Welcome to my redesigned Web site!

Weber at his desk in 2011.

This new site has tons of social media networking tools, and will make it easy for me to share videos and other new media, like podcasts, etc., on the Web quickly and easily. Check it all out and let me know what you think.

I’ll be posting new stuff as usual, as well as getting some of my past work up on this new site too. Share it with your friends and send me any ideas or thoughts you have about issues that we need to talk more about. Thanks for coming to visit.

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Social Media, Public Shaming, and the Prospects for Prison Reform

I wonder if the Cecil story captures why prison reform (let alone abolition) is so difficult. Even among people who think that our prisons are overly punitive, there’s a deep reserve of resentment available to project at anyone who can be identified as having committed a malicious act. So even as we tell ourselves in general that we ought to be merciful, in practice and in particular instances we can always find a justification to be retributive.

One possibility is that we ought to recognize rage and revenge as illicit temptations. But there’s been a lot of work that demonstrates that there’s just as much danger in being overly detached, that even-handedness and “rationality” can serve as illicit temptations as well. So I think the balance is still tilted in favor of punitive measures.

We’re all too well aware of the racism of the system, of the economics of it; even knowing about these things won’t overcome our hair-trigger reactive attitudes. We like to see people brought low, especially when we can tell a story about how they see themselves as better than they are. But for every rich dentist we run out of business, the evidence suggests we are going to see a a lot of teenagers who think they’re above the law.

I know we can’t live without rage and shame. But I still hate this part of us; the cowardly bullying, especially from afar. Hannah Arendt claims that we make a mistake when we focus on our own sins and shortcomings when we view the wrong-doer. She defends pride– at least pride in the capacity to judge–on the grounds that only a proper judgment of the wrong-doing can make the restoration of the victim, perpetrator, and the relationship between them possible. But I’m just not satisfied with that, today: I just don’t see much ground for proper judgment from the spectators. Arendt may have thought we are better than we are.

When I think about the social psychology of rage and public shaming in the era of social networks I feel either pessimistic or worse–I hope that we’ll find ways to mobilize it well, fairly, and in the name of justice. I’m like a gun owner pretending that I’ve bought the weapon for self-defense despite ample evidence it’s more likely to kill me or those I love than protect us. It seems undeniable that our arsenal–our institutional and collective capacity for “two minutes hate“–is just getting stronger.

Everyone always learns the wrong lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Study: we always think it means that other people are horrible. We ignore the possibility that we might be horrible, too, given the right circumstances.

Register for Aug. 5th Confab Call with Matt Leighninger & Tina Nabatchi

As we mentioned last week, we preparing to host another great NCDD Confab Call this Wednesday, August 5th from 2-3pm EST, this time with D&D gurus Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and Tina Nabatchi, associate professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell Confab bubble imageSchool of Citizenship and Public Affairs! The call will focus on Matt & Tina’s new book, Public Participation for 21st Century DemocracyHave you registered yet??

You won’t want to miss this call because not only will Matt & Tina be sharing some of their knowledge about the most cutting edge D&D practices, but they will also be welcoming input from our community to help improve and expand upon the book.

Make sure to mark your calendars and register today because spots on this free call are filling up! We can’t wait to have you all join us on the 5th.

Never participated in one of our confab calls? You can learn more about what they’re like by visiting www.ncdd.org/events/confabs.

Racism Defies the “Greatest Commandment”

Eric Thomas Weber, first published on The Second Breakdown, July 30, 2015.

In July 2015, University of Mississippi graduate, Adebanke Alabi invited me to comment on race and the Church for a series on her blog. The following is my piece, originally published on her page and reposted here with permission.

Preface: I am grateful to Adebanke (Buki) Alabi for calling me to comment on race and Christianity for the readers of her blog, The Second Breakdown: My Thoughts on Jesus and His Church.

Photo of a Church gathering of the KKK, meeting underneath a sign that reads, "Jesus Saves."


Photo of a church.Mississippi is still home to obstinate racism, even while in 2014 Gallup found it to be the most religious state in the United States. The vast majority of the 44 failing school districts’ enrollments in the state are majority- to almost totally made up of African American students. Some districts have been accused of  not having desegregated. We have seen  symbolic racism at the University of Mississippi, as well as troubling direct confrontations. Some young people planned and executed a  racially motivated murder a few years ago in Jackson, MS.

