a century ago in Russia

June 30, 1917: The February Revolution is over, leaving two uneasily complementary governments in place: the Duma that had been assembled under the Czar, and the Petrograd Soviet, elected by workers, soldiers, and peasants. Amid the chaos, while any future still seems possible for Russia, the people of the vast empire have become avid participants in politics. Beyond the networks of telegraphs and newspapers, news that a revolution is underway spreads slowly with human travelers, and no doubt much is lost in translation. By March, China Miéville writes:

Villagers [had] gathered into assemblies to begin, for the first time, considering not only local issues, but also national ones: the war, the Church, the economy. Ad hoc local committees sprang up in dizzying variety. A chaos of decentralization. Some villages, towns, and territories unconvincingly announced their independence. Very soon, countless soviets [elected councils] existed in the country, and their numbers were growing.”

We know what happens next, where it all leads. That sense of inevitably is our perspective. For the citizens–who, until months earlier, had been subjects–gathering in March-June 1917 to debate the war, the Church, and the economy, the world seem theirs to remake. But the rift between the Bolsheviks and the other revolutionary factions is widening. The June offensive on the Eastern Front is a disaster, and Lenin’s anti-war stance is drawing support to his party. Bolshevik organizers are working at the front, in factories, and in villages, and are rapidly gaining political skills and experience. The Petrograd Soviet calls a mass march in June to demonstrate it has workers’ support, but the mass turnout is overwhelmingly Bolshevik. The bloody month of July lies ahead. Of all the paths that had been possible in March 1917, one outcome is becoming overwhelmingly probable on this day a century ago.

“I Am the River, and the River is Me”

A few months ago, the New Zealand Government took an amazing step – prodded by indigenous peoples – to legally recognize the rights of a river.  A new law, the Te Awa Tupua Act, recognizes that the Whanganui River (known to the iwi and hapū people as Te Awa Tupua) is “an indivisible and living whole, …from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”

The metaphysical reality that the law recognizes is one that remains quite alien to the western mind:  “I am the river, and the river is me.”  That's how the Iwi express their relationship to the Whanganui; the two are indivisible, an utterly organic whole. The river is not a mere “resource” to be managed.

The idea of conferring of a “legal personality” on a river and explicitly guaranteeing its “health and well-being” is a major departure for Western law, needless to say. We westerners have no legal categories for recognizing the intrinsic nature of nonhuman living systems and how we relate to them ontologically. As if to underscore this fact, the practical legal challenges of defining and enforcing the rights of the Whanganui are far from resolved, notwithstanding the creation of a new legal framework.    

Still, the law is an important start. It settles the historical claims on the river made by indigenous peoples, and it makes nineteen remarkable “acknowledgements” of the Crown’s behavior over the past century. The law even recognizes the “inalienable connection” of the iwi and hapū to the river, and tenders an official apology.

This latest episode in granting rights to nature is nicely summarized in a piece in The Guardian by Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group in India, and Mari Margi of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in the US.

The new law does not alter the philosophical foundations of Western law, but it does constitute a notable opening of new metaphysical possibilities. A sacred, natural flow of water now has a legal right to participate in government policymaking and go to court!

And why not?  The money-making organizational form known as the corporation is every bit as much a legal fiction. Surely natural systems ought to be entitled to have a legal personality to protect themselves against the state and the legal person known as the corporation. 

The Te Awa Puua Act achieves this by establishing an office of Te Pou Tupua to act as a trustee and “human face” for the legal person of the Whanganui River. Kothari et al. note that the trust structure for the Whanganui has “its origins in the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga or “commons” / guardianship.”

The New Zealand law follows in the footsteps of other nations that have recognized the rights of nature.  Ecuador was the first when it recognized the rights of Pachamama, Mother Earth, in its constitution in 2008. Bolivia also did so a few years later. In the U.S., many communities have also recognized the rights of nature – although the legal enforceability of those rights, standing in the jurisprudential shadows of US federal and state law, is problematic. 

In any case, the trend to recognizing nature's rights seems to be gaining some momentum. A few weeks after the New Zealand law was enacted, according to Kothari et al., “a court in India ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their related ecosystems have ‘the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities…in order to preserve and conserve them.’” 

These grand declarations of law will require much addition work if they are going to have real impact. As Kothari and his coauthors write: 

What does it mean for a river to have the rights of a person? If the most fundamental human right is the right to life, does it mean the river should be able to flow free, unfettered by obstructions such as dams? Does the right extend to all creatures in the river system? How can a river, with no voice of its own, ensure such rights are upheld or ask for compensation if they are violated? Who would receive any compensation? And can such rights undo past wrongs?

….How will [government] officials be responsible “parents” – as designated by the court – if their superiors continue to make decisions that are detrimental to the rivers, such as massive hydro-project construction? Can these officials sue their own government?

