How We Can Put Civility Back into Civic Engagement

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Katherina Rosqueta and Conor Carroll from Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and Harris Sokoloff from Penn’s Graduate School of Education discuss a new guide to strengthening democracy.

A rising tide of incivility threatens to drown America’s public discourse, a wave building from the dysfunction in the nation’s capital and washing over even the smallest towns. Voters are more divided than ever along political lines, and social media only amplifies the noise. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania wants to bring people back together so that they can effect real change. The center’s latest publication aims to contribute to that goal. (It is available for free download and is titled, “We the People: A Philanthropic Guide to Strengthening Democracy.”)

The guide highlights five core elements of a robust democracy: empowering citizens, fair processes, responsive policy, information and communication,and social cohesion. The report notes that when these five elements work in unison, they reinforce one another to improve democracy. Katherina Rosqueta is founding executive director of the center, Conor Carroll is project manager for We the People, and Harris Sokoloff is an adjunct professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and founder and director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE). They joined Knowledge@Wharton to discuss the guide and the role of civility in civil discourse. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: There may be no greater area of focus right now than the issues around civil discourse in this country.

Katherina Rosqueta: That’s exactly the reason why the center decided to tackle this project. Our mission is to understand where donors are concerned. When there is concern, but it’s not clear how they can help, that’s where the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s work comes in. Across multiple measures, we’re seeing a decline in trust and the strength of our democracy. We launched this project to help people understand how they could fix that.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has this problem affected philanthropic giving in general?

Rosqueta: One of the things to remember is that anytime you look at a social change or a social cause, there are three sectors that affect it: the business sector, the policy or government sector, and the nonprofit sector. With democracy, there is a global effect on the ability of all of us to create positive change, and specifically for nonprofits and philanthropies to achieve their goals. Democracy and our government are focused on the same issues that philanthropy cares about — strong local economies, good education for all our children, good health. And government is a source of funding for many of the nonprofits that philanthropists also support, so they are inextricably connected.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did this project come together?

Conor Carroll: The project is sponsored by Democracy Fund, which is an organization that was started in 2014 by eBay Founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. They reached out to Kat sometime in 2017, having worked with the Center for High Impact Philanthropy in the past on an early childhood education project. They realized there was a need for a way to orient new donors to the space of democracy because there was an increase in interest in funding in this area, but they found that people didn’t really know where to get started. It’s historically not where a lot of foundations have found themselves in the past.

Knowledge@Wharton: But there are many organizations working in this area right now. You have quite a list at the end of this guide.

“Across multiple measures, we’re seeing a decline in trust and the strength of our democracy. We launched this project to help people understand how they could fix that.” –Katherina Rosqueta

Carroll: Absolutely. There have been organizations that have been doing this for centuries. One of the organizations we profile is the League of Women Voters, which was founded in 1920 with the advent of women’s suffrage and has been protecting voting rights and getting citizens involved in the political process for almost 100 years now.

Knowledge@Wharton: Part of this involves civic engagement, which is an area of focus in your work, Harris. Can you tell us about that?

Harris Sokoloff: Part of the issue is as we become more polarized, we tend not to talk with people who have different opinions than we do. We tend to demonize them, think that they’re evil. Sometimes we even think they’re stupid, they’re just wrong-headed. Democracy cannot thrive unless people with different opinions have ways of talking with each other. The idea of civic engagement is getting people who think differently and providing them with contexts to have productive conversations about what they want for their communities and how they’re willing to work together across differences to achieve those goals.

Knowledge@Wharton: To a degree, the conversation that may take place between you and me would be different than what we see going on on Capitol Hill. I think a lot of people believe that the approach being taken in Washington, D.C., right now has led to a lack of civic engagement.

Sokoloff: I think that’s exactly right. Sometimes we look to them because we think that’s the model, or we look at the candidate debates on TV and think that’s the model. No. Citizens, residents need to be modeling good public discourse — public discourse that’s respectful, that’s inclusive, where people listen to each other, where they’re willing to learn from each other. We need to model that with each other and then expect the same of the people we elect into office.

Rosqueta: You pointed out exactly one of the things that has gotten lost. It’s local communities, local governments, neighbors. When we refocus on building that local layer of civic engagement, that’s when we actually solve problems together. What has happened with things like the decline in civic engagement and the decline in local media is that now all of us are being over-influenced by a very partisan national dialogue that can drown out the problem-solving that can still happen on the ground.

Knowledge@Wharton: Many local newspapers have folded or scaled back in the last decade under enormous financial pressure, and more stories are coming from national outlets. Is there much hope for a resurgence of local news?

Rosqueta: One of the great things that our team found is ways in which philanthropists and nonprofits are working to rebuild that local media that has been disrupted. Their economic model has been disrupted because of a lot of changes in that industry. But Conor can speak more specifically to some of those ideas.

Carroll: Yes, the Lenfest Institute right here in Philadelphia has been devoted to identifying business models that will work for local media now that so much online advertising has eaten away at revenues that used to support that critical layer of local reporting that citizens rely on to be effective and to know the issue positions of their local elected representatives.

“Democracy cannot thrive unless people with different opinions have ways of talking with each other.” –Harris Sokoloff

Sokoloff: There’s another local layer that we tend not to talk much about, and that’s the high school newspaper. The high school newspaper is where young journalists start their reporting on issues that are important to them in their school, in their communities. Supporting students in doing that can really begin to support the growth of more local media. It’s even possible, as school districts begin to think more about project-based learning, for those local high school newspapers to reach out and cover community stories. Journalism then becomes not opinionating, but what are the different ways of looking at this? And how can we solve this problem together?