Photo of a Church gathering of the KKK, meeting underneath a sign that reads, "Jesus Saves."Despite all of these disturbing cases of racism in Mississippi, many citizens and public officials continue to resist change even to symbols of racism. I have argued that falsely romanticizing heritage does us harm  and that symbols, like the Confederate Battle Flag featured in the canton of MS’s state flag, contribute to the perpetuation of racism and injustice. What has gotten very little attention is the tragic inconsistency between the religious beliefs people say that they hold dear and the contradictory behaviors that we see here in Mississippi.

Bust of Socrates.In a passage from the Republic, Plato’s Socrates tells us that leaders must convince their people that we are all born of the earth, children of the same parent – a mother, according to the story. When threats to security arise, if people do not care sufficiently about their neighbors, they will fail to act in others’ defense. Kinship motivates us to take care of our children and our brothers and sisters. People thinking of each other as kin is one of the most important needs for a society’s safety and unity, he argues. He thought the story was a lie, but a necessary one. Christians today do not think it is a lie, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory confirms humanity’s common kinship.

Plato lived about 400 years before Christ. When we look to the Christian religion, we see a related social aim to the kinship that Socrates called for. A basic Christian belief is that human beings are all children of the same parent – in this case, a Father. One might think that the belief that we are all brothers and sisters would motivate Christians to treat others accordingly.

People are very good at finding ways around what they ought to do, however. Some people divide humanity into categories of those who are fallen and those who are elect or saved. If there are children of God in one community, what do we call people from another community or belief system? Galatians 3:26 explains that people are all children of God in their shared faith in Christ. If that is true, does that mean that nonbelievers or those who profess different faiths are not children of God? That is not logically necessary: “All things red have color” doesn’t imply that other things don’t also have color.

Iconic photo of black man drinking from a water fountain labeled "Colored."Many Christians treat others in ways that are not neighborly, even in deeply religious places. The tragedy of this fact is that people in Mississippi share many religious beliefs – that we are all children of the same Father. In their faith in Christ, Scripture says, they should all see each other as children of God.

For many, the core of the Christian religion can be distilled, as Jesus is said to have done in Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-28, into the Greatest Commandment, which has two parts. In addition to loving God, the first element, which people proclaim in word so commonly, Jesus calls for loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. This second element is far less often extolled in word, and evidence in deeds illustrates blatant defiance of the commandment.

Mississippi flag, featuring the emblem of the Confederate Battle flag.It is time to call people out on this gross contradiction. How in a place like Mississippi people can resist symbolic change, let alone progress in deeds, even with respect to a symbol of the state’s defense of slavery, while claiming to be Christians, is deeply distressing. Some public figures recognize this and have courageously called for progress. It is time others who profess their faith own up to what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Weber at his desk in 2011.Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of four books, including Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South (forthcoming in September 2015). He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @erictweber.

Justifying Our Existence: Does Our Work Matter?

As readers of this blog and supporters of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship are no doubt aware, the past few months here at the FJCC/Lou Frey Institute have been a bit stressful. The Florida Legislature seems to have essentially decided that the state should not be in the business of funding professional development organizations, tools, or resources, and that anything of value can and should be paid for by the districts.

“It’s only valuable if it doesn’t cost anything, is the message,” Gaetz told the Times/Herald. “If yours is so valuable, why isn’t anybody interested in paying any money for it?”

While our own funding was saved at the last minute, thanks no doubt to the efforts of folks like you, we remain in a precarious position. In order to continue to be supported by the state, and not have to charge districts a great deal of money to support us, we have to start providing data to the legislature and to the governor’s office. Now, we do have some excellent data that we have provided them before. We know, for example, that usage of both our own site and the Escambia civics site, for which we provide a great deal of resources and support, is incredibly high. Figure 1 illustrates usage of the FJCC online resources. Figure 3 illustrates usage of the Escambia site. (Click on each image to enlarge it if you need to).

usage 1escambiaThe usage of these resources is also spread across the state, as the two figures below illustrate:

regional usageescambia mapSo what does the data we have say?

