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Democracy at a Crossroads: A National Summit to Promote Innovative Civic Learning Now

iCivics co-hosted a national summit to focus attention on why our nation needs innovative civic learning now. It was an incredible – if exhausting – experience, 15 months in the making.  This is a good time to reflect on the elements that made this national summit so successful.

With over 250 people in attendance, strong press coverage and a roster of panelists that included Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Education Secretary John King, PBS anchor Judy Woodruff and so many others, the summit was a huge success by all accounts. Here is a list of 10 objectives we sought to achieve:

  1. A Room with Many Voices. The summit was not an echo chamber of folks talking to themselves about the same issues. Our goal was to attract new supporters to the cause of civic learning by reaching beyond our peers to encourage new contributors to join the discussion.  With a limited budget and venue, we made tough decisions with our invite list, but we were pleased with the successful mix of participants.
  2. A Positive Spin on a Critical Situation.  So often we hear about a crisis in civic education and civic life. We chose to make the case for civic learning in a positive way, from the perspective of what an investment can accomplish and what states have made progress already. By highlighting specific, concrete examples of successful civic learning in Florida and Illinois, we made a positive case for state-by-state investment in a cause that is already making positive strides.
  3. A Team with Many Strengths. We selected a steering committee that represented the story arc we wanted to illustrate and the constituencies that needed to be attracted to the summit. They were incredible at providing the balance and judgment required to put on such a complex event.
  4. A Respect for Conflicting Methodologies.  The steering committee decided to model the very nature of civil discourse we want for every student across the nation. In our attempt to attract a sophisticated audience of smart people, we sought the best minds for our panels. We encouraged an open exchange of ideas with no holds barred conversations.
  5. A Decidedly Non-partisan Stance. In the field of civic education, the steering committee remained  vigilant to our promise of non-partisanship. This has become an even more difficult challenge in today’s polarized political climate.  What does non-partisan mean?  We sought to ensure that a range of views was represented, even points of view we might personally disagree with. I was extremely pleased by the level of frank discussion about what we should teach our kids about civics.  Yet, presenting a wide range of views that reveal fundamental disagreements about values is fraught with tensions which we also experienced. I think we need to live with that.
  6. A Commitment to Diversity. The steering committee worked tirelessly to ensure diverse representation at the summit. The voices in the field of civic learning have only recently begun to diversify and this was a serious challenge. While the summit sought to be non-partisan, it was not without a point of view. Our basic tenet held that our democratic institutions are valuable and must be protected although they may need to evolve. Some do not agree and think that our institutions need to be dismantled. While we sought diversity, we wanted to have a conversation about how civic learning can help sustain our democracy not tear it apart.  We sought diversity from a variety of different political perspectives - left and right, racial and ethnic representation, as well as economic and rural/urban diversity.  We faced many obstacles as many potential speakers are in high demand and could not join us.  Given the challenge, we are proud of the range of views that were represented both through our speakers and in the audience and we feel that we achieved a good balance of representation.
  7. An Eye for Excellence.  As one of the steering members commented, the fact that our production values were high and our logistics were spot on, proved helpful in building confidence in our cause. It represented us well. We provided a well-polished cause ready for support. For this, we have Amber Cruz-Mohring to thank. She is an exceptional and incredible effective project manager.
  8. Build up! A large meeting should be thought of as an experience. It is simply more compelling for a long day to be anticipating the last event rather experiencing one more panel after the other without a sense of anticipation. Thus, we set up the program to build up momentum from the background of the first panel to the final capstone event: the conversation with Justice Sotomayor.
  9. A Clear Vision. To accomplish this kind of large-scale effort, you need to have a vision for the event, and you must ensure you carefully monitor how even the smallest details align with that vision. I have learned from some great people about how to pull these off and I have never seen it done without one person having the vision and holding to it.
  10. A Viable Solution. We have come to a moment in our country where people are ready to listen to new, practical ideas for the future. A long-term and more fundamental change in how we prepare students for civic life is clearly needed.  The time was right to seize this collective moment and use it to demand change now.

At iCivics, we are working to keep the momentum going and continue to focus on ways to promote innovative civic learning.  We strive to continue our work in Massachusetts co-leading the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition with the JFK Library to promote civic learning in the state. At the national level, we hope to continue to grow demand for innovative civic learning with the help of our partners.

Thank you to our extraordinary funders (Carnegie Corporation of New York, McCormick Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), our great co-hosts (Tufts University’s College of Civic Life, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Lou Frey Institute and PACE funders) as well as all of the members of the steering committee: Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, Doug Dobson, Shawn Healy, Andrew Geraghty and Kristen Campbell.

-iCivics Executive Director, Louise Dubé