Social Innovation Labs

Note: the following entry is a stub. Please help us complete it. Definition Social innovation labs (otherwise known as design labs, change labs, civic experiments) offer a space for collaborative action on 'wicked' problems. According to Darcy Riddell, Director of Strategic Learning for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, "Social Innovation...

Building on #CivX: The Former Members of Congress Take the First Step

Recently, we wrote about the CivX Summit in Washington, DC, where the Lou Frey Institute was recognized for the work it has done to build a quality civic education program in Florida. The summit closed with a call to arms, a recognition of the need that there needs to be more than simple talk when it comes to the vital need for engaging, action oriented, student focused civics. This cannot happen without those with the power to implement change actually doing so. This includes those we have placed in positions of respect and governance, such as our Congresspeople. Thus, it gives us great pleasure to learn that action has begun. The following was placed into the Congressional Record on the 27th of September:

Our last new development should be highlighted: we are issuing to our
Members a call to action on the crucially important aspect of civic
education. We have formed a partnership with the Lou Frey Institute at
the University of Central Florida. As you are surely aware, civic
education has been one of the most important issues our dear friend Lou
Frey has worked on since leaving Congress, and his institute has become
a leading voice on this topic in my home State of Florida. Included in
this partnership is the Civic Mission of Schools, which works hand in
hand with the civic education initiative of Justice Sandra Day
We envision an extremely active role for former Members to play at
the State level to be an advocate for civic education. Florida, of
course, is a great example on how civics can be restored if there is a
bipartisan consensus and commitment to make it happen.
In addition to this partnership, I am proud to share with you that we
are in the process of taking our highly successful model of the
international Congressional Study Groups and translating it for the
first time to a domestic issue: the Congressional Study Group on

What does this mean, outside of the lovely words and promises? It means that the Association of Former Members of Congress will be collaborating with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida and our wonderful friends at the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools to work on models of civic education policy and implementation, drawing on the lessons learned from the good work done in Florida. Whether that means creating versions of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship in other states, or taking a different approach, has yet to be determined. One of the key points made at the CivX Summit, after all, was that situations in every state are unique and call for unique approaches. It could be the Florida model, it could be the Illinois model, or it could be something completely different. What matters is that the banner has been hoisted, the battle engaged, and fight for quality civic education programs across the 50 states has begun in earnest. These men and women, our former elected leaders, are going to be doing there part, and we will work to hold them to it.

What will you do to make a difference? Take the #CivX pledge now, and join the battle. Civic education has never been more important, no matter the ideological divide that separates us.

The CivX Summit: Working to Prioritize Civics for the 21st Century.

Last week, at the Newseum in Washington, DC, the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida, in collaboration with our friends at iCivics, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, hosted the Democracy at a Crossroads: Our Nation’s Future Needs Innovative Civic Learning Now meeting of civic educators, thinkers, and leaders from across the country (including a number of high school and college students!). Better known, perhaps, as the CivX Summit, the event featured speakers from across the political spectrum and the civics education community.

What was the point of the summit? Why did all of these smart, dedicated people get together to talk about civics? The point, really, was to stress, on a national stage, why civics matters, and to encourage those with the power and ability to do something about civics to actually do it. The summit’s ‘jumping off point’ was the recently released white paper from Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of Tisch’s College of Civic Life. Throughout the day, speakers discussed the idea of ‘civic deserts’ and the impact they have on our society and on generations of Americans. They discussed why our discourse has perhaps become so degraded, pointing to a growing ‘Big Sort’ as a reason why Americans increasingly demand so-called ‘safe spaces’ for their views, left or right, and view ‘the other side’ as an obstacle and potential enemy, instead of just another American with a different idea.

A significant element of the ongoing conversation was what 21st century civics should look like. We know what it looks like; research has shown, consistently, what most engages students in civic life and civic learning: the Six Proven Practices. These practices (classroom instruction on relevant topics, deliberations on current events and controversial issues, service learning, student-led groups, student voice in schools, and simulations of democratic practices), however, demand additions. To address the severe issues we face in teaching and learning civics, the discussion at the summit emphasized the importance of 21st century news media literacy education, an action civics model, a consideration of social and emotional learning, and school climate reform.  You can read more about these important additions to the Six Proven Practices in the white paper.

Let’s consider that idea of school climate for a moment. It is, indeed, an area that has gotten a great deal of attention lately, and not always for the better. And in many cases, we do not often think about the connection between civics instruction and school climate. But one of the most powerful moments in the entire day was when we listened to the voice of a student. A young African American woman from a local DC high school, during a heated discussion of ‘the realities of school discipline and climate’, stood up and shared, with a great deal of power and emotion, why her peers are afraid to speak up, afraid to be involved in civic life in their schools and communities, afraid to be the active citizens they deserve to be. It was a powerful moment, and emphasized the importance of student voice in any consideration of civic education reform.

An additional important focus, especially relevant here in Florida, was the role of stakeholders within the state policy apparatus. Both Florida and Illinois were held up as examples of what can happen when the stakeholders get heard and when civics is given the priority it deserves. The recent work of our friends at McCormick, spearheaded by the incredible Dr. Shawn Healy, placed civic education well up the educational ladder in Illinois. At the same time, the work of Congressman Lou Frey and Senator Bob Graham in Florida, in collaboration with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Dr. Doug Dobson (Executive Director of the Lou Frey Institute) and educators across the state to establish civics as a legislative and educational priority was featured. It was a proud moment for us here at the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, as Congressman Frey and Senator Graham were recognized for their work. You can view the video below to get some sense of the work that has been done in this state. Civics matters in Florida.

The highlight of the event was without a doubt a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It was a powerful conversation, wide ranging over a number of civic topics, from cameras in the courtroom to engaging in civil discourse across ideological divides, and the justice was sure to engage directly with the high school and college students in the audience. It was a powerful moment, and emphasized for us the importance and impact of government officials engaging with students. 

It was, truly, an exciting opportunity to discuss the future of civics education in the United States. Now, the next step is to ensure that the conversation does not stop, and that it results in action. Let us all make that happen. Take the CivX Pledge, and commit to making a difference in your community and in civic life.

You can read more about the CivX Summit in the articles below:

Education Week: Justice Sotomayor at the Summit


Crime and Hate

Ally Lee Steinfeld had been missing since early September. Her body was found recently, mutilated and burned. She was 17.

Her death made Steinfeld at least the 21st transgender person killed in the United States this year. A record high of 22 murders were captured by the Human Rights Campaign last year.

We have to do better.

Steinfeld’s case is not being pursued as a hate crime. The sheriff overseeing the case told the Associated Press: “You don’t kill someone if you don’t have hate in your heart. But no, it’s not a hate crime.” That talking point was echoed by the prosecutor in the case, who told Time: “I would say murder in the first-degree is all that matters. That is a hate crime in itself.”

Perhaps this is accurate in a practical sense – in Missouri, where the crime took place, first-degree murder is punishable by execution or life imprisonment. A hate crime charge would be unlikely to add penalty.

Such comments, however, miss the point. A woman is dead. We have to do better.

Some advocates have even started to question whether hate crimes prosecution is an effective strategy. As one ACLU lawyer put it, “I worry that what hate crime laws do is narrow our focus on certain types of individual violence while absolving the entire system that generates the violence.”

And that’s the thing – it is a problem with the entire system. We are all culpable in perpetuating the gross transphobia of our society – through violent transphobic acts, through subtle jokes and misgendering, or by being complicit through silence while such hateful acts take place.

We have to do better.

Personally, I’m not prepared to abandon hate crime legislation just yet – whether adding to a punishment or not, ignoring the hate of a crime seems to implicitly indicate that while the crime may be punishable, the hate itself is sanctioned. But I’ve met a lot of good, smart lawyers who tell me that sometimes you have to sacrifice framing in the legal system – you go for the toughest penalty you can go for.

I do not know whether we can best accomplish our work through hate crime legislation or through other modes of advocacy. I only know that we have to do better.

We tell young women that they can be anything, that they can do anything. That they should shut down the haters and embrace their true selves. We tell women that it is their right in the 21st century to be the person they want to be. We tell them this is America. We tell them they are free.

Three months before she died, Steinfeld posted to Instagram: “I am proud to be me I am proud to be trans I am beautiful I don’t care what people think.”

We have to do better.


American Founders’ Month (and Freedom Week) in Florida: George Mason

Sept 29 Mason
It’s American Founders’ Month (and Freedom Week!) in Florida. Today, on the last day of Freedom Week, we have one of the most important, but perhaps least remembered, Founders: George Mason.

Why does George Mason matter? After all, he was one of only three delegates to the Convention of 1787 who refused to sign the Constitution. But it is, indeed, that very refusal that tells us why George Mason matters: He is the Father of the Bill of Rights. It was Mason’s vocal objections, and his work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, that led to the drafting and incorporation of the Bill of Rights into our Constitution.

Even with the promise from the Federalists to include a Bill of Rights, Mason fought hard against ratification of the Constitution; his arguments failed to persuade enough Virginians to vote against ratification however. And his fervent and sometimes angry opposition to the Constitution in some ways destroyed his relationships with those who he fought beside for independence. In a letter to his son, he wrote that

You know the friendship which has long existed (indeed from our early youth) between General Washington and myself. I believe there are few men in whom he placed greater confidence; but it is possible my opposition to the new government, both as a member of the national and of the Virginia Convention, may have altered the case.