  • More than 5,600 Florida teachers and district personnel, from every district in the state, maintain active accounts on the Institute’s website, providing them with access to professional development, instructional and assessment resources.
  • In FY 2014-15 to-date, more than 59,000 users of the Institute’s civics resources website have generated more than 170,000 work sessions as teachers have come to the site for support materials (Figure 1).
    • Monthly utilization rates have grown exponentially in FY 2014-15 following the first administration of the Civics EOC in the spring of 2014. Further growth is anticipated in advance of the 2015 test administration date.
  • The Institute’s daily impact on teachers touches virtually all Florida school districts. Figure 2 shows the distribution of usage sessions by school districts to-date for the current fiscal year. Heaviest use is from the state’s more urban districts.
    • Four of the state’s most rural districts are not making use of LFI/FJCC resources. We are currently coordinating with FLDOE’s outreach to lowest performing districts to address this issue.
  • In the five month period from September, 2014 through January, 2015, almost 40,000 student users accessed materials on the Civics Review Site in just under 120,000 sessions. (Figure 3). The general trend line is up and student access is expected to grow further in advance of the 2015 EOC administration.
  • The Student Review Site is serving the needs of students from virtually every district in the state (Figure 4). Use is most intense in the more urban areas of the state.
    • Five of the most rural districts are not making use of the Student Review Sites. LFI/FJCC is currently coordinating with FLDOE’s outreach to lowest performing districts to address this issue.

This is good data, data that we are excited by and that we believe is making a difference. Civics scores increased this year, and we believe that we may have played a role in that increase. HOWEVER, the data that we have is not data that will impress the state legislature and the governor’s office. We need to directly connect our work to student EOC achievement scores, and in this we face a challenge. The state leadership does not want stories, though we have so many good stories that we can share and will share. They want hard numbers, or the stories that we do have will be nothing more than melancholy reminiscing. It is difficult, however. How do we separate out the noise that is inherent in this sort of data collection effort? After all, we are not the only civic education organization in Florida, nor are we the only resource that is being used. At the same time, we don’t always know just HOW the resources and PD we provided is being implemented in classrooms, schools, and districts. And, of course, the biggest problem we face is actually getting those numbers that we need. We must, essentially, be able to match student test scores to specific teachers, and that requires a great deal of finesse with the system. Most significantly, we must rely on the Education Data Warehouse to share with us this data, and that can sometimes be difficult. We must also convince teachers to allow us to match them up with those student scores. If we are unable to do this, well, despite the good work that we believe that we do, the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship will most likely cease to exist.

Of course we recognize the need to demonstrate our impact; it’s getting access to the data that we need in order to do this that is the difficult process, and it is a bit of a frustration that the impressive usage data is not adequate for the task. To facilitate this effort, as we relaunch a revised version of our website in the fall, we are going to ask that all users re-register on the site, and we humbly request that you provide us with enough registration data so that we may match users to scores. Please keep in mind that we will not be publishing individual scores or personally and publicly identifying teachers and scores; rather, this will simply be for justifying our continued existence to the legislature and the governor (assuming, of course, that the data is positive, which we believe it will be).

We believe, deeply, in the mission of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. We believe that the work that we do here does help teachers, schools, and districts in helping to develop that next generation of Florida, American, and global citizens. We hope that we may be allowed to continue that work, and that you might be willing to help us do so. We thank you for the support that you have provided in the past and in any support you choose to offer, and for your understanding as we work to collect the data that we so desperately need.

For now, if you have used our resources or attended our PDs, we would love for you to complete this survey that may help us. 

Cambridge Funds 6 Projects in City’s 1st PB Process

In case you missed it, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation recently shared a great interview with a Cambridge, MA city budget officer on their Challenges to Democracy blog highlighting the success of the city’s first-ever participatory budgeting (PB) process. It contains some great lessons learned and looks into the future of PB in Cambridge, and we encourage you to read the piece below or find the original here.

Cambridge Concludes its Inaugural Participatory Budgeting Effort

Ash logoCambridge residents welcomed spring with an enthusiastic show of democratic participation and civic activism. From March 22 to 28th, 2015, Cambridge residents age twelve and over were given the opportunity to determine a number of capital projects that the City of Cambridge would fund.

The voting was the culmination of a participatory budgeting process that had begun in December 2014, when Cambridge community members were invited to contribute ideas on how $500,000 would be spent on capital projects. Over 380 ideas were submitted using the City’s creative online platform.

Over forty “Budget Delegates,” volunteers chosen to research and evaluate the ideas, selected twenty promising project proposals to be voted on in March. Delegates were divided into four committees: Culture & Community Facilities; Environment, Public Health & Public Safety; Parks and Recreation; and Streets and Sidewalks.

Each committee was tasked with performing due diligence on project submissions – delegates made site visits, conducted community assessments, and consulted with City staff for input on the feasibility and cost of projects. The delegates then selected twenty of the most promising projects to put on the ballot with approval from the City Manager.

