Our Mission:

Philadelphia Commons Institute seeks to cultivate civic dialogue, engaged citizens, and the common good through interdisciplinary research and programs.

Our Vision

In the same way that William Penn introduced shared green space into his city of Philadelphia, we envision a shared intellectual, dialogical space where all are invited to ponder together the virtues, truths, values, and habits required for human flourishing within a free and ordered society.

Our Values

  • Strengthen the Institutions of Civil Society: Civil Society will not build itself. We seek to nurture and sustain a robust civil society as well as free and humane citizens in their service to the common good.
  • Deliberative Democracy: We acknowledge that our democracy is made up of different points of view and the regular practice of face to face discussions with those with whom we disagree strengthens us as individual citizens and as a whole democratic society.
  • Civic Friendship: Consideration for one another is integral to sustaining civic dialogue, engaged citizens, and the common good. We seek to practice the skill of listening closely, with humility, to others so as to cultivate and sustain connection beyond the conversation.
  • Human Dignity: In our pluralistic society, recognition of the inherent dignity of each person is a critical part of upholding the common good.
  • Local Emphasis: We want to focus directly on our immediate community here in the greater Philadelphia area with an eye towards national trends.

William Penn’s original map of Philadelphia serves as an apt metaphor for our mission.[1] Penn created a central common space with four public parks or common spaces in the four corners of the city. Likewise, we seek to create a common intellectual dialogical space where all are genuinely welcomed to come and relate together “taking the reality of difference as (our) starting point”[2]

We want to cultivate a type of discourse that is then replicated throughout the city. The wider impact is that deliberative democracy is practiced and the institutions that best build that kind of civil society are nurtured.[3] Working with college students, who in the digital age are 40% less likely than former generations to demonstrate empathy, the Philadelphia Commons Institute seeks to train able facilitators, who are able to articulate their own beliefs while engaging others in mutual understanding.[4]

Digging deep into the history of Philadelphia reveals a city whose roots exemplify our mission. Some of this can be explored through a contrast between Boston and Philadelphia. Both cities were formed by religious groups escaping persecution in England—the Puritans of Boston and the Quakers of Philadelphia.[5] The Puritans of Boston, left an established religion, Anglicanism, to create an established religion in Boston, Puritanism. If you were not sufficiently Puritan, you were expelled from the colony as they had been expelled from England. They called it New-England as they were a better expression of England than the England they left behind.

Philadelphia, by contrast was part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” a place where a “nation of nations”, to quote Penn, would be invited to come regardless of their religious beliefs. As exemplified in Penn’s “Charter of Privileges” written in 1701, the colony was created to offer religious liberty to all who chose to settle there. Penn knew firsthand what it meant to suffer because of his beliefs and had served time in prison for being a practicing Quaker in England. There is evidence to show that Penn’s invitation was accepted by a diverse group of settlers. The 1790 census demonstrates that the Pennsylvania colony was the most diverse of the thirteen colonies. Where the other colonies all measured around 80% colonists with British background, Pennsylvania hovered around 50% having large populations of Scotch Irish and German colonists within their borders.[6] William Penn demonstrated that religious liberty rests on principled pluralism and further that pluralism guaranteed by equal protection of the law for all religions is the best way to protect the commons.

James Madison showed deep affinity for the ideals articulated by William Penn. Even before he penned the Bill of Rights, placing religious liberty as the first freedom mentioned in the first amendment, Madison praised Pennsylvania in a letter to his college friend William Bradford. In the Virginia colony, religious minorities were being threatened. Madison was appalled by what he saw and contrasted it with the situation in Pennsylvania: “You are happy in dwelling in a Land where…[the] public has long felt the good effects of their religious as well as civil liberty. Foreigners have been encouraged to settle among you. Industry and virtue have been promoted…commerce and the arts have flourished.”[7] When he was later debating religious liberty within colonial Virginia he said, “A just government…will be best supported by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property.”[8]

The Philadelphia Commons Institute continues to uphold the political culture of our geographic home, being a space where protection of belief is upheld as citizens learn to dialogue together around ideas critical to our common, civic well-being.

[1] https://tclf.org/places/city-and-regional-guides/philadelphia

[2] Diana Eck “Prospects for Pluralism: Voice and Vision in the Study of Religion” Address for the American Academy of Religion 2006: As religious studies scholar Diana Eck explains “Pluralism takes the reality of difference as its starting point. The challenge of pluralism is not to obliterate or erase difference, nor to smooth out differences under a universalizing canopy, but rather to discover ways of living, connecting, relating, arguing and disagreeing in a society of differences.”

[3] See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson The Spirit of Compromise (Princeton University Press, 2012)

[4] See Sherry Turkle Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).

[5] E. Digby Baltzell. Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia (The Free Press, 1979).

[6] Robert Sector, General Editor Pennsylvania 1776 (State College, PA: Pennsylvania State Press, 1976) 86.

[7] Joseph Loconte “The Freedom Book: Rediscovering America’s Third Founding Document” A Speech delivered Marcy 10, 2018 for the American Bible Society. Quote found in Jack N. Rakove, ed., James Madison: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1999, 9.

[8] Joseph Loconte “The Freedom Book: Rediscovering America’s Third Founding Document” A Speech delivered Marcy 10, 2018 for the American Bible Society. Quote found in Gaillard Hunt, editor, The Writings of James Madison, Vol. II, (New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1901) p. 188.