Indeed, Washington himself was bitter about Mason’s opposition, and they never reconciled before Mason’s death in 1792. Despite his opposition to the Constitution, however, is to George Mason that most Americans owed their first tastes of liberty under the new government and his Bill of Rights. You can learn more about George Mason from this excellent lesson provided by the Bill of Rights Institute. 

Grab the PowerPoint slide featured at the top of this post: George Mason AFM

Additional entries in the American Founders’ Month series:
Introduction to the Founding Fathers
Who Was George Washington?
Abigail Adams: Founding Mother and so much more
John Adams: A Hero of Liberty
James Madison: Father of the Constitution
The Sons of Liberty: The Tea Party and More
Mercy Otis Warren: Antifederalist and Advocate for Liberty
Alexander Hamilton: More Than a Musical
George Middleton: An Early Leader for Civil Rights and Equality
Patrick Henry: Liberty or Death
Thomas Jefferson: A Complex Man
Phillis Wheatley: Poet
Judith Sargent Murray: Fighter for Women

does every country have the same moral obligation to migrants?

About 1 million US citizens, mostly retirees, currently reside in Mexico. According to one study, 92 percent of them don’t have their papers fully in order to live there. Even if they are fully documented, they hold ambiguous civil and political rights. The Constitution of Mexico, after stating that everyone shall have the basic privileges and immunities guaranteed by Chapter 1, goes on to say, “However, The Federal Executive shall have the exclusive power to compel any foreigner whose remaining he may deem inexpedient to abandon the national territory immediately and without the necessity of previous legal action. Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country” (Article 33).

You might think that all human beings have human or natural rights to live anywhere. Then Mexico and the United States are both illegitimately blocking some migration. (This is a radical view with radical implications.) Or you might say that all people must have free speech and due process rights, regardless of their citizenship. Then Mexico’s Article 33 seems problematic.

My intuition is different. I favor equal rights for people who reside within the United States even if they don’t have legal citizenship. I recognize that in some cases, their entry was an illegal act, but I am inclined to weigh that very lightly, if at all. I am mainly concerned about how they may be exploited or dominated within this country if their rights are not guaranteed. I am particularly uncompromising about their civil and political rights. Meanwhile, I would object to US retirees entering Mexico against Mexican law and would not complain if they were deported. And while I’m not sure I’m a fan of Article 33, I can see plausible reasons for Mexico to ban resident aliens from political engagement.

In other words, I am sympathetic to people who migrate from the Global South to the US, but not vice-versa. I myself would enjoy living for a time in several foreign countries, but I would not claim a right to do so unless it was legal under those countries’ laws. And I would tend to respect any prohibitions they imposed on my political action within their borders. I might make exceptions if the local government had forfeited its legitimacy and I wanted to help the opposition, but even then, I would be inclined to defer to citizens of the country in question to be the leaders.

This is an inconsistent position if it’s all about human rights, abstractly. Why not treat migration the same way regardless of its direction? I think my view puts human rights in the context of justice among nations. Mexico is a lot less wealthy than the United States and has excellent reasons to worry about its national sovereignty. It is because I assume that the international order is unjust in this kind of way that I am prone to favor rights for migrants to the US, regardless of their legal status. I then end up favoring rights for wealthy migrants from wealthy countries only because it’s best not to discriminate within the class of immigrants. The paradigm case for me is a migrant from a nation that has been disadvantaged by global politics.

Two questions: 1) Is my stance justified? And 2) Does it help to explain the political disagreement about immigration? Many Americans don’t see the US as unfairly advantaged at the global level; some even think that we’ve been unfairly disadvantaged as a nation, as Donald Trump often claims. I wonder whether that premise helps explain why they are so unsympathetic to migrants.

A Living Language

Languages which are still being spoken are generally referred to as living languages. The metaphor is apt – languages are “living” not only insofar as its speakers are biologically living, but in that the language itself grows and changes throughout time. In a genuinely meaningful sense of the word, the language is alive.

This is a beautiful metaphor, but problematic for text analysis. It is, after all, difficult to model something which is changing while you observe it.

Language drift can be particularly problematic for digital humanities projects with corpora spanning a century or more. As Ben Schmidt has pointed out, topic models trained on such corpora produce topics which are not stable over time – e.g. a single topic represents different or drifting concept during different windows of time.

But the changes of a language are not restricted to such vast time scales. On social media and other online platforms, words and meanings come and go, sometimes quite rapidly. Indeed, there’s no a priori reason to think such rapid change isn’t a feature of all every day language – it is simply better documented through digital records.

