America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders

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.

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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.

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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.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Anita Fonte

    Where is the Public Conversations Project?

    • PeterLevine

      We only talked to 20 groups, not including the excellent PCP. But I would tentatively classify it as deep and diverse.

      • Anita Fonte

        Yes, I would agree and encourage you to include them. They do wonderful work at local, national and international levels.

  • Matthew Shapiro

    I don’t know if the weakness of the network has been framed as a “problem,” but if so, is it a problem? Or are all of the various efforts signs of the time, and precisely where they need to be within an evolutionary shift that encompasses and transcends all of them? In any event, there seems to be no agreed-upon “name” for what is occurring. With civil rights, it was clear: it was about equity and equality and justice. “Civic renewal” is far more…nebulous. (I grapple with this directly in my own civic renewal effort via http://socialplanetarium.org). For most people, anyway. Now, if people can pull themselves off of their social networking and actually work in their neighborhoods, we might hasten something that has scale.