With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Eric Liu—the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program—and I interviewed 20 key organizational leaders about strategies to expand civic engagement in the United States. Our new paper is: Peter Levine and Eric Liu, “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” (Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service, 2015).
Interviewees agreed that the nation faces polarization, corruption, and weakened civic capacity. David McKinney from the Alliance for Children and families observed: “Everyone is sick-and-tired of hyper-partisanship,” and we need “stories of leaders and their lives, folks that are doing the work in ways that are trying to cut through.” Anna Galland from MoveOn said, “Right now, our government is captive to lobbyists with money to spend.” Paul Schmidt of Ducks Unlimited observed that “the need and desire for affiliation has eroded.”
Most interviewees thought that citizens would have to play a major role in reversing these declines. John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises said that we need civic engagement “now, more than ever” because of the paralysis and dysfunction of government and changes in society such as emerging conflicts, gaps in education and social mobility, racial conflict, and divides over immigration.
Some organizations included in this study are large, some are ideologically diverse, some have a coherent and focused agenda, and some are deep (engaging their members in learning, growth, leadership, and voice). But no organization has managed to be large, deep, diverse, and focused.
Furthermore, despite some working connections among these organizations, they do not yet form a coherent network. A simple network analysis of the connections that were either mentioned explicitly in the interviews or implied by the interviewees’ bios (for instance, when an individual holds leadership positions in two or more organizations) yielded the diagram below.
In exemplary episodes from American history, such as the Civil Rights Movement, networks of organizations have managed to be large, deep, diverse, and focused.
The paper concludes with some recommendations for research and convening to strengthen today’s network for civic renewal. You can download the full report here.