The limits of this approach have been seen in Bolivia and Ecuador, where enforcing nature’s rights in court have often encountered formidable opposition.

It seems that we stand at the threshold of a new field of jurisprudence whose terms remain uncertain because they are legally under-developed and still politically contested. But the problem goes deeper. The cold reality is that state law can only achieve so much without accompanying changes in social practice, personal beliefs and culture. These are arguably the bigger challenges ahead.

At least now there is a beachhead of legal precedent into which cultural energies can flow and develop. That’s progress!  Onward to the odyssey of changing the culture, and learning from the long struggles of indigenous peoples.   

explore Tisch College

(Washington, DC) Yesterday’s launch of a very attractive new website for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life provides a reason to explore what we offer at Tisch. We provide advanced civic education for students in all of Tufts University’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs; research about civic life in the United States and around the world; and practice–partnerships with a wide range of civic organizations. That’s a unique combination in higher education. The new website gives a much-improved overview of our programs.

Kettering and NIFI Offer CGA Training for Educators

We wanted to give educators in the NCDD network a heads up about the upcoming training from NCDD member org, Kettering Foundation, on using the online deliberation platform, Common Ground for Action. On August 15 & 16, Kara Dillard and Amy Lee of Kettering, will host a two-hour session training each day on how to use this online deliberation platform in the classroom; including: how to convene and moderate a forum, best practices, and classroom design ideas. The training on August 15th will be from 1-3pm Eastern/ 10am-12pm Pacific & on August 16th from 3-5pm Eastern/12-2pm Pacific. The announcement below was from the most recent NIFI Moderator’s Circle listserv email (sent June 28th) – contact NIFI to learn more about joining this list.

Make sure you register ASAP to secure your spot for the CGA Training for Educators here.

Calling All Teachers!

August 15 & 16, 2017


Want to help students exchange views on the tough issues facing our country?

Want to help students use their critical thinking skills on current events?

Want to know more about using online forums in the classroom?

This August, over two consecutive days, Kettering and National Issues Forums Institute will host a moderator training session for K-12 and college faculty interested in using online Common Ground for Action (CGA) forums in the classroom.

The sessions will cover:
– How to set up a CGA forum
– The moderator’s responsibilities
– Hacks and tricks for moderating
– Practice exercises on setting up and moderating forums
– Q & A on integrating CGA forums into the classroom
– Potential assignments and evaluation metrics

WHEN: Tuesday, August 15, 1:00-3:00 pm (EDT) and Wednesday, August 16, 3:00-5:00 pm (EDT) REGISTER HERE

Participating is easy. You need a computer with internet access and speakers. A microphone is helpful, but not required. Register to participate and you’ll get an email with all the details.

Interested to learn more about the Common Ground for Action forum? Check out the video below from NIFI to find out how to participate in a CGA forum.

You can register for the CGA Moderators Training for Educators at http://conta.cc/2tqiIY2

Civics in Florida: Two Good Articles

Recently, two retired and significant political leaders here in Florida addressed the issues facing civic education in the state. Don Gaetz, former Florida Senate President, writes on why civic education matters:

Recently I had coffee with an impressive high school junior and her mother. The young lady doesn’t share my politics but she spilled over with excitement to attend American Legion Girls State, a practical experience in how government works. She couldn’t wait to dive into mock legislating and she already knew the issues cold. She’s not looking for a career in politics but she wants to know how to make things better. Florida needs a few million like her.

Our young people need to be able to develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions of citizenship. The focus is not molding little Democrats or little Republicans, little conservatives or little liberals. It is on, as Mr. Gaetz says, helping kids learn ‘how to make things better.’

On those same lines, legendary former Florida governor and Senator Bob Graham penned a piece advocating that Florida continue its positive work around civic education.

In 2014, the first year of testing, 61 percent of Florida students enrolled in seventh-grade civics scored at or above a level of proficiency. This compared favorably to the National Assessment of Educational Progress results, also known as the nation’s report card, in which only 23 percent of American eighth-grade students were deemed to be proficient in civics. NAEP is the most comparable assessment available; 2014 was the last year the exam was given. And things were even better in 2017 when 69 percent of Florida seventh-graders tested proficient or better. Students whose teachers used Joint Center instructional materials scored almost 25 percent higher than other students.

Senator Graham argues that civic education support is worth funding, and while the focus is on the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the Lou Frey Institute, ultimately, Florida is a model for civic education, and to keep moving forward, we must pay attention and serve as advocates. And isn’t that the whole point of civic education? Advocate for our selves as citizens, as members of our communities, and as residents of this great and this great nation.

