Massachusetts American Legion Auxiliary Girls State

Established in 1937, the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) has sponsored Girls State. The stated purpose is to teach “…young women responsible citizenship and love for God and Country.”[1] In the intervening years, it has become a nationally recognized program. Held annually, approximately 20,000 young women within their third year of...

Students and Hands On Civics

We know that students are more likely to become engaged and active citizens when they “rigorously teach civic content and skills, ensure an open classroom climate for discussing issues, emphasize the importance of the electoral process, and encourage a participative school culture” (Torney-Purta, 2002), and Escambia County in Florida has shown us a way in which we might get students to experience the expectations, responsibilities, and practice of citizenship! Earlier this year, we shared with you the news that we have partnered with the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. This partnership is intended to encourage these skilled and knowledgeable civic leaders to interact with schools, teachers, and students in an effort to expose kids to more than simply the stuff they read in the book or see online. Escambia has taken advantage of the relationship that they have developed with their own local supervisor, David H. Stafford, and he has helped their students understand the voting process and how the system as a whole works. While this relationship has been ongoing for at least a decade, this year was a high point! But why would the Supervisor of Elections, no doubt a busy person, want to engage with teenagers? Well, in his own words

“Our mission — outreach in particular to young folks — is to familiarize potential voters with the process and importance of voting. By doing this, we found they are more likely to engage in the process when they’re old enough.”

They use the same process for the elections occurring at the school that is used during political elections, and students get to use the voting machines as well. I also found this very exciting:

officials also pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and hold registration drives at two other Escambia County high schools and the George Stone Technical Center.

“It’s the same verification procedure. They are held in a pending status and are automatically registered at 18. My office mails them a letter notifying them and their voter registration card,” Stafford explained of the preregistration drives.

“Every day, I am signing 15 to 25 letters that are mailed to new voters.”

The process is working — as of Wednesday morning, 1,369 Escambia County 16- and 17-year-olds had pre-registered to vote.

This is wonderful, especially as some states have made pre-registering kids to vote illegal. Why anyone would want to discourage registration and voting I do not know.

This is a great story, and it is fantastic to see students engaged in the practice of good citizenship. Check it out for yourself!

Voting Rights

In any democracy, the question of who gets to vote has important implications for a group’s power and voice within a society.

Voting has taken place within modern America since at least 1607 when the English established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown. At that time, six men from among the colony’s 105 settlers participated in electing Edward Wingfield as president.

While a 5.7% voting rate among colonists may sound like a dismal start to what would become our nation, those six men represented 100% of eligible voters.

In the United States’ first presidential election, held in 1788–89, there were 43,782 popular votes cast from a population of 3 million. Incidentally, “only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.”

At that time, of course, the constitution didn’t provide any guidelines on who could vote. By convention, only white male property owners over the age of 21 had the right to vote. That was the popular understanding of “the people” at the time.

Since then, our definition has expanded.

In 1870, the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, and in 1920, the 19th amendment allowed women to vote as well. Then, in 1971, amongst the protests of the Vietnam War, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18.

So throughout our history, our understanding of who are “the people” and who should be allowed  to vote has shifted.

And each expansion of voting rights has been met by skepticism by those in power.

In Some of the Reasons Against Woman Suffrage, Francis Parkman argued  “Whatever liberty the best civilization may accord to women, they must always be subject to restrictions unknown to the other sex, and they can never dispense with the protecting influences which society throws about them.”

You can perhaps imagine some of Parkman’s supporting points: “everybody knows that the physical and mental constitution of woman is more delicate than in the other sex.”

In his five page pamphlet, Parkman argues over and over again that women are not fit to vote, that most do not want the vote, that giving them the vote would destroy the moral fabric of our society, that the right to vote is a “supreme device for developing the defects of women” which “demolish[s] their real power to build an ugly mockery instead.”

This history is particularly compelling, because as the definition of “the people” continues to expand, we continue to see similar arguments.

People under 18 shouldn’t vote because they aren’t capable of being informed voters. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because most young people don’t care about voting. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because it is our job to protect them and nurture them – giving them the right to vote would be like letting them vote on whether to have cake for dinner.

But such arguments have proven to be flawed.

Those are the rationalizations of a society that has gotten used to putting a segment of the population in it’s “proper” place. Changing that place may disrupt social norms, but history has shown that change to always be for the better.


Director of Public Engagement Opening at Public Agenda

We are pleased to announce that the good people at Public Agenda, one of our NCDD member organizations, recently announced that they are hiring for a new Director of Public Engagement.

PublicAgenda-logoIt’s a great job opportunity that many of our NCDD members would be an excellent fit for, so make sure to apply as soon as you can!

