save the date for Frontiers of Democracy 2016

Please save the date for Frontiers of Democracy: June 23-25, 2016 at Tufts University’s downtown Boston campus.

Frontiers is an annual conference that draws scholars and practitioners who strive to understand and improve people’s engagement with government, with communities, and with each other. The format of Frontiers is highly interactive; most of the concurrent sessions are “learning exchanges” rather than presentations or panels. We welcome proposals for learning exchanges for 2016. Please use this form to submit ideas.

We aim to explore the circumstances of democracy today and a breadth of civic practices that include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic  technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. See more about past years here.

You can enter your information here to let us know that you are interested in attending and to ensure that you receive additional information about the agenda and registering for Frontiers.

All are welcome at Frontiers, a public conference that follows immediately after the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students. The Summer Institute requires an application, and admissions decisions are usually made in May. Prospective applicants should sign up here for more information.

Posted in civic theory | Leave a comment

Ginwright on Blacklivesmatter

Shawn Ginwright is one of the best analysts of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. These are excerpts from his article “Radically Healing Black Lives: A Love Note to Justice“* that help explain what is happening in America today.

First, a great statement of why the movement emphasizes Blacknesss and yet is for all:

A love ethic is an unconditional desire for human dignity, meaningful existence, and hope. #Blacklivesmatter is a movement of dignity, meaning, and hope in a critical moment when race in general, and Blackness in particular, has become a third rail, and avoided in policy debates. The statement “Black lives matter” also gives others permission to practice courageous love and to celebrate and protect the dignity and humanity of all people.

And here is Ginwright on the double agenda–changing systems and healing people:

Healing justice is an emerging movement that seeks both (a) collective healing and well-being, and also (b) transforming the institutions and relationships that are causing the harm in the first place (Wallace, 2012). …

Young community leaders increasingly acknowledge that both organizing and healing together are required for lasting community change. Both strategies, braided together, make a more complete and durable fabric in our efforts to transform oppression, and hold the power to restore a more humane, and redemptive process toward community change. …

[By analogy,] environmental justice activists view policies that promote pollution and fossil fuels as harmful to the earth and our environment. Much of their activism focuses on protecting the environment from harm created by lack of awareness or concern for the natural environment. Similarly, healing justice activists view policies that promote violence, stress, hopelessness in schools and communities, as harmful to our collective well-being, human dignity, and hope. Rather than viewing well-being as an individual act of self-care, healing justice advocates view the practice of healing as political action.

*from New Directions for Student Leadership, no. 148 (2015), pp. 33-44.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

call for CIRCLE pieces on the relationship between electoral and broader civic engagement

CIRCLE has been soliciting and editing guest posts for the home page, which amount to short publications that reach the field of youth civic engagement pretty broadly. The latest call went out today:

CIRCLE is seeking proposals for guest posts to our website,, focused on relationships between electoral engagement and civic life and democracy more generally.

Over the next year, a great deal of time and money will be spent on reaching voters—including young voters—in the U.S. We would like to convene a conversation about whether and how efforts to promote youth electoral engagement (e.g. voting, learning about candidate positions, volunteering for a campaign) help to increase the prevalence, equity, and quality of youth civic skills, attitudes and engagement generally. We define civic engagement broadly. Questions to discuss could include:

  • What are the ways in which electoral engagement is integrated with other forms of engagement and how is this best done? Does the focus on youth voter engagement also strengthen other forms of engagement? What opportunities would facilitate this link?
  • How are skills and attitudes developed or furthered as a part of electoral engagement related to non-election civic activities?

We are looking for proposals from a variety of perspectives, including people who run youth programs, researchers, funders, teachers, etc. We will consider proposals that share or reflect on qualitative and/or quantitative data, as well as program evaluations and reflections on programs and theoretical arguments. We will give preference to posts that discuss any connection to K-12 schools and curricula, households as settings for discussions or civic activities, or ways in which young people learn and practice being civic through cultural and peer influences.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Returning to our Roots: a new white paper on educating for democracy

GCwhitepaperReleased today is a strategy paper entitled Returning to Our Roots: Educating for Democracy. The authors are Generation Citizen plus a committee from other groups, including my CIRCLE colleagues and me. I’m pleased to have been part of the discussions that generated this paper. It is distinctive in that it puts political engagement at the center of civic education and addresses both schools and out-of-school opportunities.

Generation Citizens’ executive director, Scott Warren, also has a piece entitled “Student protests reveal thirst for a dialogue on democratic process” in the Hechinger Report. Scott uses this article to summarize the recommendations of the report.

