Updated: Aug 16
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.