remarks at the opening of Frontiers of Democracy 2013

About 150 people are gathering at Tufts for Frontiers of Democracy 2013: Innovations in Civic Practice, Theory, and Education.

In my introductory remarks (below the fold), I will explain how the conference draws together separate streams of discussion and organizing, and I will propose a conceptual framework for our common work.

As organizers of this conference, we generally try to avoid doing a lot of talking, but my colleagues have prevailed on me—or indulged me—to make some introductory remarks about who has gathered here this weekend and for what purpose.

I’d ask you to consider the conference as a tree. That’s not the most original metaphor, but it will work.

Its deepest roots are the individual stories of the 150 participants, every one different, but each one planted in its own rich soil of community, of personal and collective history and memory, and of civic practice and experience.

For instance, people have been meeting to talk about their common problems and aspirations for thousands of years in every inhabited continent. Since the 1960s, there has been something of a boom of explicit, organized, deliberative processes and experiments—deliberation that you can see and name; deliberation at a human scale. In 2002, many of the groups that had been helping to organize these citizen deliberations, both in the US and overseas, came together at Airlie House in Virginia and launched the Deliberative Democracy Consortium to promote research and learning, networking, and advocacy. Matt Leighninger directs the DDC today.

People have also been teaching the next generation to be good citizens for thousands of years, and universities have been operating in our societies for more than a millennium. But since the 1980s, there has been something of a renaissance of explicit efforts to strengthen the civic role of higher education. In 2006 and 2007, a group of highly experienced academics and civic leaders from outside academia met to share their work and discuss the potential of higher education to enhance American democracy as a whole. They launched a consortium called The Democracy Imperative, or TDI for short, to connect practitioners to academics and convene people who approach “educating for democracy” in diverse ways: intergroup dialogue, interdisciplinary problem-based learning, social justice, Sustained Dialogue, conflict resolution, community organizing, community-based participatory research, and so on. TDI was formed to bring these (and others) together so that they would not feel alone on their campuses. Today, Nancy Thomas directs that effort.

In 2012, Nancy came to CIRCLE and Tisch College at Tufts. CIRCLE, which I direct, studies the civic learning and engagement of young Americans and tries to focus on those not in college or on a path to college. The forms of practice that we tend to study include civic education in middle schools and high schools and in community-based organizations that serve working-class young people.

Meanwhile, Tisch College aims to prepare all Tufts students be lifelong active citizens and creates an enduring culture of active citizenship on this campus. CIRCLE and Tisch College are your hosts today, and Tisch College supports this conference generously. Kathy O’Connor and Charlotte Ringle, who work for Tisch, are the dedicated and talented logistical leaders of the conference.

In 2008, DDC and TDI teamed up to organize a conference called “No Better Time” at the University of New Hampshire. I was just a participant, so I can say it was a great success—perhaps in part because the political moment was optimistic and propitious in 2008, but No Better Time also drew a great group of people for an engaging format.

Just months before “No Better Time,” seven scholars from a variety of disciplines had met at the University of Maryland. They all shared the view that mainstream scholarship is not useful to citizens—people who want to improve or even co-create their worlds. It’s not only that theory is disconnected from practice, but the prevailing theories themselves are misguided. Mainstream scholarship ignores human agency and creativity. It separates fact from value in harmful ways. It can tell you, for example, that the odds of starting a social movement are low—but not what you should do if you want to start a good one.

The scholars who gathered at Maryland included the late Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Jane Mansbridge, the current president of the American Political Science Association, and our friend Harry Boyte, who is following this conference from South Africa. The whole group wrote a manifesto entitled The New Civic Politics: Civic Theory and Practice for the Future.

This manifesto led to a concrete experiment. Since 2008, Karol Soltan from the University of Maryland and I—both co-authors of the original statement—have been trying to practice the new civic politics by co-teaching an annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts. It is an intense, theoretically rich academic exercise that has now involved about 100 people who have come from Bhutan, Singapore, China, Mexico, South Africa, and numerous other countries and backgrounds to debate civic renewal. Many are here today, and some have organized the “track” on Civic Theory, which has a focus on prisons and crime.

In 2008, the Summer Institute culminated in a public panel that C-SPAN covered on cable. The next year, we decided to join forces with DDC and TDI to repeat the “No Better Time” conference but at Tisch College instead of UNH. And we have held some version of a public conference each year. It has gradually turned into Frontiers.

Meanwhile, The Center for Engaged Democracy has been holding summer institutes for four years. Based at Merrimack College, the Center acts as a hub for people who run or want to start certificates, minors, and majors focused on civic and community engagement, broadly defined. The Center’s 2013 annual meeting has been taking place here, and many participants are sticking around for Frontiers. Dan Butin leads the Center.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation is an association of more than 2,000 members who practice and promote deliberative democracy. Sandy Heierbacher leads that effort. One of their signature methods is to hold meet-ups or regional gatherings, one of which has been happening here, as part of Frontiers 2013, so NCDD is another root of our tree.

Earlier this year federal program, the United States Institute on Civic Engagement, selected The Center for Civic Engagement at Miami University Hamilton to host student leaders from the countries of Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia. They are here today and represent yet another root.

These roots have come together to support a pretty impressive trunk. But we could certainly ask what else should be included.

We could press for more demographic diversity and representativeness—we do not necessarily reflect our communities. This year, Frontiers focuses especially on women and gender inequality in politics.

