Academy Article

Civic Engagement During COVID-19: How Commission Members are Making a Difference

Commission member Pete Peterson, Dean of the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, shared this image of Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles giving a COVID-19 update. In the background is a critical resource map, created by the Homeland Security Council at Pepperdine's School of Public Policy.

Members of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship include scholars, practitioners, formerly elected officials, members of the media, business leaders, and philanthropists. For the past two years, they have engaged in research, round tables, and discussions about strengthening American democracy in the 21st century. Now, as the impact of COVID-19 surges through every aspect of American society, Commission members are applying their expertise in public policy and civic and political engagement to meet and understand critical challenges at the local and national levels: danah boyd is working to ensure a high quality 2020 census in spite of COVID-19, and Judy Woodruff and David Brooks continue to provide coverage of the pandemic through PBS’s NewsHour and pieces in The Atlantic and The New York Times.  

Below is a sampling of the work Commission members are conducting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Danielle Allen, Commission co-chair, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and her colleagues at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics have convened a rapid response initiative in response to the COVID-19 threat. The cross-disciplinary effort brings together scholars, lawmakers, technical experts, public officials, and other experts to support elected decision-makers in this urgent and difficult period of collective planning. As of April 10, the group has published six white papers on topics ranging from testing, to mobilizing the political economy for COVID-19, to containing the spread of COVID-19 while mitigating privacy risks. Professor Allen has written accompanying opinion pieces for the Washington Post and participated in TED talks accompanying each white paper.

Hahrie Han, Inaugural Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute and Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University are holding weekly webcasts to provide an evidence-based analysis of the politics of the pandemic. Featuring experts from Johns Hopkins and beyond, Professor Han moderates weekly conversations that explore how to address the crises brought up by COVID-19 as citizens and in our communities. Additionally, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute and the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins have launched a partnership to examine “Civic Life, Health Equity, and Social Policy in a Time of COVID-19.” This is a multi-wave panel survey conducted in partnership with NORC/AmeriSpeaks that will examine the role that civic institutions and civic connectedness play in shaping people's responses to the pandemic, with a particular focus on vulnerable communities.

Stephen Heintz, Commission co-chair and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) is leveraging RBF resources to respond to the health, social, and economic impacts of COVID-19 in communities around the world. RBF has pledged $700,00 to the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund, with $200,000 to support cultural institutions. RBF has also pledged $500,000 to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to support the World Health Organization. In addition to its financial support, RBF has created a pledge for other funders to donate money to aid relief efforts, calling on leaders in philanthropy to recognize the critical need to act with urgency to support nonprofit partners, as well as those most affected by the impacts of COVID-19. 

Eric Liu, Commission co-chair and CEO and co-founder of Citizen University, is hosting weekly virtual Civic Saturdays. Sponsored by Citizen University and Town Hall Seattle, these virtual gatherings are a time for people to maintain ritual and strengthen collective civic health. Eric is also highlighting civic engagement opportunities and has provided ways for people to maintain a sense of community in the time of social distancing. Additionally, Eric published an article in The Atlantic titled “We’re Not ‘All in It Together’” in which he stresses the importance of civic character in determining how the country confronts and emerges from this crisis.

Lynne Nottage and a group of over fifty New York performers and artists across various disciplines created Trickle Up: a subscription-based video service with exclusive content about the creative process. Subscribers have access to a catalogue of homemade videos and exclusive clips from some of New York’s most famous, prolific, and provocative artists, from MacArthur Fellowship and Tony winners to burlesque dancers. For every 1,000 subscribers, the group is able to give $10,000 to an artist of their choosing, with the goal of helping at least 10 artists that have been affected by COVID-19 cancellations.

Norm Ornstein, Resident Scholar at American Enterprise Institute, is a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, a diverse, bipartisan group working to ensure a free and fair election in 2020. The group released a COVID-19 Election Guide, which offers recommendations to help election officials conduct a successful 2020 general election despite the pandemic. They continue to meet weekly and will issue additional guidance in the aftermath of the Wisconsin primaries. Dr. Ornstein is also part of a task force on continuity of Congress, which is working to ensure that Members can meet and vote remotely. Along with Tom Mann, Dr. Ornstein has reconvened the Continuity of Government Commission, created in the aftermath of 9/11, to consider the entire range of issues regarding continuity in the courts, presidency, and Congress. Dr. Ornstein has also been working with Judge Steven Leifman to publish various articles about the impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable populations.

Pete Peterson, Dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at Davenport Institute, and the Homeland Security Advisory Council at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy created public crisis maps that provide the latest information on COVID-19 for the City of Los Angeles and California counties. These maps, using real-time data, are available in English and Spanish and include a statewide case tracker, as well as public testing sites, “Grab and Go” Food Centers, available farmer’s markets, Older Adults Nutrition Program centers, temporary shelters, and other critical resources for the City and County of LA.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, published an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Immigration’s ‘Malaise,’” comparing previous times of xenophobia and racism in the United States to the current COVID-19 pandemic. He will join Academy President David Oxtoby on April 21 for a live virtual discussion of his article via Zoom. Additionally, Dean Suárez-Orozco co-signed a statement released by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, addressing appreciation for Pope Francis, healthcare professionals, and those that are responding to the needs of the pandemic and highlighting five priorities to bear in mind during this and future pandemics: Strengthening early action and early responses; protecting the poor and vulnerable; shaping global interdependencies and help across and within nations; and strengthening solidarity and compassion.

Ben Vinson, Provost and Executive Vice President at Case Western Reserve University supported Professor Michael Goldberg’s decision to open up his college classes to the general public. Case Western also announced that they are removing SAT and ACT requirements for the incoming class of 2021.





Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu