Civic Nebraska Building Democracy from the Bottom Up in the Cornhusker State

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I had the honor of visiting Nebraska two weeks ago to serve as keynote speaker at Civic Nebraska’s annual Build Up Omaha event. Founded by now Senator and then college student Adam Morfield, the organization engages youth in and out of school in service learning projects, measures the civic health of the state, and works to ensure that Nebraskans have equitable ballot access. Build Up Omaha recognizes community members, youth in particular, who build democracy from the bottom up in the metropolitan region.

It was an inspiring event, and Morfield and his talented team made the most of my visit. It included a discussion with the State Commissioner of Education, Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, to explore stronger state civic learning policies and a sit-down blocks from the majestic State Capitol with colleagues from Lincoln Public Schools.

I was particularly impressed by Lincoln’s strong integration of service learning into the elementary and middle grades, and the fact that they require both civics and government courses to graduate, the former focused on local civic engagement for freshmen and the latter government institutions for seniors. Lincoln is also partnering with our friends at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to integrate media literacy in social studies courses.

Like Illinois, Nebraska has many civic strengths to build upon, including strong social capital. Nebraskans are among the most likely in the country to eat dinner with family and to connect regularly with family and friends, the essence of bonding social capital. However, as is true in the Prairie State, young people are less likely to participate in our democracy in a number of ways than their older peers. This is the bridging social capital central to democratic governance.

As I suggested in my keynote address and this related interview, civic learning is a generational investment that can help reverse this trajectory. Both Nebraska and Illinois export our fair share of corn and soybeans, respectively, but we also export young people in alarming numbers. By deepening the ownership of our youth in the democratic destinies of our respective states we will convince them to stay home and build up Omaha, Chicago, and the cities in between.

Civic Nebraska is a member of the CivXNow! Coalition that the McCormick Foundation supports through grant funding and my service on its steering committee, and they are among the states targeted for stronger school-based civic learning policies in the years ahead. The Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign stands ready to assist our peers across the country in making the case for such generational investments, and later to implement model policies with fidelity. On this front and many others, the Cornhusker State is in good hands with Senator Morfield and Civic Nebraska.

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