Philanthropy's Role in Strengthening America's Democracy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I was invited to take part in a panel discussion yesterday at the Council on Foundations preconference titled “Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening America’s Democracy.” Hosted in Dallas, it featured a bi-partisan conversation led by the George W. Bush Institute and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), the latter of which the McCormick Foundation is a member.

I was specifically asked to weigh in on the question that reads as follows: “A dominant narrative right now is that we are a divided country—do you find this to be true in your work and in the communities you support? How do you see the work you focus on bridging divides, whether they be red/blue, urban/rural, or other divides?”

Our statewide work in Illinois within the field of civic education offers guidance on bridging ideological and geographic divides. Context matters a great deal in the field of civic education. A controversial issue in one region is settled in another. Service-learning assumes a different dimension in an urban area than a rural one. Research suggests that most of us follow the guidance of our grandparents to not discuss politics or religion. For the junkies among us, we're more likely to discuss politics among those with whom we agree, leading to the ideological amplification that increasingly cripples our democracy.

It is in America's classrooms where we have a chance to alter course, as students enter with surprisingly heterogeneous views, even in deep red or blue places. Moreover, their views are not as entrenched as their adult peers, and they are in the hands of educators with the training (or at least the potential) to facilitate difficult political conversations across difference.

Another important avenue for youth civic development is engaging them beyond elections. True, they have consequences, but the winners represent us all and we are obliged to work with them through the public policy process that follows.

Many issues have local resonance and are often less ideological than those that play out at the state or national levels. Moreover, politics is a game of addition, and policy making often requires the building of bipartisan majorities across legislative bodies and branches of government.

Our successful legislative push two years ago for a civics course requirement offers abundant examples as we built strong bipartisan majorities in the Illinois General Assembly controlled by a Democratic supermajority, and later pivoted to earn a Republican governor's signature.

A couple of my favorite stories from the campaign stem from the advocacy of civics teachers and their students. One House Education Committee member voted against our bill in committee, but was responsive to the outreach of a local teacher as the bill made its way to the floor. She spoke at length with him by phone and later rose during the debate to confess that she "was schooled by a social studies teacher" and had changed her vote to "yea."

While doing reconnaissance on the Senate side prior to their own floor vote, we reached a Senator that was leaning against the bill, but was struggling as he stared at a stack of letters written by students in his district encouraging him to do the opposite. He later was among the 46 senators voting yes (out of 55) and sending the bill to the governor.

Civic education is bigger than red-blue, urban-suburban-rural divides. It's about the future of our democracy. Local context considered, best practices remain central to youth civic development and must be offered universally. Illinois' civic health may be on life support, but the prognosis for its long-term recovery and flourishing is strong thanks to the fruits of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign.

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