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Meet the reformer: Sterling Speirn, promotor of 31 fix-the-system ideas

The Fulcrum

Sterling Speirn is nearing the end of a multifaceted career at the intersection of good-governance, public service and philanthropy. Before stepping down as CEO of the congressionally chartered National Conference on Citizenship, he was on the 35-member American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission that released a sweeping 31-point plan in June for fixing what's wrong with democracy within six years. "It's a game plan and catalogue of a powerful ensemble of civic, cultural and political reforms that could inspire a democratic renaissance at this crucial moment," he says. Earlier he spent a combined quarter century running the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, what's now called the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Apple Inc.'s grantmaking. He's also been a community health center administrator in California, a legal aid lawyer in North Carolina, an Interior Department attorney in D.C. and a middle-school teacher in Cleveland. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.

What's the tweet-length description of your organization?

These days I'm a senior fellow at the Bridge Alliance, a network of 100 organizations strengthening democratic values through our national diversity.

Describe your very first civic engagement.

Attending a public hearing in San Francisco of the Bay Area Air Pollution Control District in 1969. Being on Stanford's campus from fall 1966 to spring 1970 shaped my lifelong civic engagement — and bookended every contemporary issue our democracy faces today. We had demonstrations for racial justice and against wars, the launch of the modern environmental movement with the first Earth Day, and protests for equal rights for women and LGBT people. And I graduated shortly after the Kent State massacre.

What was your biggest professional triumph?

While at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, launching a $75 million initiative in 2010 to address institutional racism and promote racial equity. The late congressman John Lewis graced us with his presence at the public announcement.

And your most disappointing setback?

Struggling to replicate the pioneering work of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and bring midlevel dental aid therapists to mainstream dental offices throughout a country where 50 million don's see a dentist every year.

How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?

I am a connector of people and integrator of ideas. The breadth, depth, and vitality of the nonpartisan democratic reform movement across structural reforms, cultural renewal and civic learning is inspiring. The array of intensely local community-based efforts, city and state initiatives — all the way to Congress and constitutional amendments — is the ultimate challenge for communicators and boundary-spanners seeking to portray these diverse efforts as a movement and to help build momentum, support and hope.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

From a mentor and atypical venture capitalist during my Silicon Valley days, when I was taking on a new leadership challenge: "Be yourself."

Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.

It would be "RepubliCrunch: a Balm for a Constitutional Democracy in Crisis." Vanilla ice cream with peppermint (red) and blueberry (blue) candy pieces and chocolate covered almonds. Yummy, and often leaves the tongue purple.

What's your favorite political movie or TV show?

"Dave," the 1993 comedy with Kevin Kline as the president (and his doppelganger) and Sigourney Weaver as the first ladyIt's a movie from a kinder, gentler era — one where a good guy and common sense made for a thrilling Cabinet budget meeting and a love story to boot.

What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?

My phone has long gone to its charger hours before bedtime. Without any Facebook, Twitter or Instagram apps, my phone and its headset are mostly for podcasts, live radio and the new daily diet of Zoom meetings.

What is your deepest, darkest secret?

I love singers and singing — and binge-watching "Glee," Lady Gaga singing everything from "Born This Way" to "Shallow," and auditions on "America's Got Talent" and "The Voice." YouTube on my iPad helps get me through sleepless nights.

View full story: The Fulcrum



Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

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