Apply to the Summer Institute of Civic Studies by Mar. 15

We encourage NCDD members to apply to be part of the 7th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies this June 15-25, and also to consider attending the 2015 Frontiers of Democracy conference this June 24-25. Both events have institutions in the field that are stewarded by NCDD supporting members Drs. Peter Levine and Nancy Thomas of Tufts University.

I myself am a Summer Institute alumni and have attended multiple Frontiers conferences, and they are both great opportunities to learn and work with many of the nation’s leaders of civic innovation. Find out more below about both  in the announcement below or by clicking here.


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The 7th Annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The seventh annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies will be an intensive, two-week, interdisciplinary seminar bringing together faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners from many countries and diverse fields of study.

Organized by Peter Levine of Tufts University’s Tisch College and Karol Sołtan of the University of Maryland, the Summer Institute will engage participants in challenging discussions of such topics as:

  • What kinds of citizens (if any) do good regimes need?
  • What should such citizens know, believe, and do?
  • What practices and institutional structures promote the right kinds of citizenship?
  • What ought to be the relationships among empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy?

The syllabus for the sixth annual seminar (in 2014) is here: Continue reading

Snow Day

Growing up in California, I never had snow days. For the most part, seeing snow involved “going to the snow” – a quaint expression describing a trip to the mountains.

But when I hear the phrase “snow day” I still imagine that little-kid thrill of a free day with no rules. It sounds like it ought to be a whole day of no school and all play!

But somehow it never seems to work out that way.

In my experience, a snow day really consists of trying to get a full days worth of work done in a chilly house with no land line, punctuated by breaks of freezing manual labor.

I actually kind of enjoy shoveling – it’s rather rhythmic and meditative in its own way – but it doesn’t seem to mix well with work. I come back in, sit at my makeshift desk, and stare blankly at the screen as I try to write something coherent.

There was no play time. No relaxing reading or binge watching anything.

I actually did get a lot done today, but…man, am I tired.

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diagramming Sarah Palin’s Iowa speech

Northeastern political scientist Nick Beauchamp has developed a remarkable, free tool (Plot Mapper) that identifies keywords in a stream of text and plots them on a two-dimensional plane. The words are placed automatically but meaningfully (using a form of principal components analysis), and a line traces the order in which the ideas unfolded over time.

Beauchamp’s analysis of the 2015 State of the Union was covered in the Washington Post. He demonstrated the neat arc of the president’s rhetoric:

I wanted to try the tool, so I looked around for another recent speech that might contrast with the SOTU. Sarah Palin’s Iowa speech has been widely panned on the right as well as the left, being called a “tragedy”–or at least “an interminable ramble.” I pasted the text into Plot Mapper and this is what I got:

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.37.14 AM

I actually think the quality gap between these two texts is a little obscured by this form of analysis. “America,” “country,” and “people” seem to play similar roles in both speeches. We also see an actual organizing structure to Palin’s words: she moves from nationalism through right-populism (real people are conservative) to conclude with the local (veterans in Iowa). Finding such an arc may be giving the speaker a bit too much credit. Nevertheless, the tool has enormous potential for comparing discourse. I’d be especially interested in using it to analyze how people affect each others’ ideas when they deliberate.

The post diagramming Sarah Palin’s Iowa speech appeared first on Peter Levine.

Job Opening with the Consensus Building Institute

We want to make sure that our members know about an exciting job opening with the Consensus Building Institute, one of our great NCDD organizational members. We know that some of our NCDDers would be a great fit for the position, so check out the announcement below or find out more here.


The Consensus Building Institute is seeking a talented, experienced and entrepreneurial Senior Associate for our Washington, D.C. office.  CBI is a leading non-profit organization dedicated to empowering leaders around the world to collaborate, negotiate, and resolve conflict. CBI conducts its work in the U.S. and internationally. We have offices and staff in Cambridge, MA, Washington D.C., New York, San Francisco, and Santiago, Chile.

We are seeking a Senior Associate with five to ten years experience in work related to multi-stakeholder problem solving, multi-party negotiations, public policy dispute resolution. Prior employers could include collaborative service firms in mediation, facilitation and multiparty convening, or in related fields such as land use and environmental planning and management, public policy development and analysis, or citizen participation.

If interested, please send a letter of interest and CV to Ronee Penoi at rpenoi@cbuilding.org.
Women and candidates of color strongly encouraged to apply. 

For the full position description visit: www.cbuilding.org/sites/default/files/CBI_SENIOR_ASSOCIATE_JOB%20ANNOUNCEMENT_JAN_2015.pdf.

