Democracy at a Crossroads Summit Spotlights Civic Learning as Long-Term Solution

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last Thursday, the nation’s civic learning community gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., for the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit. Convened by iCivics in partnership with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, and the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida, the Summit sought to gather funders interested in education or political reform and convince them that civic learning is also a logical and urgent investment.

The event was high-profile in a picturesque setting high above Pennsylvania Avenue with both the Capitol and Washington Monument as a backdrop. Harvard’s Danielle Allen headlined the first panel, suggesting that our 230 year-old institutions designed for 3 million people are being tested like never before by more than 300 million residents today. The University of Wisconsin’s Diana Hess added the importance of teaching students to deliberate in what is now a continental, and deeply polarized democracy.

I had the great honor of sitting on a policy innovation panel with Peter Levine of Tufts, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, and Rachel Roti, a civics teacher at Washington High School on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Levine co-authored a briefing paper released at the Summit titled “The Republic Is (Still) at Risk and Civics Is Part of the Solution.” Florida and Illinois were featured prominently in the report and on the panel as states that enacted civic learning policies that scaled effective practice.

Beyond the proven practices detailed in two earlier reports, Levine points to “complimentary streams of research and practice,” including news media literacy education, action civics, social and emotional learning, and school climate reform. These practices have been integrated into the professional development opportunities we offer to teachers and administrators as part of our course and standards implementation practices here in Illinois, and have long been staples of our statewide Democracy Schools Initiative.

Equity was also a strong Summit theme, and Mikva Challenge CEO Michelle Morales made a strong case for it in the form of civic learning opportunities, but also student voice in school governance. The latter is too often lacking, particularly for students of color, as evidenced by one D.C. student’s heartbreaking testimonial during the session.

The Summit concluded in a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who serves on the iCivics Board of Directors and has pushed for the games to be adapted for English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Justice Sotomayor strolled slowly through the room of more than 200 attendees, answering audience questions face-to-face and ended each encounter with a warm embrace. As the first Latina Justice, she is a role model and leading advocate for civic learning, taking the baton from her predecessor and iCivics founder Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Benjamin Franklin’s reflection on the creation of the Constitutional Convention, “a republic, if you can keep it,” was oft-repeated at Thursday’s Summit. The nation’s civic learning community rightfully embraced this current moment of democratic crisis, offering our time, talents, and proven classroom models as long-term cures for a nation at risk.


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