Amanda Gorman is not only an inspiring poet, but a civic futurist
Solomon is on the faculty of Stanford University's design school and a creator of Vote by Design, an educational site designed to promote civic and political engagement among younger voters.
"Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem," Amanda Gorman told an interviewer a few days before the world got to know her last week. "Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for."
Even if you didn't watch President Biden's inauguration, you've probably heard of Gorman by now. Her recitation of her original poem "The Hill We Climb" was arguably one of the most memorable and moving portions of the ceremony, and talk of her talent and poise have taken over the internet in the days since.
She is a force of nature, a voice for our time — and, whether she knows it or not, a civic futurist.
Gorman's metaphorical imagery and evocative presentation embody civic imagination in action: a powerful articulation of an aspirational future that calls us all to see ourselves in that preferred future and be a part of the change to get us there.
When she says "We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us," she speaks a truth that clearly resonates with our next generation of voters. I know, because I've seen it in action.
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, I spearheaded a new national nonpartisan civic education program for young people. We wanted to challenge the notion that our newest eligible voters are "apathetic" and replace it with our observation they simply lack confidence and understanding of how to use their individual agency to make a collective difference.
We brought together youth from all parts of the country and all political persuasions to bridge divides and to learn how to examine difficult civic issues from a future-seeking perspective. We asked thousands of students to envision the futures they wanted to see, and then to work backward from that point to what kind of leader would help guide us there.
What emerged was the picture of a nation of young people who, like the 22-year-old Gorman, are future-ready and hungry for more. Our young people are all, in one way or another, futurists in the making — engaged in thinking about the kind of country they want to live in and looking for ways to breathe that into existence.
There is much to repair, rebuild and reimagine. But there is also much momentum to build on. Last year's election also saw historic levels of youth voter turnout and activism in the form of youth organizing, mobilizing and protesting. Even before the world heard Gorman's powerful words from the West Front of the Capitol, our youth were heeding her call: "But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated / In this truth / in this faith we trust / For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us."
We were all inspired as she helped to usher in a new administration that promises to build its policies on unity and shared democratic values. But in the midst of our hopes for the next four years, we can't lose sight of a glaring reality: We can't continue to defund civic institutions, civic education, and foundational civic skills and still expect to have a robust and resilient democracy supported by diverse engaged and empowered citizens.
There's been a promising call for more civic education funding and support in schools, but futurist Amanda Gorman reminds us that history has its eyes on us — and education isn't enough. She shows us that this is a moment to reframe civics as a mindset and an embodied, interdisciplinary literacy.
Real, lasting change comes from more than just civic knowledge, the kind of facts and figures and dates and names we ask students to learn in school. Change, the architecture of an imagined better world, happens when we help people learn how to translate civic knowledge and civic skills into a lasting civic disposition — the attitude that they can wake up each day and take an active part in the world around them.
Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and on our collective freedoms — many experts and citizens have been asking, "Is our democracy broken?" Some have moved to ideas of repair: "A new normal will help fix it."
But the futurist poet reminds us that our immediate lens is not broad enough for this moment. As Gorman declared at the inaugural: "Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."
Simply unfinished. That's the call. That's our charge. Healing and repair are things you do in the moment to make something as it was. But a futurist says "I will boldly imagine what can be."
If we think of our nation as unfinished rather than broken, and actively teach our next generation of citizens to imagine a finished nation, we embrace a growth mindset and open up a world of possibilities to collectively write the next chapter of the story.