Over 2,700 Cambridge residents voted on the projects, either at one of twenty-five locations around the city or online. The following six projects received the most votes and will be funded in FY16:

  • 100 new trees and tree wells in low-canopy neighborhoods (1,441 votes, $120,000)
  • Twenty new laptops for the Community Learning Center (1,110 votes, $27,000)
  • Bilingual books for children (970 votes, $7,000)
  • Public toilets in Central Square (945 votes, $320,000)
  • Eight bike repair stations (917 votes, $12,000)
  • Free public Wi-Fi in six outdoor locations (875 votes, $42,000)

The allocations exceeded the $500,000 set aside for the pilot PB process, but the City chose to authorize the sixth project rather than scale it back. The total for all six capital projects is $528,000.

Building on the momentum of the first PB process, the City of Cambridge has authorized another round of PB to begin this summer. Meanwhile, City staff has initiated a process of feedback and reflection for residents and volunteers, with a formal session taking place on May 5th and the option of completing an online survey.

I recently spoke with Michelle Monsegur, an analyst at the City of Cambridge Budget Office. Monsegur, who helped oversee much of the PB process, shared her thoughts in response to my questions on this inaugural round of PB. Below is the text of our correspondence, edited for length and clarity.

Derek Pham: From the operations side of running this program, could you offer some comments on what you felt was one or two key lessons in implementing your first PB?  

Michelle Monsegur: One key lesson was that the pilot process’ timeline did not work well.  The proposal development phase of the process took place from January to March, which was tough for Budget Delegates (snow hindered site visits and transportation to meetings), City staff (busy with snow removal operations and budget season), and Budget Office staff (we put the City’s budget together from January- April). We are shifting the timeline so that the second PB process begins in May/June 2015 and wraps up before the holidays in December 2015.

In addition to a community feedback session, we’re disseminating a survey so that we can collect advice from a broad range of participants on how to improve the second time around.

DP: What percentage of Cambridge’s eligible voters took part in the voting of the projects? 

MM: The Steering Committee set a goal of 3,000 voters and defined voter eligibility as Cambridge residents who are at least 12 years old.  2,727 people voted in the pilot PB process, which was close to that goal and a good starting point.  Hopefully we’ll see many more people participate in the coming years.

We were the first city in the US to offer an online voting component for PB (ours was text message-authenticated), and we did that to make the process more accessible.  Although we held 25 voting events around Cambridge from March 22-28, 72% of the people who voted did so online.

DP: Building off the momentum of the first round of PB, what two or three things will you focus on as you move into the second round? 

MM: We would like to focus on additional outreach channels to spread the word about PB, including offering more information and materials in non-English languages. We may try to recruit a Steering Committee that is more connected to the local nonprofit community so that we can use those networks to reach more people. If the next Steering Committee decides that the minimum voting age should remain 12, we’d like to work with the schools to make sure all eligible students know they can participate in this process.

DP: Finally, what are two pieces of advice for cities interested in also starting up a PB initiative? 

MM: Public participation in the pilot process exceeded our expectations, so we recommend PB for municipalities who have a goal of getting residents more involved in the budget process in a meaningful way.  However, PB requires a tremendous amount of staff time and once you introduce PB, it would be very difficult to take it back, so cities need to be prepared to make a serious commitment to the process.

– — –

Many thanks to Michelle for speaking with me. As I wrote in an earlier post, in the beginning phases of Cambridge’s PB process the Steering Committee articulated four goals it wanted achieved through this endeavor. Though Cambridge will undergo its own evaluation of whether these goals were achieved, it is worth considering some of these goals.

First, make democracy inclusive. PB extended the vote to all residents twelve and over, allowed residents to easily participate in submission of ideas, and offered community meetings to gather a diverse mix of ideas and perspectives.

Second, have a meaningful social and community impact. Though perhaps harder to measure in the short term, residents voted on projects that would make the community a more attractive place to live. Residents now have more bike infrastructure, more trees, and outdoor Wi-Fi. The laptops and bilingual books are an investment in the future of the city’s human capital. All these projects suggest a positive, meaningful impact.

Third, create easy and seamless civic engagement. Rather than have City administrators decide on the projects, the City invited residents to volunteer as budget delegates. Moreover, the City leveraged technology to help bring in multiple voices and ideas in the process.

