Playing the long game for a civically engaged democracy
Cambell is executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, which describes itself as a community of funders that invest in the sustaining elements of American democracy and civic life.
Tuesday is Constitution Day, a federal commemoration of the day in 1787 when delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed their document laying the foundation of our government and the hope for "a more perfect union."
That hope persists as our democracy grapples with faltering public trust, deepening partisanship and division.
For those of us who work in civic engagement, the reality of these obstacles has prompted — alongside hope — a flurry of debate about how to respond and speculation about what will come next.
Our nation faces great challenges. But the solution lies in that very phrase: "our nation." Our democracy faces a reckoning because many Americans struggle to identify with those words and connect them to a vision of what civic life is and can be. They don't feel our democratic structures and systems represent them and don't feel the sense of ownership, responsibility and commitment that drives civic action. That disconnect has reverberated across our democracy.
Standing at the intersection of civic engagement and philanthropy, I see several opportunities for funders to take strides toward a healthy and robust representative democracy.
For many, civic engagement equates to voting, voter engagement, political reform and advocacy. For PACE, civic engagement includes all those. But it also includes service, leadership development, deliberative dialogue, charitable giving and more — actions that help us self-govern in civil society.
Most importantly, it's the feeling that ties all those actions together: the desire to be part of something bigger than yourself. It's a sense of responsibility to a community, and that sense of commitment requires a sense of connection.
This sense of connection seems to be growing — notice last year's historic midterm turnout and continued flourishes of activism among Americans — but reinforcing it will take time and intention. Expanding our definition of civic engagement is a necessary first step, because it's in this sense of responsibility to something bigger that democracy's roots to begin to grow.
In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "voluntary associations" were unique to our young democracy and held the power to create organic connections. In short, when you allow people to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing the universal connections in their actions — the unique ways in which people can accomplish what they aim to achieve, then feel inspired to do more. People see how change happens by being part of it.
This reflection is supported by civic engagement data which shows that engagement begets engagement. Whether volunteering for the PTA or mentoring a young person, low-barrier civic engagement has the power to improve your quality of life and the lives of those around you. Volunteers are more likely to find jobs than those who don't serve. Communities with high civic health have better economies. Sense of purpose and connection correlate with positive physical and mental health, personal happiness and satisfaction.
Such small-scale actions can be the most meaningful way to get people in the habit of democracy — by building the sense of ownership, trust and connection that civic engagement requires. People who see themselves in all aspects of community life feel they have a responsibility to act. And that sense of belonging and commitment makes civic engagement — and healthy self-governance — possible.
But another truth is that it's easy to distrust, and avoid altogether, that which you don't see yourself in. And if people don't trust — and therefore don't participate in — government, the possibility of a representative democracy falters. Instead, we'll have a democracy only for the people who show up.
Voter mobilization and fair elections are part of the solution but they tell part of the story. We should expand the mechanisms for meaningful engagement by investing in more robust ways for people to engage with elected officials — activities like participatory budgeting, citizens assembly or initiative reviews, participation in public meetings and advocacy as well as marches and rallies. Participating in politics and engaging with government beyond the ballot box is the only way to ensure our government is representative of our voices. That's step two.
Both steps presume people have the skills and support they need to be effective civic actors. Which leads to step three: civic learning, the range of experiences to prepare for informed and engaged participation in civic life and the democratic process. These experiences can occur in classrooms, or out of school and at all stages of life. What's important is that they happen — and that all Americans have access to them.
Young people with access to robust civic learning opportunities are much more likely to become civically engaged as adults. But there are stark disparities in access to civic learning, many along lines of race and income. As a result, our nation's civic education system risks reinforcing inequities dividing our society.
Democracy is a process, not just an outcome. It's also a skill, and it's our responsibility to ensure young people have the tools to build that skill, as well as the knowledge and dispositions that go with them. Ensuring strategic support of civic learning opportunities that build knowledge as well as skills can ensure informed and effective civic engagement. It also has the potential to create a pathway to equity and opportunity so young people may begin to heal what divides our nation.
This political moment has created urgency and concern as well as a tremendous opportunity. Our democracy has proven resilient throughout history, but we have to double down on our commitment to self-governance in order to see that resilience persist. It is our responsibility to make sure the voices that participate represent the voices, experiences and perspectives of all members of our diverse democracy. All Americans need to see themselves in all aspects of civic life, feel a responsibility to act, have the right to do so and have the skills to support them. Democracy is not a given; it is created, every day, by all of us.