Sterling Speirn’s Reflections on the 2018 Annual Conference on Citizenship: “It’s Your Democracy!”


October 26, 2018

Last week activists, reformers and concerned citizens gathered in Washington, DC to at once explore and celebrate the theme of our 2018 Annual Conference on Citizenship, “It’s Your Democracy!”

And what a democracy I observed.

Despite the excitement and eagerness to address our democracy that last week’s conference provoked, we are still faced with certain challenges. It seems not a day goes by without another headline, cover story, Op-Ed, new books or tweets addressing the state of our democracy.  Of course, it’s not all good news.  In fact, on many days, the messages about our democracy seem to ring purely negative:

  • Our democracy in the United States is failing.
  • Our democracy is sick.
  • Our democracy is dying.
  • Our democracy is in danger.
  • Our democracy is under attack.
  • Or most simply, our democracy is in crisis.

Most recently, in an article declaring our democracy had now hit rock bottom, a pundit wrote, “What no one could offer was a credible path up out of the abyss.”

But, I submit he just wasn’t looking in the right places and of course, there is another side to this story.  Indeed, from what I learned from the more than 300 people with us for two jam-packed days, at the Bridge Alliance Education Fund Summit, at our Civic Health Index partners’ workshop, and in conference plenary sessions, is that there is strong evidence that in many places and in many ways our democracy is not only resilient, it is actually thriving. Our democracy may be down, but it is certainly not out. We know the stakes are high and every day more and more people are rising to the challenge.

NCoC CEO, Sterling Speirn.

Deborah and James Fallows proved this convincingly in their keynote conversation about the people and places portrayed in their book, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America. The stories of our democracy in action are hardly limited to our nation’s capital, and indeed, conferees from around the country shared exciting news from places like Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Shreveport, Louisiana, and  St. Petersburg, Florida, to name a few.

And this became even more encouraging as this year’s award winners took the stage to address the attendees.  On the 10thanniversary of NCoC’s HOOAH Award to recognize outstanding public service by a veteran, our honoree Brenda “Sue” Fulton launched the conference on opening night with a speech that lifted the entire room. Everyone in attendance rose up out of their seats with her inspiring remarks and irresistible call to action.

We know from the many different places we come from that we have a choice as to which narratives we choose to emphasize, which stories to lift up, which evidence we wish to expand and portray.  On any given day, we may hear news about our political system, news that could too easily lead to despair and discouragement. Yet on the same day we can find inspiration from so many others, leaders like our Citizen of the Year Award winner, Mack McCarter. Mack put his nearly 30 years of remarkable work with Community Renewal International in the larger context of human history and challenged the audience to help create a society that continually gets better and better.

We heard from people tackling big issues at the local,  state and national levels, taking on the challenges and obstacles that just yesterday seemed virtually impossible to overcome, but that are now succumbing to the irresistible forces of citizens in action.

So as our conference unfolded, we set out to tell a “Tale of Two Democracies.” If some are tempted to believe it is the worst of times, we set out to make the case that the opposite might also be true when it comes to democratic renewal, innovation and collaboration. The Civvy Awards, showcasing finalists and winners in five categories, gave proof that while some may choose to fight to the death like gladiators in the coliseums of cable news and the chambers of the sorted and filtered digital world, many others are inventing new methods, structures and rules to reimagine how citizens can do their work of debate and dialogue, conversation and deliberation, politics and public-problem solving in our public squares being reinvented for the 21stcentury right before our eyes.

In the Shark Tank lightning talks, we heard of organizations doing amazing work in civic education, in democratic reform at every level, through groups engaging college students in serious dialogue and mobilizing them for civic engagement, and from initiatives to stimulate widespread civic conversations across seeming divisions and divides. The National Institute for Civil Discourse premiered highlights from their forthcoming “Civility TV,” showing citizens discovering their commonly-shared values and democratic roots beneath their initially perceived differences.

We are taught that this democracy belongs to all of us, and yet still only some of us choose to belong to it, and for too long too many others have been excluded from it. Yet our conference demonstrated decisively that when we take the time to examine and discover how increasingly active our fellow citizens are, we are convinced that indeed, it is our democracy, and one we aim to keep!

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