Monthly Archives: April 2012

Frontiers of Democracy II

July 19 (5pm)-July 21 (1 pm), at the Tufts University School of Medicine, 145 Harrison Ave., Boston MA
Register here  (Space is limited)

Both in the US and around the world we find ourselves in a dramatic period of civic awakening. We know this work and ideas under different names: public engagement, deliberative and participatory democracy, collaborative governance, educating for democracy and civic learning, public work, building social capital, and strengthening democracy. We promote it using diverse means; we think about it in diverse ways.

With a civic awakening all around us, in US, in the Arab world, in Russia and Burma, in India, Greece, Spain and Hungary, in many countries in Africa and Latin America, it is a good time to rethink what we have been doing and to formulate how it fits into and contributes to this larger effort. At this year’s Frontiers of Democracy II conference, we will consider a wide picture of work and ideas that support and promote civic vitality.

Frontiers II begins on Thursday, July 19 at 5 pm and ends at 1 pm on Saturday, July 21, 2012. This year, Frontiers will revolve around a diverse set of rehearsed 10-minute talks on aspects of civic studies and democratic renewal, each followed by small-group discussions. Confirmed speakers so far include:

  • Luz Santana, The Right Question Project
  • Martha McCoy, Everyday Democracy
  • Archon Fung, Harvard/Participedia
  • Eric Gordon, Engagement Game Lab
  • Amii Omara Otunnu, UNESCO Human Rights Chair, University of Connecticut
  • Peter Kiang, UMass-Boston
  • Kristen Cambell, National Conference on Citizenship
  • Lewis A. Friedland, University of Wisconsin

Participants will have ample opportunity to share ideas, strategies, and techniques with fellow practitioners and scholars.

Frontiers is brought to you by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and The Democracy Imperative. It is a public conference that follows the Institute of Civic Studies, a small seminar that is now closed for 2012. It is the fourth in a series of annual conferences, the second to be entitled “Frontiers of Democracy.”

A separate pre-conference learning exchange on July 19 is entitled “Pedagogies of the Street–in the Classroom.”

advocating voter modernization to a FOX News audience

In lieu of a substantive blog post today, here’s a link to my op-ed on, “Why the GOP’s future could depend on Romney’s ability to connect with young people.” I float an argument for modernizing the voting system that I mean (sincerely, and not just for tactical reasons) to appeal to a Fox-News-reading audience:

Most states prevent eligible voters from registering during the very period when interest in a campaign reaches its height, the last month before an election. What business would require you to sign up for its service months in advance and then appear in person at a particular location during limited hours to obtain it?

That is no way to encourage political participation in a great democracy, and it’s one reason that U.S. turnout is usually the lowest among all the developed democratic countries in the world.

organizing is renewable energy

I teach a four-class module on why people move in and out of urban neighborhoods. This as an opportunity to think about social change: good and bad, accidental and deliberate.

First, we consider uncoordinated movement: what happens when individuals or families move to satisfy their own preferences. People should be free to move. But we consider how segregation, blight, and harmful gentrification can result from private choices.

Then we add social capital to the equation, noting that if people have habits and norms of cooperation and mutual support, their individual choices will change—although not necessarily for the better. (Readings from Robert Putnam.)

Next we add rules and organizational structures, using Gerald Gamm’s argument that Catholics and Jews have responded differently to demographic changes in their neighborhoods because Catholic churches and synagogues have different governing structures. (Reading from G.H. Gamm, Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed)

Finally, we study a deliberate organizing campaign against urban blight and abandonment, Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), as described persuasively (although not independently) by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood.

Medoff and Sklar tell the story of a characteristic, broad-based organizing effort. It begins in the 1980s in a truly blighted Boston neighborhood, where average incomes are on par with the Mississippi Delta. Many lots are completely abandoned; visible organizations are missing; city services are poor. The story ends with a powerful community organization that is able to construct housing and influence city policy.

The effort requires outside support. It begins with two university-based studies, one by professors and students at MIT and another by students at Roxbury Community College, who provide data and analysis. The next important step is a large foundation grant. These interventions are essential but also problematic. A university or foundation could set bad priorities, misunderstand the realities of the situation, or simply alienate locals. In fact, the relationships are complicated and full of tension, but they are resolved thanks to crucial decisions. At one pivotal early meeting, a row of foundation executives and local NGO leaders sit (like the disciples at the Last Supper) at a table on the dais of a Catholic church, facing an increasingly restive nave full of ordinary residents. “Who the hell are you people and what do you want?” someone shouts. The atmosphere improves when one of the foundation’s leaders, also a corporate lawyer, steps down from the table and tells his personal life story.