Here’s some of how Public Agenda describes the position:

The director of public engagement leads a team in the development and execution of public engagement projects on a variety of local and national issues, and leads the ongoing development of our public engagement methods, products and services. Reporting directly to the president, the PE director:

  • Is instrumental in helping the organization design and fund new public engagement projects aligned with our strategic goals, including cultivating funder/client relations and playing a leading role in project design, proposal writing, and budgeting. In this, s/he often works in close coordination with the president and always with our directors of project development and finance.
  • Oversees all public engagement projects, personally leading some and coaching/supervising team members in leading others. Also, ensures the coordination of occasional cross-departmental initiatives that combine members of the public engagement, research and/or communications teams in an integrated program.
  • Builds and supervises the public engagement team and facilitates their professional development…

You can find the full job description and directions for how to apply by visiting

Good luck to all the applicants!

Combating Childhood Obesity in Somerville

This four-page case study (2014) from The Intersector Project outlines the cross-sector collaboration used by the Friedman School of Nutrition and Tufts School of Medicine, with The City of Somerville to reduce childhood obesity in Somerville, Massachusetts.

From the Intersector Project

One in six American children was affected by obesity in 2000. In the city of Somerville, outside of Boston, 46 percent of Somerville first and third graders were overweight or at risk for becoming so. Dr. Christina Economos, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition and the School of Medicine at Tufts University worked with her colleagues in collaboration with the entire City of Somerville to design and implement Shape Up Somerville (SUS). Recognizing that children have limited control over the food and physical activity options available to them, the program sought to prevent obesity in early elementary school-age children through a community-wide initiative focused on environmental and policy strategies to impact energy balance. Over the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 school years, Shape Up Somerville led to a statistically significant drop in Body Mass Index (BMI) among early elementary school children. As of 2012, Shape Up Somerville is part of the Somerville Health Department and an integral part of community efforts to improve healthy and active lifestyle options for the community.

“A top-down plan cannot address the needs of a diverse community. It cannot sustain over the long haul, because leadership has limited time to devote any single program, and leadership also changes over time. Cultivating a strong grassroots effort is the only way to see an effort like this take root, sustain and grow.”– Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, Somerville, Massachusetts

This case study, authored by The Intersector Project, tells the story of this initiative.

More about The Intersector ProjectThe Intersector Project
The Intersector Project is a New York-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that seeks to empower practitioners in the government, business, and non-profit sectors to collaborate to solve problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone. We provide free, publicly available resources for practitioners from every sector to implement collaborative solutions to complex problems. We take forward several years of research in collaborative governance done at the Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School and expand on that research to create practical, accessible resources for practitioners.

Follow on Twitter @theintersector.

Resource Link: (Download the case study PDF here.)

This resource was submitted by Neil Britto, the Executive Director at The Intersector Project via the Add-a-Resource form.

Robert Putnam’s ‘Our Kids’ and the Story of Us

"One downside to a society with a meritocratic gloss is that it encourages the winners to think that life is fairer than it is," writes Jason DeParle in his New York Times review of Robert Putnam's new book, Our Kids. Putnam marshals an enormous amount of research, which shows the effects of growing economic and educational inequality on social segregation -- increasingly poor and rich live in worlds apart -- as well on life chances.

In the course of the book project, Putnam says he learned a great deal. "Before I began this research...I thought...if I and my classmates could climb the could kids from modest backgrounds." Now, he says, "I know better" (230).

He also forgot.

The 1993 book that made him famous, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, analyzed different levels of function in regional Italian governments. Civic cultures turned out to make the difference. "Findings strikingly corroborate the political theory of civic humanism," wrote John Gray in a Times review. "Strong and free government depends on a virtuous and public-spirited citizenry."

Two decades later in Our Kids, Putnam's view of democracy has shrunk. "The essence of democracy is equal influence on public decisions" (234), Putnam argues, citing the political theorist Robert Dahl, who saw democracy as centered on government. Putnam calls for citizens to lobby for federal policies such as expanded tax credits for the poor, more day care and growth in community colleges -- much the legislative agenda of President Obama, who was denounced for "class warfare" when he proposed it.

Gone are ideas of a public-spirited citizenry who solve problems and create civic goods across the sweep of society.

Putnam is not alone. Public commentators regularly see democracy as something we elect people to do for us. Writing after the 2008 election, The New Yorker's George Packer argued that Barack Obama's "messianic and vaporous" citizenship language was disingenuous.

"Throughout the campaign, Obama spoke of change coming from the bottom up," he said. "But every time I heard him tell a crowd, 'This has never been about me, it's about you,' he seemed to be saying just the opposite."

Packer believed that voters chose "the ground on which the majority of Americans -- looking to government for solutions -- now stand."

Government is also the center of the democratic universe in official publications. The definition of the U.S. government, disseminated around the world on the site of the U.S. Agency for International Development, proposes that "Democracy refers to a civilian political system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular competitive elections with universal suffrage."