Posted in advocating civic education, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ideological currents in the current crises

What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need? – Brecht, from An die Nachgeborenen (1939)

Racist incidents and youth protests in the USA (including the successful protests at Yale), terror in Paris and Beirut, war in the Levant–these are vastly different topics, and yet they all feed one 24/7 stream of commentary, social media, private conversation, and presidential politics in which themes seem to recur and recombine. Everyone has different views, but I think I discern at least three importantly distinct political philosophies in the mix:

1. A kind of liberalism that we might call, with Judith Shklar, the liberalism of fear. This perspective starts with an abhorrence of deliberate cruelty, especially at a large scale. The premise is that people are more or less capable of living decent lives if left alone, although they may need and deserve economic assistance that they can use as they wish. The worst danger comes from states. Governments must be restrained by general rules that prevent tyranny even if they also block some good ideas.

From this perspective, a private college like Yale is state-like, a threat to its members even if its leaders happen to be benign at the moment. Not only free speech rules but also autonomy for departments, decentralized hiring, tenure, a very flexible curriculum–these are all constitution-like protections against tyranny. If someone proposes a good idea, such as a required course, the question becomes: Why won’t that turn into a bunch of bad course requirements? Do you really trust the administration and the dominant culture that it represents to legislate what courses students must take?

Meanwhile, ISIS is obviously a fundamental threat to freedom and happiness. But the debate within the liberalism of fear is whether to pull out all the stops in attacking ISIS or rather to be concerned that European states and the USA will violate civil and human rights in the name of fighting ISIS.

2. A kind of radicalism that draws on critical race and gender studies, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, and postcolonialism. It observes some people oppressing many other people in a wide variety of settings, often inadvertently. Oppression is built into cultures and mentalities and requires changes in people’s ideas as well as rules and practices.

From this perspective, a private institution like Yale is not only an organization that has chosen official rules to regulate its members. It is also a place dominated by certain cultural norms and populated by people who have been selected and invited (rather than rejected or excluded). Almost everyone thinks that members of the Yale community should have specific rights, such as free assembly and tenure, but this perspective attends to other issues as well. It notes that the whole community has been formed and shaped to have a certain character. The institution’s pervasive culture is biased against some of its members–not to mention the many people who were not allowed in at all. These biases must be challenged.

Meanwhile, ISIS is obviously a terrible threat to diversity and inclusion, but the question quickly arises whether one contributing cause of terrorism may be the biased behavior of countries like France and the United States toward our own religious minorities and toward the Middle East.

3. Views that confidently propose a character for public life, either within a given institution or across a whole society. When John Kasich proposes an institute to spread Judaeo-Christian values, he certainly presumes that the US should have a dominant and unifying culture, but other people have other visions of what a good society should look like. The French republican tradition, for example, is egalitarian, nationalistic, and anti-clerical. It has little in common with US conservatism except for its willingness to argue that every citizen can be, and should be, part of one community with one set of norms. People who are saying, “Don’t pray for Paris–religion is what caused the problem” are invoking a particular idea of France as secular. Some years ago, Emmanuel Todd was sure that Muslim immigrant youth in France were rioting because they have “embraced … the fundamental values of French society, such as … the dyad of liberty-equality” and because they have inherited political norms from the ancient “peasant family structures in the Parisian basin.” He seems to have changed his tune lately, but his view was perfectly franco-republican in its assumption of a unitary egalitarian political culture.

From this perspective, an institution like Yale has a powerful culture and character that may not appeal to, or serve, everyone equally. The question is, what should that character be? Political and critical? Scientific and rationalistic? Nurturing and inclusive? Competitive and demanding? Eurocentric? Postcolonial and cosmopolitan?

Meanwhile, ISIS is an evil threat for this third perspective, but not because its leaders espouse a particular vision that all must follow. Rather, ISIS has a vision that is bleak and cruel and conflicts with the ethos of, say, secular, fun-loving Paris or capitalistic, Christian-infused America.

These are simplified views. I have ignored many complications–to name one, the question of whether a private voluntary association like Yale is very much like a state. As I wrote at the outset, everyone has a position of her own. For myself, I struggle to combine elements of all three views because all seem to me to embody some wisdom.

Posted in philosophy | Leave a comment

special issue of Diversity & Democracy on political engagement

The latest issue of Diversity & Democracy (vol. 18, no. 4, fall 2015) was edited by members of my team at Tisch College in conjunction with AAC&U. The topic of the whole issue is “Student and Institutional Engagement in Political Life.” Three specific articles are also by members of our team:

The lineup of the whole issue is excellent, and the topic couldn’t be more timely.

Posted in academia, advocating civic education | Leave a comment

my favorite anecdote about the Founders

In which Ben Franklin and John Adams sleep together and bicker about whether to keep the widow open. Or, Men of the Enlightenment apply the Faculty of Reason to the Vex’d and Perennial Matter of Bedroom Ventilation:

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 11.10.26 AM


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

college and the contradictions of capitalism

National attention has turned to political debates and conflicts at one flagship Land Grant state university and one Ivy League. Mizzou and Yale exemplify the whole higher education system, which is a political flashpoint–for good reasons.