Fourth, promote sustainable public goods. The community will not only share in the benefits derived from the projects, but will also share in the benefits of the PB process, in general. There is greater social cohesion, greater civic advocacy, and greater attention to the role of the individual and his/her ability to affect positive change.

Cambridge’s successful first cycle of PB demonstrates the resiliency of democratic innovation and its ability to inspire and bring others together to advance solutions to shared concerns. A big thanks goes to the entire City of Cambridge’s PB planning team, Jeana Franconi and Michelle Monsegur from the Budget Office, and all Cambridge residents for taking on this valuable initiative.

As Cambridge heads into its second round of PB this month, visit the website for more information on how to submit ideas, get involved, and vote for projects. The City is currently setting up meetings between budget delegates and City staff to talk about implementation of the winning projects and working on a branding strategy that will make PB ubiquitous in Cambridge. The City has placed a call for new Steering Committee Members and is accepting applications until June 19.

You can find the original version of this Challenges to Democracy blog post at www.challengestodemocracy.us/home/cambridge-concludes-its-inaugural-participatory-budgeting-effort/#sthash.5o9H5E1G.ptVKXn6t.dpuf.

People’s Tribunal to Assess Fracking and Human Rights

When the state no longer enforces its own legal standards on human rights or ecological protection, often in deference to corporate partners, the logical response is to establish a commons-based alternative – a people’s tribunal. That’s what is now planned in the case of fracking and its implications for human rights.

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) has scheduled a session in March 2017 to “consider whether sufficient evidence exists to indict certain named States on charges of failing adequately to respect the human rights of citizens as a result of permitting, and failing to adopt a precautionary approach to, hydraulic fracturing and other techniques of unconventional oil and gas extraction within their jurisdictions.”  The Tribunal is an internationally recognized public opinion tribunal functioning independently of state authorities and operating out of Rome. The Tribunal will hold a week of hearings in both the US and UK.

Governments take great pains to prevent their most sacrosanct policies from being questioned in courts of law.  Consider how the US Government short-circuited any significant court rulings about the NSA’s extensive secret surveillance of citizens, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  It took Edward Snowden's revelations to force judicial review. 

We’ve been here before, of course. The lawless Vietnam War was a prime example. As a corrective to the state crimes committed in that instance, philosopher Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre organized the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in 1967 to hear evidence about violations of the citizen’s basic human rights. In that tradition, today’s PPT will assess the human rights implications of fracking.

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heading to Ukraine

I am on my way tomorrow to Lviv and Chernovitsi in Ukraine, to co-teach the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and Civic Education there. This will be an immeasurably small contribution to what I think is a great cause: the work of the Ukrainian people in constructing a true civil society as the basis of a true democracy. If they can achieve that task in a portion of the former Soviet Union–after a period of kleptocracy and violent repression–they will be a beacon for the whole region.

I won’t blog while traveling but will report afterwards.

By the way, an AP wire story yesterday used my trip as its opening example of US “scholars drawn to conflict zones.” I must emphasize that Lviv and Chernovitsi are far from any violent conflicts. Many colleagues at Tufts (and elsewhere) actually meet this description: “people who should be getting on a plane to go to a country that’s in crisis.” When I said that phrase, I had in mind professors who fly to Sudan or Iraq and really make a difference there. I wasn’t talking about myself going to Western Ukraine to help lead a political theory seminar for a few days. But I am excited and grateful to be going.

The post heading to Ukraine appeared first on Peter Levine.

adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science

Civic Science is an emerging scholarly conversation, and today we held a discussion of it at Tufts. In my group, we agreed that scientists are not value-free but are indeed defined by certain values. We went back to the list of four values that Robert K. Merton identified in 1942. Per Wikipedia, those are:

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These “CUDOS” norms emerge from the practices of actual scientists, yet they are  aspirational. In fact, they may be rarely honored in a given population of scientists, but they would still reflect the ideals of science. They thus provide tools for the critical assessment of actual science.

We proposed adding:

  • Openness: meaning not only openness to data and evidence, but to diverse perspectives and voices.
  • Democratic Engagement It’s not enough to decide that your scientific work is disinterested. You owe an argument to fellow citizens for why it actually is in the public interest. At the same time, you must influence public priorities. If, for instance, there is no funding for addressing a disease suffered by the world’s poor, that means that you cannot just go out and study it. But you can advocate for funding.
  • Service This goes beyond “the benefit of a common scientific enterprise” to encompass benefit to the world (human beings and other species)

The post adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science appeared first on Peter Levine.