. We are all in this together—a history-long, worldwide journey of consciousness.

The tone of this book will usually be informal and nonacademic, although there will sometimes be references to other sources.

After you read a reflection, sub-chapter, or chapter, I would invite you to respond to four questions (from the ICA’s ORID conversation method):

  • Objective: What words, ideas, or images struck me?
  • Reflective: How did they make me feel, and what did they lead me to recall?
  • Interpretive: What is the significance or meaning of this for me?
  • Decisional: What do I decide to do in relation to this?

To post brief comments or questions about the book and to learn about what else is happening, please go to the Facebook page for A Compassionate Civilization: www.facebook.com/compassionatecivilization/

To participate in a longer, more in-depth discussion about the contents and implications of each chapter of this book, go to the Trusted Sharing online site, and join the global conversation concerning A Compassionate Civilization at www.trustedsharing.com/Robertson/1727

Enjoy the journey!

18 July 2017


As we begin, let us remind ourselves who we are as human beings, what constitutes a human society, and how far we have come as a civilization.

First, a bit of social philosophy. What is a human being? What is development? What then is human development? What is the purpose of societal organization and governance in relation to human development?

These are not only philosophical questions but also urgent, practical questions. These are some of the profound questions facing us as a species. Our responses to these questions, both in our individual thoughts and behaviors and in our collective cultures and systems, will determine how human society and life itself flourishes or declines on planet Earth. If this is so, how is it so?

There are many views of what constitutes a human being. Is a human being a spiritual being of infinite worth? Or primarily a consumer of goods and services? Or a resource for economic production? Or primarily a citizen of the state? Or simply another mammal? Or a child of God? Is a human being basically good? Or fundamentally evil? Does each human being who is born have universal rights guaranteed by society? What are the rights of future generations? What is the full potential of each human being? What is the ultimate purpose of human beings on planet Earth or in the universe as a whole? Our answers to these questions often arise from our own acculturation and socialization as provided by our culture, religion, political ideology, personal reflection, age, sex, and so forth. Some people believe that only their group is truly human and that all others lack truth and legitimacy.

The dominant answer in the world today to the question of what constitutes development is material and economic progress, industrialization, and modernization. The race is on to increase GDP per capita and fuel a consumption-production society at any cost to nature and people. However, this purely economic definition is doing much harm to natural systems and human culture.

Each definition of humanness carries with it an implicit or explicit definition of development. If a human being is primarily a spiritual being, then society should be designed in a way that would help each person realize his or her spiritual potential. If a human being is primarily a consumer, then he is to be manipulated by advertisements to purchase certain goods and services. If a human being is primarily a citizen of a democratic state, then she is empowered to express her opinions through voting and is responsible to act in accord with the laws of the state. If a human being is understood simply as another mammal, then he will be treated that way. If a human being is understood to be a child of God, then she will be cherished as a holy being.

If a human being is understood to be basically good, then a society would structure itself to nurture this quality and design systems based on trust of this basic goodness. If a human being is understood as fundamentally evil, then society will design systems that seek to control and punish these dark impulses. If every human being who is born has universal human rights, then society will design systems to ensure adequate opportunities and access to quality education, health care, housing, credit, and self-expression of each and every person. If future generations have the same rights as the present generation, then society will ensure that the resources of Earth are preserved and developed with this in mind. If every human being has the right to realize his or her full potential in this life, then society will be designed to ensure that this can happen. If human beings believe that they have an ultimate purpose on planet Earth and in the universe as a whole, then this will provoke profound dialogue in society and help direct the design of social systems toward a learning society.

What then is “human development”? As we have seen, different definitions will flow from different views of the human being. In the view of the United Nations and the international community, the human being is guaranteed universal rights by society as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN has been analyzing and promoting “human development” or “sustainable human development” over the past twenty years. Furthermore, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon by member states to provide tangible targets for human development by 2030 (see the annex).

How then do nations and local communities understand the social contract that guides the design of social systems for the benefit of all human beings; all living beings; and the finite resources of planet Earth, including plants, animals, water, soil, and air? Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the social contract includes that human beings agree to care for each other to ensure that each person has the necessary conditions for a full and meaningful life while ensuring that future generations have the same right.

This means that for all people to enjoy these rights, no group of individuals should be allowed to make this impossible by the over-accumulation of economic wealth, political power, or cultural dominance.

O o o

What is our journey to now and beyond? What has brought us to this moment? Scientists tell us that around fourteen billion years ago there was a great flaring forth of time, space, and energy coalescing in atoms and light and evolving into galaxies and stars, then into planets, and finally into plants and animals. And here we are today on our gorgeous planet Earth. What will be going on in another fourteen billion years?

Historians tell us that there are around five thousand years of recorded history. What do you hope will be going on in another five thousand years?

The industrial age began around 250 years ago. What do you hope could be happening in another 250 years?

With these reflections and questions as a backdrop, what are the current challenges facing humanity and, indeed, all life on Earth? Thus we begin to respond to this question in the first chapter.

Robertson Work, adjunct professor of public service, is founder/director of Innovative Leadership Services and facilitator/trainer for UNDESA, UN Habitat and the East-West Center, among others. Mr. Work is also a Fulbright Senior Specialist assisting universities overseas and a Fellow of the NYU Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action.

Previously he was UNDP’s Principal Policy Adviser of Decentralized Governance for 16 years at UN headquarters in New York. While with UNDP he designed and coordinated the Local Initiative Facility for Urban Environment (LIFE) operating in 20 countries and another global program, Decentralizing the MDGs through Innovative Leadership. He also coordinated a global community of practice on decentralized governance, provided policy advice to countries worldwide, conducted research and prepared global policy papers.

Prior to UNDP, Mr. Work served in Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Jamaica, USA and Venezuela for 21 years as country and regional director with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, an international NGO with UN Eco Soc Consultative status. His work of human development in 55 countries has consisted of the design and implementation of research, training and demonstration projects in leadership, organizational and community development, rural and urban development, NGO and project management, policy formulation and advice and group facilitation.

Mr. Work has written widely on decentralization and local governance, urban and rural development, poverty eradication and environmental improvement, the role of civil society in governance and development, capacity development and participatory methods. His most recent book is A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism – Reflections and Recommendations. He has previously taught at the University of the West Indies, University of Aruba, Antioch University Graduate School of Whole System Design, the ICA Global Academy and the Social Artistry School. He conducted his graduate studies at Indiana University and Chicago Theological Seminary and undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University, which honored him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2003. He and his wife Rev. Bonnie Myotai Treace live in Asheville, NC, and Garrison, NY.

3 thoughts on “A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism – Reflections and Recommendations by Rob Work

  1. Robertson Work says:

    You can order my new book either 1) at your local bookstore (through Ingram), or 2) online on an Amazon retail website in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, India, or Mexico.

  2. Martin Gilbraith says:

    Robertson Work Interview – Podcast January 15, 2018. Posted on January 17, 2018 by Gary LaMaster

    Creating More Compassionate Communities. On MLK Day, the show welcomes author Robertson Work and local activists Kathy Kinsella and Peggy Chaikin to discuss ways to make the world more compassionate one community at a time. Work’s book, A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism – Reflections and Recommendations outlines practical suggestions for a more compassionate world based on his experiences as a UN consultant, professor and community organizer.


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