On one hand, universities are designed to stand somewhat aside from the political/economic system, to be independent of the usual power structures, and to supply, teach, and encourage critical analysis. On the other hand, they are absolutely pivotal to maintaining the political/economic system that exists, with all of its flaws as well as its virtues.

Racism is the main topic of the current activism. I fully concur with the importance of racial injustice on campuses. (See Jelani Cobb‘s summary, although Conor Friedersdorf‘s response is also valuable and not diametrically opposed.)

If you want a detailed, sophisticated, critical view of racism in America, higher education is one important place to find it. Many faculty share the critical diagnosis. And the most prestigious universities supply some of the most sophisticated and trenchant criticism.

At the same time, only 4 percent of full professors in America are Black. Young White adults are twice as likely to have a college degree as young African Americans (40% versus 20%), due to an accumulating series of racial gaps in k12 promotion and retention, high school graduation, college admission and retention, and on-time graduation. Their lower college graduation rates are one indication of a generally less supportive and satisfying educational experience for students of color. Given the demographics of faculty and students, the culturally dominant group is almost always White, and they have the whole symbolic heritage of the universities behind them. Finally, these institutions exist in blatantly unjust larger communities. Mizzou is the flagship university of the state that encompasses Ferguson. Yale is in the heart of New Haven, where the NAACP reports that 25% of Black families live below the poverty line, 18.9% of Black children have asthma, and no public school sees more than 28% of its graduates achieve a college degree.

Racial issues are thus unavoidable and supply telling examples of the contradictions built into higher education. But the contradictions extend further. For instance, if you want a trenchant and sophisticated critique of Wall Street, an excellent place to look is in the classrooms and journals of the finest American universities. One stream of critique is economic, but you can also find critical views of the culture, psychology, and even the aesthetics and spirituality of 21st century capitalism. An institution like Mizzou or Yale is designed to be safe from the incentives and pressures that dominate contemporary capitalism so that it can provide an independent view; hence the rules that govern tenure, academic freedom, etc.

Yet these institutions produce the people who actually take over and profit from contemporary global capitalism. The financial services industry employs more members of the Yale class of 2013 (14.8%) than any other other field. Consulting employs another 11.6% of that class. Many more Yalies apply to but don’t get Wall Street jobs right away. And of the 18.2% who go straight to graduate school, many are heading to finance via law school or business school. From a different perspective, we can say that Wall Street is dominated by graduates of institutions like Yale.

So these colleges select the global economic elite, disproportionately choosing the children of the current elite. They expose them to four years of critique of the global economic system–some of it very gentle and subtle, and some fairly blatant. Students see implicit alternatives to contemporary capitalism when they study Dante or Buddha in a seminar room, and they get direct criticisms in social science and philosophy classes. These experiences probably sharpen their minds and skills before they proceed in disproportionate numbers to take over the dominant political/economic institutions of the world and to fund the universities that chose and prepared them so well.

All kinds of odd practices and situations arise. For instance, Yale has $2.4 million of endowment per student, sufficient to generate about $112,000 of annual revenue per student. Given Yale’s faculty/student ratio of 6.1:1, that means the university gets about $683,000 per professor per year from its endowment funds. Yet it charges the students a sticker price of more than $50,000 and constantly solicits its alumni for donations to make enrollment affordable. The institution presents itself as a tax-deductible nonprofit philanthropy devoted to light and truth, yet it is also a corporation with $23.9 billion in the bank. Many of its faculty see themselves as critics of the status quo, yet they work in an institution that replicates it.

I love these places. They have been very good to me–Yale more than any other institution. They have broadened my mind and given me whatever skills and passions I have for analyzing social justice. They create zones of debate and critique that are freer and more vibrant than most other sectors of our society, and they encompass more diversity than most of our neighborhoods and work sites. To the extent that we have any upward mobility, they provide some of the upward paths. They permit and even encourage the criticism that is directed at themselves. At the same time, they are pillars of social injustice. No wonder they stand in the crosshairs today.

Posted in academia, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

a taxonomy of civic engagement measures

Civic engagement is important to measure both as an intrinsic good and as a predictor of various desirable outcomes for the individuals who engage and for their communities and governments. Organizations–from individual schools and nonprofits to the Census Bureau and Corporation for National & Community Service–often ask survey questions that measure it. But there are many available survey measures, and organizations often wonder which ones to use and how to cluster them. Here is a simple table that produces six categories, with sample survey items for each.