The organization develops formal democratic structures, with rules of membership and voting. It does not adopt a rule of one person, one vote, because various stakeholders (such as the foundations and the city) need to be represented. They are “stakeholders.” But the DSNI drops its early plan of being an “organization of organizations” to make room for unaffiliated residents on the board.

The organizers and funders try to avoid developing and pushing their own agenda. Instead, they listen to a broad range of residents, often shouting through locked doors to begin their conversations.

They discover latent civic assets. An early report by the city had claimed that residents didn’t care enough to participate in community meetings. “Apathy” was the word the city used. But, as one DSNI organizer found, residents “not only cared, but they had already been doing things about [local problems]. In some cases, I came across veteran activists.”

Once DSNI chooses an issue that resonates with many people’s concerns, the members address it through a combination of discussion, direct public work, and relationship-building. Those are the three key concepts in my forthcoming Oxford University Press book, We are the Ones We are Waiting For: Philosophy and Practice of Civic Renewal.

The first issue they choose is illegal dumping of trash and stolen cars in their neighborhood. They exhaustively discuss the dimensions and causes of this problem. They organize a day of direct service when residents volunteer to clean up trash. And they persuade the city to adopt new policies.

From the beginning, the issue of “dumping” has symbolic dimensions. For example,

Even as they contributed to cleaning up the lots, some employees of the city Public Works Department dumped some trash of their own in the form of racist stereotypes. After handing out 100 rakes and shovels to local residents, one of the city employees snidely remarked, ‘We won’t be seeing those tools again.’ They weren’t even planning to return at the end of the day to pick them up.

The residents respond by making sure to return 97 of the rakes and shovels, apologizing for a 98th that was broken.

Relationships are important, at several levels. One of the initial barriers is the lack of mutual knowledge. One resident asks, “How can we nominate people to represent us when we don’t know them?” DSNI spends a lot of time developing relationships through the classic means of one-on-one interviews and public meetings.

The DSNI creates power just by existing. A competitive mayoral primary is pitting Raymond Flynn (white, Catholic) against Mel King, a Black activist (whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I was a college student). Flynn shows up uninvited at a DSNI public meeting, because there are votes to be had. The DSNI also gets a completely unsolicited city grant for the same reason. The organization decides that it is not afraid to confront power but also not afraid to cooperate even with agencies and politicians who are partly opposed to its agenda.

Medoff and Sklar say, “Organizing is the renewable energy that powers DSNI.” They are right, but it is important to acknowledge other factors. DSNI would have received less support from City Hall (or perhaps none at all) if it had not been for Mel King’s insurgent political campaign, which used traditional channels. Dudley Street would not have thrived economically if it had not been for very strong growth throughout the Boston metro area since 1980. So formal politics and macroeconomics matter—but organizing can help steer these forces in beneficial directions.

I love my life because of the variety

Here’s a snapshot: today’s agenda.

  • 6:30 am Finishing up a lit review on voting laws’ impact for a scholarly meeting in May
  • 8:30 am Editing CIRCLE blog post and draft op-ed
  • 9:00 am Deliberating about candidates for two CIRCLE jobs
  • 11:20 am On Geraldo Rivera’s radio show, talking about the youth vote
  • 1:00 pm Talking to a lawyer who protects voting rights
  • 1:30 pm Talking to a student who’s part of a community-based research project I am leading
  • 2:00 pm Talking to a different student (same project)
  • 3:00 pm at YouthBuild USA national headquarters, sharing the results of a large evaluation of their leadership programs
  • 5:30 pm moderating a panel at Harvard, with Lawrence Bobo, Jennifer Hochschild, Meira Levinson, and the Boston Public Schools’ James Liou as panelists
  • 7:30 dinner with the panel
  • 9:30 packing for New York City

civic health in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Alabama

Today, our colleagues at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) announced reports on the civic health of Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. CIRCLE does most of the number-crunching for these reports. We deliver factual information to state-based teams that add their knowledge of local initiatives and develop their own interpretations and arguments. Here’s where you can sign up to do one of these in your state or metro area.


Pennsylvania ranks 50th in the nation in discussing politics, but Pennsylvanians demonstrate promising rates of engagement in areas like group participation and talking with neighbors. The report highlights the role civic education and civic infrastructure play in cultivating engagement.

Ohio, as usual, is a bellwether, falling at or near national averages on nearly all indicators of civic engagement. Ohioans are, however, less likely to engage in certain forms of political participation, such as attending meetings and discussing political issues.

Alabama outperforms national trends in many indicators related to social connection and public work, but other forms of civic involvement, such as contacting elected officials and joining groups, lag. The Alabama report highlights exciting programs and initiatives across the state as promising models for advancing civic health.