Our friend Peter Levine has shared some thoughts on the importance of civic renewal to the political reform process. Civil society has changed, Levine says, and over time fewer citizens have shown the hunger for political reform and involvement that spurred the creation for groups such as Common Cause. This makes a civil society overhaul even more challenging.
However, Levine also notes that a new movement is being created:
But a new civil society is being invented. It is composed of groups that organize local deliberations; community development corporations and land trusts that govern public assets; broad-based community organizing groups; the national and community service programs (insofar as they allow their volunteers to influence their agendas); innovative civic education programs, from kindergarten through graduate school; universities that serve as community anchors; citizen-generated news sources; municipal governments that employ collaborative governance or participatory budgeting; watershed councils, restorative justice, and many other streams of civic practice.
This work needs to be in closer dialogue with advocacy for political reform. That is a goal of the Campaign for Stronger Democracy, a particularly important node in the overall network for democratic reform. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, CWA, and NAACP are bolstering one wing of the reform movement. It is important, however, to retain the overall balance.
Thank you for the mention, Peter. The Campaign strives for that connection between all parts of the democracy field, as we realize that in order to build a sustainable democracy we must focus on the civic aspect as well. The work being done by the new coalition of Sierra Club, CWA, NAACP and Greenpeace is incredibly important, and the fact that, in addition to their core issues, they have started working on a democracy agenda shows that the time is ripe for a comprehensive movement.
We’ll have more in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.
I was just thinking about how “Call Me Maybe,” which was my jam for the summer, has lost some luster now that it’s Fall. Well, luster has been restored. Great job, internet (and 4th grade students at Democracy Prep Charter School).
h/t to my friend Joyce for sending this along.
Our friends at CIRCLE have released a new report called “That’s Not Democracy: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way.” One of the historic civic gaps has been between those who have attended college (typically have higher levels of engagement), and those who dropped out of high school or never attended college (typically lower levels of engagement). For the study, CIRCLE interviewed 121 youth not attending college, and found many barriers to civic life. Some of their views are captured in this image:
These are some strong words from people whose views are almost always unheard in civic discussions. CIRCLE found that the participants see “concrete barriers” to civic engagement, and believe that institutions do not want them to be involved. Additionally, many participants felt as though they could make a difference in their communities, but lacked the opportunities to do so.
CIRCLE also provided some recommendations for schools, community groups, nonprofits, and policymakers:
- Provide civic education opportunities for all youth, including interactive pedagogies, such as discussion.
- Nonprofits can ASK students to engage, and not assume all students are on campuses
- Policymakers can support programs that offer recruitment and incentives to participate, and opportunities to learn skills that are valuable for employment and civic life.
The conversation continues as CIRCLE is hosting a Twitter chat later today to discuss these findings further. We’ll be tweeting along with them (please follow @strongdemocracy, if you’re so inclined). Follow CIRCLE, @civicyouth, and keep an eye on the hashtag #youthtruth starting at 3pm ET this afternoon.
Earlier today we had a great Democracy Exchange with Meira Levinson, author of the new book No Citizen Left Behind. Meira discussed what schools and outside groups and organizations can do to help foster civic engagement amongst youth, and in particular youth of color, to close the civic empowerment gap.
She also noted the importance of simply being asked to practice citizenship, while also comparing civic engagement to youth baseball – starting at the lower levels as a youngster while working your way up to eventually playing varsity in high school or even playing in college. Levinson discussed some of the ways that schools can engage students every step of the way, and encourage them to work in their own communities, rather than encourage them to “escape” and leave behind the problems that have been and will be facing youth of color for generations.
A new piece from Eric Liu in the Atlantic takes a very interesting look at the “professionalization” of democracy in the United States:
The work of democratic life — solving shared problems, shaping plans, pushing for change, making grievances heard — has become ever more professionalized over the last generation. Money has gained outsize and self-compounding power in elections. A welter of lobbyists, regulators, consultants, bankrollers, wonks-for-hire, and “smart-ALECs” has crowded amateurs out of the daily work of self-government at every level.
When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.
It is an interesting thought, and it does explain why many Americans feel detached from their government and other decision-makers. But how can we counter this and begin to build a more democratic society? Liu offers some great ideas on how to do this including one on having “citizen muscle” —
Having a citizen muscle means thinking about the future and not just immediate gratification. It means asking what helps the community thrive, not just oneself. It means observing social change like a naturalist, and responding to it like a gardener. It means learning and teaching a curriculum of power — in schools, and in settings for all ages — so that we can practice power, even as amateurs.
The whole article is certainly worth a read. What do you think? Has government become too professionalized? What are the best ways to counter this professionalization? What steps can people take to become “citizen citizens”? How do we counter the obstacles that prevent or stifle citizen citizenship? Shoot us a comment, Tweet, or Facebook post. We want to hear what you think.
The Campaign for Stronger Democracy is delighted to announce the hiring of its new executive director, Peter Hardie. Peter has already begun his work at the Campaign, and brings with him extensive experience from both local and national electoral campaigns, in a variety of roles including field and leadership positions.
“There may be nothing more challenging than genuinely democratic communities; there is also nothing more transcendent, or more closely linked to our health and sustainability as a nation, indeed, as a global society,” said Peter. “The Campaign for Stronger Democracy is a community of folks from divergent fields and practices who all stand on this fundamental truth of democracy: the more the better. I can’t be more pleased and honored than to have been asked to lead this initiative.”
Peter recently completed a strategic thinking process with Demos/The American Prospect, and previously served as Executive Director of the Pushback Network, a national network of grassroots organizations developing electoral and voter engagement strategies for social change. Peter has also helped lead TransAfrica Forum, an international advocacy organization, and worked as a consultant to the Ford Foundation.
A graduate of Harvard University and labor and community activist upon leaving college, he helped shape many grassroots community initiatives around peace and justice, violence against women, youth involvement and public schools. He enjoyed teaching in a Boston public high school and working with activists on public school reform efforts. As a union member and staff person for a number of unions, he organized new members, negotiated contracts and addressed issues of workplace democracy.
Peter is also principal of Wayfinding Organizational Consulting, incorporating principles of community and discovery into the dynamics of organization, social justice and social impact.
“As father to a seventeen-year-old son, I know only too well the intrinsically human quest for democracy,” said Hardie. “We want to be heard. We want to shape and craft our surroundings. We want to grow, and we want others to grow alongside us. We want a stake, and a say.”
The Campaign for Stronger Democracy just sent out our December newsletter,which is packed with the latest headlines from across the democracy reform community.
If there are important headlines or events that we missed, please let us know about it in the comments section below.