The Philoshophical Challenge

Towards the end of his novel, Skinny Legs And All, author Tom Robbins describes his heroine’s epiphany:

"…She understood suddenly…that it was futile to work for political solutions to humanity's problems because humanity's problems were not political…The primary problems were philosophical, and until the philosophical problems were solved, the political problems would have to be solved over and over and over again."


Ferguson Day 6, Picture 44 by Loavesofbread

This insight applies particularly to the current plight of our democracy. Symptoms of its dysfunction are everywhere. Only about a third of eligible voters bother to vote in non-presidential elections. Congress is gridlocked and polarized. Our economy, our schools, our social mobility escalators, our health care, our social justice system – none of these core institutions of our democracy are working as well as they should for the majority of Americans.

The American public knows something is wrong. For decades a majority of the public has been telling pollsters that the country is "on the wrong track." When we probe into what this means, people state that they don’t feel they have a voice in shaping the decisions that most impact their lives. They experience this lack of voice as a betrayal of the promise of democracy.

People must trust their political institutions to seek the common good as well as their own interests.

The town of Ferguson illustrates what people mean by a lack of voice. Months after a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, a grand jury voted not to indict the white cop. These events evoked anger, frustration and widespread looting, verging on anarchy.

Ferguson had relied on the legal mechanics of democracy such as grand jury deliberations to deliver justice. The majority of Ferguson's citizens are black. They had learned to mistrust white control over the police and the legal system. When the crisis arose, there was no minimal bond of trust they could rely upon to initiate a healing process.

The philosophical challenge requires that we recognize that democracy presupposes a minimal bond of community based on trust. Conflicting groups need a core of trust to engage in the kind of dialogue that might lead to healing.

Building trust must always precede political tinkering. People must trust their political institutions to seek the common good as well as their own interests.

The strategies for building trust are very different from the day-to-day strategies of the legal system. The town of Ferguson is not that different from thousands of other towns across American who place formal legal procedures ahead of trust-building.

Robbins' insight is to grasp the reality that unless we first address the philosophical challenge of developing trust and community, "the political problems would have to be solved over and over and over again."

Democracy’s Colleges: An Emerging Alternative

In the changing landscape of work and higher education there are signs of an emerging alternative to Ivory Tower detachment or scrambles to adapt. It was visible on Jan. 21 at the National Press Club, in an event organized by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums, and Augsburg College, when leaders from higher education, business, labor, government and other fields gathered to launch a national conversation, "The Changing World of Work -- What Should We Ask of Higher Education?"

Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary of Education, kicked off the meeting, pointing toward the alternative by arguing for a return to John Dewey's idea of "tending to democracy."

In contrast, Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices, proposed that the skills needed to be an engineer are the same as those needed to be a politician or a hedge-fund manager. In Laine's view, the task is to better align college and the emerging demands of the workforce.

Many heard the conversation this way since it fits conventional frameworks. As Casey Fabris put in in her coverage of the meeting in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this conversation focuses "on the question of how colleges should adapt to a working world changed by technology, globalization, and the aftermath of the recession."

But a composite alternative different than either Ivory Tower disconnection or preparing students to adapt is represented in the issue guide in option two, preparing students to be citizen leaders and change agents, and three, seeing colleges as "anchor institutions" with enormous resources that can be leveraged for community betterment. A strong presence in the day's discussion, it can be described as the reemergence of the concept of "democracy's colleges."

The democracy's college idea, like the issue guide, addresses troubling questions about work often glossed over in discussions which equate 21st century job skills and citizenship skills. The issue guide quotes David Brooks, who describes a workforce with "millions in part time or low wage jobs...and millions more in dysfunctional or unhealthy workplaces." It notes that employers "increasingly rely on a revolving cast of freelancers, independent contractors and temporary workers who receive little or nothing in the way of benefits or job security," a number expected to rise to 40 percent in 2020.

As long time community organizer Gerald Taylor and adjunct faculty with the Service Employees International Union -- one of the sponsors of the conversation -- observed in the meeting, these changes are sweeping through higher education. More than half of teachers are now adjunct faculty. In many departments they teach 60 or even 70 percent of the students.

Crucially, in the democracy's college idea schools are not objects of change but makers of change. They take a luminous ideal -- that the purpose of American education is about building a democratic society -- and put it to work in gritty collaborative public problem solving and publicly engaged teaching and scholarship on the ground.

The Democracy's College Tradition Then and Now

In historical treatments, the ideal of "democracy's college" was sometimes presented as devoid of conflict and politics. In his 1942 book, Democracy's College, the prominent historian Earle Ross argued that land-grant institutions, first launched in 1862 to provide access to men and women of the agricultural and industrial classes, "became the fullest expression of democracy in higher education."

