Our Common Purpose
Strategy 4: Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity
Strategy 4: Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity
“We don’t have enough spaces, enough civic spaces where people actually do learn how to be civic. . . .
There’s very few places where everyone in the community is entitled to go and be working together.”
Strategies 1–3 focus on the formal institutions and processes of our democracy. The remaining strategies will explore areas outside of the institutional architecture of democracy where Americans can practice and develop the habits of democracy. Strategy 4 begins that exploration with a discussion of civil society associations, which—no less than formal institutions—must occupy a central place in our understanding of American democracy. They offer Americans the opportunity to practice the habits of democracy by experiencing and demanding equal voice and representation (Strategy 1); voting (Strategy 2); and engaging in other formal mechanisms of participation (Strategy 3). In short, they are the soil in which our culture of commitment to one another (Strategy 6) has to take root.
With Strategy 4, we move beyond the ballot box, the halls of Congress, and national citizens’ assemblies and enter the hyper-local world of libraries, playgrounds, public parks, community gardens, churches, and cafes. The many sets of people who come together in these places—the book clubs, the Friends of the Parks associations, the bible-study groups—are practicing the art of association. As has been suggested by a line of writers that extends from Alexis de Tocqueville to contemporary scholars such as Robert Putnam and Cathy Cohen, this art lies at the center of Americans’ self-understanding. In the practice of this art, government is not the prime arena for action: family, faith organizations, and social groups are.
One of the most striking findings of the Commission’s listening sessions was that, in this era of profound polarization, Americans are hungry for opportunities to assemble, deliberate, and converse with one another. Even when a pandemic forced Americans to maintain social distance and stay at home, they found new ways to connect with one another. The Commission’s fourth strategy is designed to satisfy that hunger. The first recommendation prescribes massive investment in civic infrastructure, through the establishment of a National Trust; the second focuses on investing in the people who lead civic organizations.
Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Physical infrastructure like highways, trains, and tunnels creates connections among places and often carries economic benefits. Civic infrastructure serves a similar bridging function: think of all that parks, libraries, schools, churches, and museums do to bring people together in their communities. These gathering spaces promote social and civic interaction in ways that foster what sociologists call “social capital.” Although it is challenging to measure the health of our civic infrastructure with any precision, there is no question that our civic infrastructure today is poorly supported and too often underappreciated.
Civic infrastructure supports the activities and interactions through which people gain the motivational and practical capacities needed to develop a sense of common purpose. If ours is faring poorly, then it should come as no surprise that so many Americans have felt a decline in community engagement. Fostering common purpose in twenty-first-century America will require strengthening the civic infrastructure—the cross-sector spaces, programs, and events—that have the capacity to connect disparate segments of our society. People who engage with one another through common interests or experiences are obviously more likely to develop a shared sense of the collective good.
A National Trust for Civic Infrastructure would be the ideal vehicle for strengthening civic infrastructure on both national and local levels in the United States. The Trust’s application process would need to be welcoming to the kind of hyper-local organizations that often matter most when it comes to community engagement, but that rarely have the organizational capacity to navigate an onerous and bureaucratic application process: community boards, Friends of the Parks groups, places of worship, and youth civic organizations. Moreover, the Trust would need to be designed to make sure that funds are dispersed with a focus on communities and geographies that have historically been marginalized and underserved. New civic infrastructure should not simply multiply opportunities for engagement among those who already have them in abundance.
Funding for a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure might begin with a nationwide investment campaign, carried out through private funding and philanthropy. Once the model has proven successful, however, Congress should fund the Trust through annual appropriations. Congress already provides funding to strengthen democracies abroad through the National Endowment for Democracy, founded in 1983. (The National Endowment for Democracy received a congressional appropriation of $300 million for Fiscal Year 2020.)57 Why not fund democracy at home?
- 57National Endowment for Democracy, “National Endowment for Democracy (NED), NDI, NRI, CIPE and Solidarity Center Welcome Increased Funding from Congress,” December 21, 2019.
Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy.
In building new civic infrastructure, we should focus on “civic bridge-building” to those who have previously been excluded from the world of civic participation. Yet we must also build bridges to those already deeply engaged: the “civic one million,” as citizenship scholar Peter Levine calls them, who are doing everything they can to make sure that others become engaged as well.58 The civic one million are the people who will be at the helm of the civic infrastructure that the National Trust will help build. They lead the community organizations that are vital avenues for the practice of democratic citizenship. They are the catalysts of bottom-up change and renewal. By supporting them, we support the communities they serve.
“We kind of grow our leadership organically. Eighty percent of our school board were former parent volunteers. . . . As you move through that system, and your kids get older, and you’re involved, you get a glimpse of the issues—what’s going on, how much this matters . . . why isn’t there more money. . . . By the time your kids have moved through the system, you’re fairly experienced in those education issues. And then you end up running for school board.”
—Ventura County, California
Scholars recognize the importance of leadership in rendering civic life effective. Organizations with highly engaged members create more durable bonds, foster home-grown leadership, and impact policy and long-term change.
One explanation for the decline of civic participation is that fewer people today are willing to work as leaders in civic spaces and organizations that make participation possible. Civic leadership requires understanding how to unite groups of people, navigate tensions, and develop a shared sense of something larger than oneself.
- Citizen University’s Civic Collaboratory includes the Youth Civic Collaboratory, where diverse young people practice civic-leadership skills, including the practice of mutual aid. They also share these skills intergenerationally.
- Another effort involves democracy entrepreneurs. Alan Khazei, who cofounded City Year and went on to launch other service organizations, describes democracy entrepreneurs as people who “use creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial techniques to make our civic life more participatory, inclusive, equitable, and just.”59
To properly support the civic one million, American philanthropists—and philanthropic foundations, in particular—will need to change their habits. Currently, philanthropic foundations spend only 1.5 percent of their collective grantmaking dollars on efforts to improve and reform democracy, and they allocate only a sliver of that meager slice of their money to supporting civic leaders.60 Foundations can and must do better to foster the civic one million and ensure that it is a cohort that captures the full breadth of American social diversity.
- 58Peter Levine, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
- 59Alan Khazei, “The Rise of Democracy Entrepreneurs,” The Boston Globe, November 12, 2018.
- 60Data from Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy (formerly of the Foundation Center and now hosted by Candid).