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University Professor Danielle S. Allen and Rockefeller Brothers Fund President and CEO Stephen B. Heintz presented strategies to strengthen civic engagement at a virtual panel co-hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Wednesday.
In the discussion moderated by Kennedy School professor Archon Fung, Allen and Heintz shared insights from a bipartisan report published in 2020 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, entitled “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” The report — organized by the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, of which Allen and Heintz are chairs — contains 31 specific recommendations for an enhanced democracy.
Amid deepening polarization in the United States, Heintz said there remains an underexplored pathway to mitigate national division — local, collaborative initiatives. One of the report’s 31 recommendations advocates for the creation of a “national trust for civic infrastructure” that would centralize funding for local initiatives that are often overlooked, according to Heintz.
“We’re not listening to each other — we’re not even arguing together,” he said. “It is these civic spaces, this civic infrastructure, that give us the opportunities to come together, and to know each other so that we’re not just operating from some caricature in our minds.”
Allen pointed to CivicLex as an initiative that she said is strengthening local democracy. CivicLex, based in Lexington, Ky., distributes local news with a focus on “forward reporting” — reporting on local political agendas in advance — so residents can engage meaningfully in decision-making processes, per Allen.
“I think of them as taking a social media concept — of digital platforms, news provision, and sharing — and replacing it with a civic media concept,” she said. “It’s a model that can be spread all over the country.”
Heintz posited that the growth of the population of the United States without a corresponding increase in elected representatives has contributed to citizens’ disillusionment with government.
At the inception of the U.S., a member of Congress represented roughly 35,000 constituents; today, that value has swelled to approximately 770,000, according to Heintz. The report recommends enlarging the House of Representatives.
“The quality of representation declines, whereas that ratio continues to grow,” he said. “And so one motivation for expanding the size of the House is to make a closer relationship between elected representatives and her or his constituents.”
Beyond the halls of Capitol Hill, Allen suggested work to strengthen the nation’s democracy can take place inside school classrooms.
Allen lamented the dearth of civic educational opportunities for K-12 students and called on federal and state governments to allocate more funds toward civics courses. For every $50 in federal dollars per student invested in STEM education, the government invests 5 cents in civic education, according to Allen.
“I think the hardest work to build out civic education is really going to be helping schools engage communities and build up comfort level with the idea that there’s disagreement in the classroom, and kids are going to talk about hard things,” she said. “And they can have the space to be themselves, to be authentic, and make their own judgements about what matters to them.”
Though she believes the U.S. is in dire need of revamped civic infrastructure, Allen — who is exploring a run for Massachusetts governor in 2022 — said she and Heintz were heartened by the local problem-solving they witnessed over the course of the two years of research that went into the report.
“The joy of doing this work was discovering that solutions are emerging out of our despair,” she said. “People are coming together and finding pathways for hope.”
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
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