This month marks the kick off of a new project I’m working on, an experiment that I am leading as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. As a follow up to 18 months of interviews with leaders of organizations working in the space of democracy innovation, the project is a semester-long design cycle out of the Center for Social Sector Leadership (CSSL). Six Haas MBA and six Goldman Public Policy MPP/MPA candidates have been selected to work in interdisciplinary pairs as paid fellows to address specific infrastructure challenges at six democracy innovation organizations (Block Power, Bridge Alliance, Business for America, the Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), New Politics and Turnout Nation). The student teams are being supported by coaches with relevant scaling and growth experience from other nonprofit sectors, with the project work beginning this month and continuing through April, 2022. The goal is to have project deliverables and presentations in May.
There’s a quote in Konstanze Frischen and Michael Zakaras’ book, Unfinished conversations: On democracy, race, the economy and a path forward, from Eric Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University which has felt particularly relevant to the why of my spring project,
“Well, I would say that democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. The process of self-government involved policy and legal structure and institutions, but what animates it all is civic spirit – a belief that participating in the first place will yield benefits. What we’re seeing in the United States right now and around the world is that democracy is not inevitable. It is not self-perpetuating. The belief in democracy requires constant nurturing and cultivation. And that belief has to emerge from the inside out: Showing up in this diverse community is something I should want to do because it benefits me and those around me.”
More than anything, my hope for this project is that it creates an opportunity for a diverse group of humans to show up and contribute, to actively participate and to be reminded that this whole democracy thing is an experiment that requires our active care and feeding. If I’m honest, I’m also hoping that it will be a reminder to those participating that engaging in this way – having the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something larger than ourselves – can be both energizing and hopeful.
On the more concrete level, there are also some outstanding questions I hope the experiment will begin to answer:
While the projects are just kicking off this week, the learning has already begun, including:
There is still much to be learned and my plan is to write more about the process – I’m aiming for a mid-semester update as well as a final one - but there is one observation that I wanted to share in closing. In many ways, this is a very personal project borne out of my deep concern about what I perceive to be threats to our democracy and a desire to translate 25 years of helping people learn to play well together into a practical approach to mending our not-so-civil society. I have been gently called naïve, and I have been repeatedly reminded that the scale and scope of the challenge at hand makes my small experiment seem less than inconsequential. In the face of these entirely justified criticisms, I find inspiration in a sports adage, “Fight fatigue with focus.”
We are all tired. Shifting my attention from doom-scrolling to the work on this project has measurably buoyed my mood. I actually caught myself nerdily/optimistically thinking that experimenting with election reforms at the state level might actually get traction in a way that ultimately catalyzes a shift from gradual change to significant sudden change. I invite you to consider this moment and how you’re feeling about it, and to decide to shift at least some portion of your limited time to doing something about the things that worry you. No matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. I invite you to join me and my colleagues in this project in actively citizening.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.