Updated: Jul 28
Over the winter, I got a call from my friend Julie wanting to pick my brain about civics education, community-building and the value of connections in empowering civic engagement. I don’t think she expected us to talk for over an hour or for me to tell her that these “three c’s” are what I spend most of my days thinking about.
Over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more people get discouraged from participating in our democracy. How many times have you heard a friend or neighbor say “I don’t care about politics” or “I don’t understand how it all works” even though political decision-making shapes almost every aspect of our daily lives? What I’ve realized over time is that the way we organize for self-government in our society (“politics”) feels risky to most Americans because they haven’t been taught, or have forgotten, how government works (“civics”) and the critical importance of their own role - and their power - in our democracy.
And here’s the thing: civics may feel out of our comfort zones, but I see civics in real life every day. I see it in the community groups and local nonprofits that do a Community Needs Assessment and then attend multiple city council meetings to get a problem solved. I see it in the moms and dads who attend countless PTO and school board meetings to ensure their students and teachers have the tools they need to be successful. I see it in the scout troops who help their neighbors in need and meet with their legislators to ask questions. I see it in the service organizations that raise money to build a playground. I see it in rallies and protests as people embrace the power of collective action.
How we constitute ourselves - and the choices we make in our communities every day - is civics in real life.
So, to be sure, Julie’s call came at the moment I was most ready to hear about Democracy Defenders of America!
My career has been centered in public service; I’ve spent the last 22 years working and volunteering as a public policy advocate, political campaign and development professional, and state legislator. The passion that always informs my work is a commitment to building community. I focus on these issues because of these lessons learned:
People hesitate to get involved when they don’t understand our political systems or why it affects their lives
Relationships matter for everything, especially political engagement
Calling people IN to value-based conversations is the crux of civic engagement. I’ve never met anyone who has ever changed their mind after you’ve called them stupid.
As a volunteer, as a candidate and as a state legislator, I’ve had thousands of conversations with voters at their doors. My goal is always to learn about one issue, personal experience, or hope for the future to build a connection.
As a friend said to me recently, we are all leaders when we choose to lead with relationships; when we work to build trust with our neighbors by identifying things we appreciate about each other. It might feel strange to hear these days, but the truth is that we all have way more in common than what divides us if we are willing to listen and learn from each other.
I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that disagreements are inherently bad, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s how we work through those disagreements - as members of a community - that matters. Disagreements are part of a functioning democracy. If we feel like it’s too risky to have a disagreement, or feel like we’re not sure of the “right” answer, and because of that we choose not to get involved, then only a few people are making the decisions that affect all of us.
Power is in civic education and in civic participation. YOUR voice matters. YOUR ideas matter. YOUR life experience and lived reality matters. And to defend our democracy, we need YOU to recognize and take control of YOUR power in every level of our government.
I couldn’t be more excited to be a Founding Partner and the Director of Development for Democracy Defenders of America at this transformative moment in our history. As John Lewis said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we call the Beloved Community.”
Are you ready to join us?
Share your civics in real life stories, sign up for our courses, follow us on social media, and make a donation at ddofamerica.org. It’s up to all of us to always be building community.
Several people have asked, “What do you mean by formative civic education?” “How is this different from politics?” and “Isn’t it important that we all focus on the issues?”
Formative civic education is about having an understanding about how any governmental system works, in our case, United States of America governmental systems.
By definition, politics is “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” We also often hear about partisan politics, which are the political differences between political parties and their respective ideologies.
Issues are specific problems in democracies that various governments solve, depending upon the charge of that government. Water problems exist in every level of government but are handled differently at each level. So you have to know the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve and then figure out which level of government deals with that problem.
Have you fallen asleep yet? Let me suggest another way to think about this…
Think of America as your home…
…voting is how you open the front door and get to live in your home of freedom, called America.
Each room in your home represents the different democracies in which you live -
· there’s a local room for any city or township or village,
· then there’s a county room for your county government or for those who live in Louisiana, parish government,
· then a state room for the state that you live in
· then there’s the federal government room for the national government.
While they are all located within these United States, not every state does things exactly the same as all other states. In fact, there’s a wide variety of interpretations.
Just like your home, each room has a different function, a different way in which you engage and use that space.
A partisan political point of view and the issues you care about are how you decorate the room, which is what makes each person’s home of freedom different.
But the foundation is the same. Everyone needs to know every room in the home of freedom, otherwise you’ll find yourself standing in the hall and only voting. It’s great to get in the house, but we want you to use every room.
Hope this helps!
When we were exploring a logo design, knowing that, as we are a nonprofit, we wanted something different from what is often used in political campaigns. Brainstorming ensued, with most of it fun. As a gardening enthusiast, I started thinking about pollinators.
At Democracy Defenders of America we are seeking people who will help to defend our democracy. What action do we want them to take? We want them to share knowledge to engage others in understanding the process and help them harvest good results for that work. In essence, we’re seeking people who will pollinate an understanding both for themselves and others.
When we landed on the word pollinate, it was an ‘aha’ moment. A quick bit of research on pollinators revealed there are four kinds - bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. But only one works in a true community - bees.
Honey bees collect pollen and nectar as food for the entire colony, and as they do, they pollinate plants. Nectar stored within their stomachs is passed from one worker to the next until the water within it diminishes. At this point, the nectar becomes honey, which workers store in the cells of the honeycomb.
The honeycomb is the symbol of community, of working together, and of creating something that makes the world better.
Our goal is to build a honeycomb of Democracy Defenders across this nation. Come ‘bee’ one of us! 🐝