Citizens engage … with each other with institutions
by communicating
  • attending meetings
  • discussing public affairs
  • posting/reposting social media about public issues
  • reading/watching news
  • contacting officials
  • contacting media
  • protest/civil disobedience
by acting/working
  • working to fix a community problem
  • volunteering
  • doing one’s job with a public purpose*
  • voting
  • boycotting/buycotting
  • working in government (including AmeriCorps)*
  • social entrepreneurship*
by forming relationships
  • membership in groups
  • leadership roles in groups
  • trust in other people
  • service on boards and advisory committees
  • confidence in institutions

A few observations:

  • Deliberative democracy is the first row. Public work is the whole table.
  • With the exception of trust and confidence, these are measures of action, not of attitudes or knowledge. I include trust and confidence basically as proxies for actual working relationships, which would be ideally measured more directly. Attitudes and knowledge are also crucial, but they would require another table.
  • Asterisks denote constructs that are rarely measured and for which the items seem to be relatively weak.
  • I prefer survey measures of basic constructs that are relatively invariant across contexts. For instance, I don’t care whether people post on Facebook (which we may all stop doing in a few years, anyway), but I do care whether they communicate with fellow citizens about public issues. Likewise, I would count someone as doing public work whether it’s paid or not, so I am less interested in whether people spend hours volunteering than in whether they work on public issues. The challenge is that survey measures of abstract categories are hard to understand, but measures of highly concrete activities (like volunteering hours) tend to miss the point a bit. But we do our best with proxies.
  • One way to turn these separate items into larger wholes is psychometric–looking empirically at which clusters of items go together in a population, because clusters would ostensibly measure underlying psychological factors. I think that is valuable work but not the only way to proceed. These are not strictly psychological measures, manifesting the mental states of individuals. They have a lot to do with institutions and varying social needs. Further, we are not looking for individuals who approximate good citizenship as a psychological state. Rather, we are trying to improve democracy. That may require a division of labor in which, for instance, some people specialize in protest and have low confidence in institution, while others have high trust and volunteer a lot. What kinds of civic engagement we need is a social/political question, not a psychological one.
Posted in civic theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

the Democrats’ problem is social capital

Notwithstanding the fiasco that is the GOP presidential primary so far, Matthew Yglesias warns, “The Democratic Party is in much greater peril than its leaders or supporters recognize, and it has no plan to save itself. … The vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress.”

A major factor is the turnout gap. That is worse for Democrats in local and off-year elections but will persist in 2016. Today, the pollsters Greenberg/Quinlan/Rosner report that “unmarried women, minorities, and particularly millennials are less interested in next year’s voting than seniors, conservatives, and white non-college men are.”

Why do we see these gaps? On the whole, we engage in politics when we are brought into networks where political issues are regularly discussed and where people encourage each other to participate. This is a consistent finding of our own research on youth as well as much research on adults. Yglesias uses that theory to explain why unionized teachers vote in local elections:

Teachers talk to one another (they work together, after all) about questions of public policy (everyone talks at work about work, but public school teachers’ work ispublic policy), and they also have hierarchical channels of information dissemination (the union itself) through which this work talk can connect to practical politics.

(Yglesias is expanding on Eitan Hersh’s argument that “scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.” Yglesias is contributing an explanation of why the union members vote.)

Let’s call participation in networks “social capital.” Since the 1970s, Democrats have lost social capital (of a politically relevant kind) and Republicans have not. The parties used to be on par, but the Republicans now have a meaningful advantage.

To illustrate, I show rates of regular religious attendance, membership in unions, membership in fraternal organizations, and a composite (defined as belonging to at least one of the three). The data come from the General Social Survey, which hasn’t asked about unions or fraternal associations since 2004. But in some ways, that’s OK, because I think the trend from 1970-2004 is the significant one, and the subsequent period has been unsettled because of social media and two high-profile presidential elections.

politics and social capital


  • Democrats have become less likely to attend religious services regularly; Republicans have not.
  • Democrats have always been more likely than Republicans to belong to unions, but their membership rate was considerably higher in the 2000’s than in the 1970s. (Of course, union membership for Americans as a whole has fallen more steeply.)
  • Republicans have lost some ground with fraternal associations, but those never provided a huge component of their social capital.
  • The Democrats show an overall decline; the Republicans do not.

Caveats: 1) These are only three measures of social capital, plus a composite of the three. There are certainly other varieties of engagement–but I selected the ones I thought were most important. 2) Democrats and Republicans are not fixed demographic groups with persistent members. It is not the case that people have remained Democrats but have become less likely to join unions or attend church. Rather, the American people have changed in various ways, and the subset that consists of Democrats who have social capital has shrunk. The trends shown above only tell part of the story, but I think an important part.

Posted in revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | Leave a comment