how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke at length, consistently, and passionately about renewing citizenship in the US. I collected many of the key quotes here. There was a depth to these comments because Obama had worked for a faith-based organizing network, had studied Asset Based Community Development, had served on Robert Putnam’s Saguaro Seminar, and was married to the leader of a youth engagement nonprofit. He knew what he was talking about. And although he sought to lead the Democratic Party, he explicitly included Republicans and Independents in his call for civic renewal. However, the press ignored his citizenship theme, both during the campaign and later on (examples here). Policy wonks and Democratic Party elites also ignored it. I served on both the Education and Urban Policy committees of the campaign, and neither group generated strong policy proposals for enhancing civic engagement. Thus the administration–of which I am a defender, when it comes to mainstream matters of domestic and foreign policy–has done little to support enhanced citizenship in the US. A president cannot accomplish much alone, and if even his allies don’t hear his call for something as abstract as civic renewal, nothing will happen.

This summer, Pope Francis has made an impassioned call to the peoples of the world to organize from the bottom up to combat environmental crises. Like Obama’s call in 2008, this one is rooted in experience and theory–in the Pope’s case, extending back to his sainted namesake in the 13th century, but also including sophisticated modern theology. The Pope is the leader of Catholicism, yet he has explicitly included non-Catholics and non-believers in his call for global organizing. But again, the theme of civic agency has been lost on the punditocracy. The Pope’s speech at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements was all about popular organizing, and yet the New York Times largely ignored that theme, summarizing his visit in these words: “Pope Francis met Thursday with President Evo Morales of Bolivia and apologized for the church’s ‘sins’ during Latin America’s colonial era. … But if Francis again called for change, he also offered no detailed prescription.”

Leaders alone cannot create social movements, but their words can be useful resources. Barack Obama gave us an opportunity in 2008; I do not think we (or he) took adequate advantage of it. The Pope is giving us another chance. How–concretely and practically–should we respond this time?

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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