But originating American understandings of democracy were far different. For people who settled a continent and struggled to create "a more perfect union," government was an instrument, not an end in itself. In Democracy in America, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s argued that what distinguished America was self-organizing citizen initiative and self-education. He was amazed to find log cabins on the prairies filled with Shakespeare and books like Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In the 20th century, civic action and education animated land grant colleges, farmers' movements like the Grange, Jane Addams's immigrant settlement houses, and adult education. Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his political career to the democratic skills and values he learned in his father's drugstore in Doland, S.D. "In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion," Humphrey wrote in his autobiography, Education of a Public Man. "I've listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain." The store functioned as a cultural center, public space, and lending library.

Similarly, the civil rights struggle built on a vibrant culture of civic learning and self-organizing in black churches, schools, beauty parlors and other settings. I saw this first-hand as a college student in the movement. Septima Clark, an architect and philosopher of the movement's citizen schools for which I worked described their aim as "To broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship."

Clark was full of the democratic spirit, an expansive sense of democracy as a way of life. The poet Walt Whitman sought to describe its vastness.

We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps...a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.

We've largely lost it. In the language of Marshall Ganz's "public narrative," which includes a "story of self," "story of us" and "story of now, the problem with our story, "us" as a society, is not simply that we have bitter divisions. Behind the divisions are feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Today's mainline story erases the agency of the democratic people.

We can learn some lessons here from the movements which toppled communism. Milan Kundera begins his masterful novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by describing February 21, 1948, when Vladimir Clementis, long-time activist, stood next to Klement Gottwald, chair of the communist party, on a balcony looking over a vast crowd at the moment when Gottwald ushered in the socialist government in Czechoslovakia. Two years later Clementis was charged with treason and killed because he opposed Stalinist demands. State officials airbrushed his image from school text books. Kundera observes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Today there are many forces which erode memory beyond government propagandists in our technocratic, frenetic, efficiency-minded and consumerist society.

Like Czechoslovakia, we also need a struggle of memory against forgetting.

Harry C. Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015). Many contributors convey a large history and practice of democracy and education.

America’s Civic Renewal Movement: implications for youth engagement

(Detroit) On April 16, Tisch College released “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by me and Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

At Tisch College, we define “civic renewal” as efforts to increase the scale, impact, and equity of civic engagement in the United States. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we interviewed 20 leaders from large, national organizations that organize civic engagement about strategies for civic renewal.

The focus of this report was not youth, nor were many of the interviewees young people. Nevertheless, the key findings are applicable to efforts to increase the scale and impact of youth civic engagement.

First, several of the organizational leaders interviewed for the paper lamented the lack of youth in formal settings, such as public hearings or lobbying efforts. They suggested that youth are interested but are not invited or encouraged to participate in these ways. Bill Muse from the National Issues Forums Institute said that younger people are rarely enlisted as moderators of community conversations, but when they do moderate, they do a fantastic job. Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Co., who serves on several influential nonprofit boards concerned with democracy, said that most of his peers are “people like me, middle-aged white men who want to help.” He wants to see younger people, people of color, and non-English-speaking people in leadership roles.

Second, the paper makes the case that the grassroots activists who enable civic participation are essential for civic renewal. Large and powerful institutions such as the federal government, school systems, political parties, and the mass media lack incentives to support civic engagement; and average Americans have had too little civic experience to demand more. But there are grassroots civic leaders who are deeply invested in civic activities. They have the skills and motivations to create new opportunities for others.

The paper finds that civic organizations as diverse as Citizens for Self-Governance, Ducks Unlimited, MoveOn, Student Veterans of America, and United We Dream (all included in the study) work on civic renewal—although without using that term—but do not yet form a coherent network. Among the twenty organizations, some have reasonably compatible political agendas, but few work together. The paper makes a case for network-building in the cause of civic renewal.

The paper also proposes a taxonomy. Groups can be large (reaching many people) or deep (helping their members to achieve profound personal change). Groups can be ideologically and philosophically diverse, or they can be focused on a shared agenda. The authors find a lack of organizations that are large and also diverse; this appears to be a gap not only among the interviewees’ groups but in the whole current landscape of American civil society. And they find that the large groups struggle to be deep, and vice-versa.

For instance, Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that the online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.”

Young people are coming of age at a time that the interviewees described as highly polarized, unequal, and corrupt. They are also developing their civic identities when there is not yet a robust network for civic renewal, although there are many impressive groups that could form such a network.

For people primarily concerned with civic education and civic engagement, the paper poses questions about how to build a base of active supporters, how to connect them into more effective networks, and how to offer young people organizations that are deep as well as large, and diverse as well as focused.

Read the full report here. For more on Tisch College’s research on civic renewal, go here. This post is cross-posted from the CIRCLE site.

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