my opening remarks at Frontiers of Democracy 2015

These were my remarks at the opening of Frontiers (#Demfront) last evening:

Welcome to the United States if you come from overseas, and to Massachusetts if you come from out of state.

Welcome to Boston, and specifically to Boston’s Chinatown, which is our host community tonight.

Welcome to Tufts University. We also have a leafy campus about seven miles from here in Medford, Mass.. You are always welcome in Medford, but we’re pleased to meet tonight in Tufts’ Boston campus.

Welcome to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Tisch College is your host and a co-convenor of this conference. Our dean, Alan Solomont, will talk in a little while about Tisch College, so I will leave the substance to him.

One very close and partner in co-organizing this event is the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, led by Matt Leighninger. Matt’s work is wide-ranging, but an important focus is public engagement in local governance.

Another essential partner is The Democracy Imperative, led by Nancy Thomas, who now also works full-time with us at Tisch College. TDI focuses on democracy in higher education.

Matt and Nancy organized a fantastic conference in 2008 called No Better Time. Frontiers 2014 is the direct descendent of No Better Time. Some version of the conference has occurred every year without a break since ’08. I see many faces from No Better Time here seven years later.

Added to the mix since 2009 has been our colleague Karol Soltan, a political scientist from the University of Maryland, who co-founded and co-teaches the Summer Institute of Civic Studies with me at Tisch College. Twenty-two of the people present here tonight form the 2014 Summer Institute. We have been spending six-and-a half hours every day for the past two weeks discussing advanced theoretical work on citizenship. This year’s group comprises scholars and practitioners from Chile, Mexico, Liberia, Zimbabwe, China, the Netherlands, and Singapore. More than 120 others have taken the Summer Institute in past years, and about a dozen of those alumni are also here tonight. Tisch College’s Sarah Shugars, Summer Institute class of 2013, played an important role in organizing alumni to design some of the sessions for this conference.

Last but not least—in fact, last and most, is Tisch College’s Kathy O’Connor, who organized all the logistics and practicalities of this conference and also helped shape the substance. Special thanks to Kathy.

A few words about Civic Studies, since that is a phrase that may be new to you—but it is rapidly spreading.

Civic Studies originated with a 2007 manifesto that was written by Harry Boyte, Karol Soltan, and several other distinguished scholars. It called for an emerging discipline or intellectual community that would reorient the social sciences and humanities.

Civic Studies is already producing a stream of publications and events. The editor of the chief Civic Studies journal, The Good Society, is here—Josh Miller. The Summer Institute at Tufts now has a sister institute in Ukraine and a developing partnership with Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico.

We like to say that Civic Studies is the intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.

The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. We do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. Nor does this formula invoke the word “democracy.” One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations to the globe. Not all of these venues are, or could be, democracies.

Civic studies asks “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?), about strategies (what would work?), and about the institutions that we co-create. Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions–it cannot simply be about how other people ought to act.
Civic Studies emphasizes agency, which Harry and colleagues have defined “as effective and intentional action that is conducted in diverse and open settings in order to shape the world around us.”

Thanks to the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the broader networks around it, the students and alumni of the Civic Studies Institute are joined here this evening by many practitioners of “dialogue and deliberation,” meetings and processes that bring people together to talk about public issues.

Thanks to the Democracy Imperative and Tisch College itself, we are joined by many civic educators who work in elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and community settings.

A substantial subset of our participants today are primarily concerned with media—both traditional and new—and how they can support or frustrate civic life.

By the time the conference is over, we will have heard from at least four current office-holders who are working to make government more engaging and responsive.

And we are delighted to welcome others of diverse backgrounds and views, including people who will make explicit critiques of dialogue and deliberation, of civic education of various kinds, of media, and of theoretical scholarship.

Critique is good. Our problems are much too serious for us to be complacent or to settle into intellectual conformity. I, for one, am deeply dissatisfied with the strategies and moral frameworks available today and eagerly looking forward to alternatives.

I think we are pretty good at creating little spaces where voluntary participants can have rewarding political experiences, but we have very weak ideas about how to transform large systems or how to engage people who are not raising their hands to join civic life.

I think we are increasingly thoughtful about the people who are excluded from conventional politics, and we are getting better at including some of those individuals in concrete activities, but we have few ideas about how to transform politics so that it is really better for all.

I think we have reasonably impressive theories of civic engagement—how and why people participate—but very weak theories about how and why societies change for the better.

I think we have powerful diagnoses and critiques of government, of the mass media, of education, and of global markets, but we are very short on solutions that involve ordinary people as agents of change.

We know, for instance, that human beings are dangerously heating the world by burning carbon. We understand the social causes of that behavior. We know that if governments taxed carbon, they would solve the problem. We also know that if people experienced the kinds of spiritual changes that Pope Francis eloquently invited, they would solve the problem. But we have a much harder time explaining how we—the people actually gathered together in a space like this one—can achieve changes of policy or transformations of the spirit at large scales.

The framing statement of the conference acknowledges our difficult circumstances. It begins, “While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world. …” But then the good news: “committed and innovative people strive to understand and improve citizens’ engagement with government, with community, and with each other. Every year, Frontiers of Democracy convenes some of these practitioners and scholars for organized discussions and informal interactions. … Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.” …

Not that many other spaces gather as much talent and passion in the cause of civic renewal. The group gathered here is an asset. This gathering is an opportunity. We must make the most of it. We have about 14 hours together. Let’s move the frontiers of democracy.

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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.