In fact, as the intellectual historian Scott Peters details in a splendid chapter, "A Democracy's College Tradition," in the forthcoming Democracy's Education collection, land-grants even at their most democratic were full of rough and tumble politics, complexity, parochialism, and contradictions. But they also generated multiple examples of collective public work on pressing issues like rural health, schools, soil erosion, and economic development which brought together faculty and students with community members on an equal footing.

Overall the democracy college concept was animated by a vision of empowering education based on respect for the talents and intelligence of everyday citizens. Thus, Liberty Hyde Bailey, founding dean of agriculture at Cornell and a chief architect of the democracy's college tradition, argued that "Every democracy must reach far beyond what is commonly known as economic efficiency." Economic efficiency "could be accomplished by despotism and result in no self-action on the part of the people." Rather higher education should do "everything it can to enable those in the backgrounds to maintain their standing and their pride and to partake in the making of political affairs."

Such ideas were powerfully expressed on January 21st, with a live stream archive accessible here. Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark where most students, of diverse backgrounds, are the first in their families to go to college, proposed that the key to student success involves much more than service. "It's collaborating on projects and genuinely creating connections as well as problem solving that allow them to have a joint experience in building democracy." She described Rutgers as part of a network of "anchoring institutions creating democracy on the ground."

Byron White, Vice President of University Engagement at Cleveland State University, called for a shift from the question, "Are students college-ready?" to "Are colleges students ready?" Students need systems and relationships which meet them where they are and help them to navigate their education. "Then suddenly they are successful."

Both Cantor and White called for rethinking the role of adjunct faculty. "We have to reorganize to reward and give stability and reasonable life paths to people who are doing very hard on-the-ground collaborative anchor institution work," said Canter. White pointed to a coming revolution in teaching. "I ask faculty, do you really believe that people are going to pay tens of thousands of dollars to sit in a room for you to share something 90 percent of which they can get on their cell phone?" In his view educators of the future will be more facilitators of learning than transmitters of knowledge. Many adjuncts have just these skills.

Finally Andrew Seligsohn, new president of the 1100 member Campus Compact, a higher education association dedicated to higher education as a public good, argued the importance of the conversation as a way to prepare students to be civic leaders (many can be trained as moderators, for instance).

The next day Seligsohn, perhaps energized by the challenges to rankings through the day, took up the topic on his blog. "Rankings, however absurd, matter because they drive behavior. Right now, they drive behavior that undermines rather than serves public ends...institutions do well if they turn away most students and accumulate vast wealth." He called for "a broad coalition to take on the rankings."

Making change -- not simply reacting to change -- was definitely on the agenda.

Save the Date for Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy, an annual conference focused on questions of civic studies and civil society, will take place in Boston on June 25-27!

You can go ahead and register for this gathering here.

Frontiers of Democracy is truly one of the highlights of my year. It brings together a unique blend of practioners and scholars; people from different backgrounds and fields of study, all coming from different perspectives, but looking for ways to collaborate on solutions.

There are some good arguments and some deep disagreements, but – as you might expect from people dedicated to re-emphasizing individual agency in civil society – the attendees at Frontiers are downright neighborly. They’re the kind of people who will want to get to know you and hear your ideas – for no other reason than their confidence that every person’s perspective adds value.

I’ve met some of the smartest, thoughtful, and dedicated people I know at Frontiers, and it really is a marvelous time.

Hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service – where I work – the framing for this year’s Frontiers is described on the website as follows:

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, 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. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.

For those with more time to dedicate to this topic, Frontiers of Democracy culminates the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a two-week seminar that is currently accepting applicants.

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Save the Date for Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy, an annual conference focused on questions of civic studies and civil society, will take place in Boston on June 25-27!

You can go ahead and register for this gathering here.

Frontiers of Democracy is truly one of the highlights of my year. It brings together a unique blend of practioners and scholars; people from different backgrounds and fields of study, all coming from different perspectives, but looking for ways to collaborate on solutions.

There are some good arguments and some deep disagreements, but – as you might expect from people dedicated to re-emphasizing individual agency in civil society – the attendees at Frontiers are downright neighborly. They’re the kind of people who will want to get to know you and hear your ideas – for no other reason than their confidence that every person’s perspective adds value.

I’ve met some of the smartest, thoughtful, and dedicated people I know at Frontiers, and it really is a marvelous time.

Hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service – where I work – the framing for this year’s Frontiers is described on the website as follows:

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, 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. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.

For those with more time to dedicate to this topic, Frontiers of Democracy culminates the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a two-week seminar that is currently accepting applicants.

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