We could also ask about strategies and forms of work that may be missing. Civic education, broadly defined; deliberative democracy and dialogue; and civic scholarship are all well represented here. If you think those are all the most important and relevant forms of civic work, you can be satisfied. I personally believe that a many other forms are also important—and some are also represented here even though I haven’t named them yet.

For example, many people collaborate to manage and strengthen public resources: watersheds and forests, public libraries, cyberspace. They may talk and deliberate, but that isn’t really the heart of their work, which is more about management and co-production.

Many people are building alternative economic institutions—land trusts, community development corporations and social enterprises—that are more governable and accountable than transnational firms.

Many people struggle for political reforms and rights, not only in Egypt and the Palestinian Territories but also right here in the US.

Many people are involved in strengthening the civic health or capacity of communities by organizing citizens into effective groups and networks. These may not be primarily spaces for discussion. Service, belonging, and advocacy may be more central to their work.

Many people are trying to improve the media environment and serve what the Knight Foundation calls “the information needs of communities.” They are creating innovative software, formats, and organizations, some of them for-profit. Again, those people may deliberate and may educate, but the heart of their work is elsewhere.

I have begun to offer a list, and I could go on. Any list requires some kind of conceptual framework. You should be able to explain what deep principles define your list and encourage you to include some things and omit others. I do not expect my own conceptual framework to be shared by everyone who has gathered here today. On the contrary, debate about our frameworks is essential and exciting. One of the reasons that we need theory as well as practice is that we must be able to define what we are for. I’ll tell you my own framework in about one minute, not to settle the matter, but to provoke discussion.

I think that good citizens deliberate. By talking and listening to people who are different from themselves, they enlarge their understanding, make themselves accountable to their fellow citizens, and build a degree of consensus.

But deliberation is not enough. People who merely listen and talk lack sufficient knowledge and experience to add much insight to their conversations; and talk alone rarely improves the world. Deliberation is most valuable when it is connected to work—when citizens bring their experience of making things into their discussions, and when they take ideas and values from deliberation back into their work. Work is especially valuable when it is collaborative, when people make things of public value together. They are typically motivated to do so because they seek civic relationships with their fellow citizens, relationships marked by a degree of loyalty, trust, and hope. In turn, working and talking with fellow citizens builds and strengthens civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable sources of energy and power.

A combination of deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships is the core of citizenship—in my personal view. If we had much more of this kind of civic engagement, we could address our most serious problems. Indeed, more and better civic engagement is a necessary condition of success; none of the available ideologies or bodies of expertise offers satisfactory solutions, which must emerge instead from a continuous cycle of talking, working, and building relationships.

Unfortunately, genuine civic engagement is in decline in the US and in many other countries, neglected or deliberately suppressed by major institutions and ideologies and by the prevailing culture. Our motivation to engage has not weakened, but we have lost institutionalized structures that recruit, educate, and permit us to engage effectively.

In fact, we face serious obstacles or deficits:

  • Our political system is organized to favor professionally-led, well-funded interests instead of creative, deliberating communities and grassroots movements.
  • Our major social policies are hostile to active civic participation. (For example, education is driven by standardized tests that experts write; public health depends on insurance companies and state bureaucracies rather than co-ops and community-based organizations.)
  • Our voluntary associations no longer have the means to recruit millions of Americans and develop the skills and motivations to participate as active citizens.
  • Our companies, because of their ability to withdraw investment, are virtually ungovernable by local authorities and communities.
  • Our culture lacks positive and plausible descriptions of collective agency, although it provides many depictions of lone heroes and of apolitical groups of friends.
  • Our news media generally overlook examples of deliberation and public work but relentlessly cover competition among professional politicians.
  • Despite their commitments to political rights and their heritage of experiments with participatory democracy, liberals and progressives are enamored of expertise, command-and-control regulation, and redistributive politics to the exclusion of active citizenship.
  • Despite their resistance to technocratic elites and their heritage of experiments with decentralization, conservatives are enamored of markets and negative liberties to the exclusion of active citizenship.
  • Our schools and colleges offer inadequate civic education, distributed unjustly to favor the most advantaged students, with an emphasis on factual knowledge instead of civic skills.
  • Our scholars in the social sciences and humanities produce an inadequate supply of knowledge relevant to active citizens (people who make moral and strategic judgments about how to improve the world directly).
  • Our funders—in both the state and philanthropic sectors—provide negligible streams of money for participatory processes, as compared to the funds available for concrete services.

On the other hand (sooner or later, there had to be another hand), we live in period of civic innovation, when, against the odds, people are at work on demanding, sophisticated, and locally effective forms of civic engagement. I estimate that 1 million Americans are involved in such work each year. Certainly they have many kindred spirits in other countries. These people see the need for citizenship and are building impressive practices and models. Their work remains scattered and local because it is contrary to the mainstream of national policy. Civic engagement cannot achieve sufficient scale and power without reforms in our most powerful institutions. The way to achieve such reforms is to organize the most active citizens into a self-conscious movement for civic renewal.

We are not 1 million Americans. We are about 150 international people out of the 7 billion human beings on earth. But we are deeply rooted in networks and communities that reach many more. That is why our gathering is so important. Of course, neither the root nor the trunk of a tree reflects its whole value. Its value is manifest in what it produces, its branches, leaves, and fruits. So, having come together, we must now branch out and produce a new harvest of civic theory and civic practice.

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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.