Please do consider reading the two articles from Gaetz and Graham, and if you are interested in supporting the work of the Lou Frey Institute and FJCC in Florida, please consider a donation or even just writing a letter. And thank you for being passionate and engaged members of the civic community!

Unite and Conquer: The Hidden Common Ground Initiative

An increasingly dominant narrative has it that America is so divided that we cannot possibly understand one another, let alone agree on anything or work together toward common ends. There are, of course, more than a few kernels of truth to this position. America has significant divisions: along lines of race and class; with respect to broad attitudes of governance; and on questions of culture and lifestyle. Recent research by PEW offers useful insights into the segments that define the electorate. These differences are real and consequential.

But the case is overstated and obscures important truths. We question the notion that no common ground exists and that our divides are unbridgeable. In fact, the public agrees on many solutions to difficult social problems, much more so than do politicians and pundits. Public Agenda's Hidden Common Ground initiative shines light on agreement among the general public obfuscated by more extreme polarization of politicians, pundits and activists.

In a recent blog, I noted the common ground that exists among the public for common sense measures to reduce gun violence -- a contentious issues that we may take on in future work -- and the potential for leadership to build on that common ground to make progress. In the inaugural project for our new initiative, we are exploring the hidden common ground on matters that have been top concerns of the public for many years: health care and criminal justice reform. We're finding broad agreement that some offenses should not lead to jail time but rather alternatives to incarceration; that preexisting conditions should not disqualify people from being able to afford health insurance; and that too often politicians treat these questions in "purely partisan" fashion, as one respondent noted, saying "I don't think they have our best interest at heart." More to come on this research soon.

The myth of absolute division makes it harder to recognize common ground that actually exists among the public. This lack of recognition, in turn, makes it harder to build on our agreements to forge progress where we can. And this then plays into the hands of those who gain advantage from our cleavages through a divide and conquer strategy -- including, we are learning, Russian operatives who seek to influence our elections by exaggerating our disagreements and even revving up our hatreds though social media fabrications. It is time to counter this with a unite and conquer strategy. Step one is recognizing the hidden common ground that silently exists beneath the noise of our political rhetoric. This new initiative we've taken on is our contribution to that critical first step.


Strengthening Collaboration in Districts, Schools and Classrooms

If collaboration is in much-too-short supply these days in our public life, in the workplace it is increasingly prized. This has been true for a while, as found in research, including some of our own, that points to the importance of "soft skills" in the modern workplace which enable people to work productively in teams, amplifying their individual knowledge and skills through their interaction with peers.

One workplace where this has been less obviously true is in our schools, dominated by the classic image of the teacher closing the classroom door and getting down to business with her or his students. But even here, interest in the ways that peer collaboration can strengthen practice is growing.

Public Agenda, in partnership with the Spencer Foundation, is proud to be supporting this cutting-edge development in K-12 education through the second installment of our In Perspective web resource series. Like our first on charter schools, our Teacher Collaboration site informs rather than advocates. Just in time for the new school year, it provides teachers and education leaders with new materials that can help foster a more collaborative environment, which can result in many benefits for students and educators alike.

Working in isolation can only be so effective. With support and a solid structure for collaboration in place, a talented team with a shared set of goals can be more innovative and successful. These resources have the potential to help strengthen that type of system in districts, schools and classrooms, and I encourage you to share them with your friends and colleagues.

Many thanks to the educators across the country for all that you do. Here's to a happy and successful new school year.


Exploring the Hidden Common Ground Among Americans

This May, I told you about two intertwined themes that Public Agenda has been focusing on lately: Renewing Democracy and Reinventing Opportunity. We launched the Yankelovich Center for Public Judgment in 2015 with the former in mind. More specifically, to understand the public's role in an effective and just democracy, including how people come to judgment on critical problems and the conditions that make public judgment more or less likely.

As part of this work, we seek to study the things that separate and the things that unite Americans. Because the former tends to get the most attention, we're excited to announce the kickoff of our new Hidden Common Ground initiative, which will explore the hypothesis that there are many problems and, importantly, solutions that the public agrees on, despite the political gridlock and media noise to the contrary. To that end, we will soon collaborate with our friends at the Kettering Foundation to launch the inaugural Hidden Common Ground research project that will test and potentially challenge the increasingly dominant narrative of a deeply, even hopelessly, divided America--a narrative that we fear could become self-fulfilling to the detriment of democracy. I look forward to sharing more updates with you as we embark on that journey.

Meanwhile, our Public Engagement team is helping local leaders create better conditions for identifying common ground and supporting public judgment in order to better address local problems. Today and tomorrow, they are hosting a Public Engagement Strategy workshop in New York City designed to help leaders in their efforts to engage the people they serve.

Please be in touch if you'd like to hear about upcoming public engagement workshops and trainings.