This raises interesting questions and problems for scholars doing text analysis – at what time scales do you need to worry about language change? What does language change indicate for an individual or for a society?

One particularly interesting paper which tackles some of these questions is Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil et al’s No country for old members: User lifecycle and linguistic change in online communities.

Studying users of two online beer discussion forums, they find remarkably that users have a consistent life cycle – new users adopt the language of the community, getting closer and closer to linguistic norms. At a certain point, however, their similarity peaks – users cease changing with the community and move further and further linguistically as a result.

The language of the community continues changing, but the language of these “older” users does not.

This finding is reminiscent of earlier studies on organizational learning, such as those by James March – in which employees learn from an organization while the organization simultaneously learns from the employees. In his simulations, organizations in which people learn too quickly fail to converge on optimal information. Organizations in which people learn more slowly – or in which employees come and go – ultimately converge on better solutions.

Both these findings reflect the sociolinguistic theory of adult language stability – the idea that your learning, and specifically your language stays steady after a certain age. The findings from Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, however, suggests something more interesting: your language becomes stable overtime in a given community. It’s not clear that your overall language will stabilize, rather, you learn the norms of a given community. Since these communities may change overtime, your overall language may still be quite dynamic.


twenty-five years of it

Now 50, I can see that my scholarly or intellectual life has turned out differently from what I had imagined at age 25. Then I had a 9-5 job in politics–for the “citizens’ lobby,” Common Cause. I had written a dissertation that became an obscure book, and I was working on a novel that was later published, albeit without much notice. My job left me time to work on other research. I had no idea what I’d achieve, but I thought I knew what the goal looked like. I’d produce writing. It would be helpful (I hoped), but also distinctive, original, and influential. Most of my intellectual work would be done alone. I would stand somewhat aside from society and its institutions, offering critical perspectives. I would find new things to say to readers about perennial authors and issues.

Today, my actual work consists of meeting with people, reading and writing, preparing talks, reading others’ draft papers, grant proposals, budgets, and planning documents, proposing projects, sending emails to groups of colleagues on timely matters, starting and editing Google docs, and facilitating discussions, whether in classrooms or elsewhere. When I ask myself why I do any of these particular tasks, the answer is almost always that someone has asked me to. (My blog posts are exceptions, and misleading ones if they’re all you know about me.) I care about the person who has asked me for each task–usually at a personal level, but often also because of our respective roles in organizations. When things go well, I feel that my work contributes to a network. Even when I’m the sole author of a document, it is usually destined for a publication that has been jointly planned by a group.

My work is much less original than I might have hoped or planned for it to be. Not only are my thoughts typically in the same vein as what others have already said, but often I have said the same things before. For example, I have already argued for civic education in k-12 schools many times. But perhaps I have not made yet that case to school superintendents, or historians, or people in Ukraine. If the cause seems valuable, I’ll find a new way to make the same points.

I’ve focused much more intensively and narrowly than my natural inclinations would predict. Starting all the way back in grade school, I had a tendency to grasp concepts superficially: just well enough to be able to say something that worked for the situation. Then I would get bored and want to learn something new. This is mostly a vice. But as things have turned out, I’ve worked on certain topics (civic education in US schools, youth voting, public deliberative forums, measuring civic life, aspects of political reform) for decades. My views may be wrong–they are certainly fallible–but they are not superficial. I’ve heard cogent critiques from all sorts of angles and have made appropriate changes. I’ve pursued some questions like a bloodhound with his nose to the ground.

My work is much more empirical than I’d expected: I deal more with statistics than with classic texts. It’s more collaborative. It’s less glamorous. Of course, glamour is in the eye of the beholder, but writing about famous authors has a certain cachet that seems missing in a grant proposal or a budget report.

I’m motivated much more by demand than supply, to use economists’ language; or by relationships rather than self-expression. Sometimes I chafe at that, wanting to say something more ambitiously distinctive. But working for and with other people increases the odds of making a difference. So does focus, and especially focus on relatively narrow and overlooked topics.

I also work much harder than I did at 25. I think that’s driven by demand. When you’re a young scholar, you do what you must to be employed. Beyond that, you’re motivated mostly by factors internal to you: curiosity, ambition or sheer love of the material. Once you’re securely embedded in a network, the importance of all those motivations diminishes. Often I find myself hard at work late at night because someone who’s doing something valuable needs my contribution (no matter how modest it may be) by the next morning. The net result is a lot more work per week than I thought I could do half a lifetime ago.

I think that if I could beam a message back to myself at age 25 that described my current life, the youthful me would probably be disappointed. But that’s just because this 50-year-old wouldn’t be able to convey the satisfactions of a life focused on participation in organizations and networks.