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the other areas that you talk about is social cohesion. What was social conversation a decade ago is not even close to what we see today. How do we tackle that part of it?

Rosqueta: One of the things that we found when we were developing our philanthropic guidance was that there were a lot of recommendations on all the other elements that you mentioned earlier. The one that we realized we needed to add was social cohesion. When people think democracy, they think politics, they think elections. Especially at the national level, elections are all about: Can we get my team to beat your team? Unless you think about social cohesion, you can just have a more activated voter group driving folks farther apart.

The ways to address social cohesion are some of the things that Harris mentioned in terms of increasing civic engagement early on — not forgetting that the students of today are the voters and the engaged citizens of tomorrow — as well as making sure that all communities have access to trusted information. That gets back to what Conor said about rebuilding the local media infrastructure.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s a phenomenal idea to start at the high school level, but do you think school districts or parents would allow it considering the divisiveness that it could cause?

Sokoloff: If we’re worried that a conversation might get out of control, then the question is how do we structure the conversation so that it’s likely to be passionate yet controlled? If you want to have a different conversation, structure it differently. Create some ground rules. Simple things like, “Listening is as important as talking.” What do we mean by listening? We mean to listen is to lean in softly, with the willingness to be changed a tiny little bit by what you hear — just a tiny bit. Like, “I hadn’t thought of that before.” Or listen with the exact same passion with which you want to be listened to.

Knowledge@Wharton: What has been the role of social media in civil discourse?

“When we refocus on building that local layer of civic engagement, that’s when we actually solve problems together.” –Katherina Rosqueta

Sokoloff: My own perspective on this is that social media has played a huge role, in no small part because it has not been facilitated in a way that lends itself to being more constructive. We’ve done community conversations with college students. We brought Penn students together with students from Cairn University. Cairn used to be Philadelphia College of the Bible, so it’s liberal students from a conservative organization. They had a great time talking with each other. They walked out saying, “Oh, I can have this conversation on social media if I just respond differently, if I don’t hit ‘send’ right away. If I listen on social media the way I listened here, or if I asked questions rather than flaming back.” There are moves that people can learn to improve the impact of social media on civil discourse.

Carroll: There are a few nonprofit organizations that are reacting to the fact that a lot of discourse is online, and they are bringing these more deliberative engagements to an online audience. The Kettering Foundation in Ohio sponsors two different organizations. The Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability hosts online town halls with members of Congress. This is a great time-saver for members of Congress who are used to going to in-person town halls where there are lots of protesters and sometimes just like a publicity stunt for people to get on the news. But these are much more intimate settings where people are online. They’re able to ask questions directly to their member of Congress. Usually, they focus these independently moderated events on a single topic, and they find that people do change their minds on topics when they are in these moderated settings.

Sokoloff: The Kettering Foundation also has created something called the National Issues Forums Institute, which does those things live in real time. They’re great models. The work of Catalyst Community Conversations has been doing this work for a long time — 20 years.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the report, you also talk about responsive policy, which circles back to local and national leadership and how important it is to have policies that benefit communities.

Rosqueta: That’s the point of democracy — it is responsive to the citizens’ needs. We were talking about the ways in which social media and online forums may require a shift in how we do this, so soon as you said “responsive policy,” I thought of another example that our team uncovered, which is Draw the Lines [a Pennsylvania civic engagement initiative for citizens to draw election maps]. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s team worked on a project there that was to help elevate ways in which we could address a major policy issue, which is gerrymandering and how our districts are drawn. I’ll let Conor describe the cool way in which that happens.

Carroll: I would set this up by saying a lot of the way people think to become involved in politics is through a campaign. Campaigns are organizations with a single purpose: to win an election. The missions of nonprofits are more sustained than that. They want to engage people even after Election Day, and Draw the Lines is an example of this. It’s based here in Philadelphia, and it’s a project of the Committee of Seventy, and they offer an online mapping tool for citizens. You can do this right now — use their mapping tool to draw your own congressional districts for the state of Pennsylvania to contribute your voice to the gerrymandering debate.

“We see a lot of appeals to get people involved in the political process that rely on fomenting distrust or anger towards a group.” –Conor Carroll

Like Harris was talking about considering an opposing viewpoint, they make you consider all the trade-offs when drawing congressional lines — adherence to existing geographical boundaries, the idea of having competitive elections, etc. Citizens can actually engage with this seemingly arcane and complex topic. They get all the information they need to draw their own map. They submit this map, and the winners of this contest get to present their map to lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Sokoloff: Draw the Lines also had community meetings where they invite high school students, so people talk about this stuff as they’re doing it. You get the best of the individualism, the best of collective conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the ultimate goal of the guide?

Rosqueta: One way to think of our framework is that it’s a checklist. If you see a philanthropic opportunity, understand how it is addressing one or more of those dimensions and make sure that it’s not undermining another one. That’s a way to use the guidance. In addition to having that framework, there’s a list of resources and example nonprofits that are available for free from our website.

Carroll: I think Kat made a great point. We see a lot of appeals to get people involved in the political process that rely on fomenting distrust or anger towards a group. That is an example of something that may empower people to get involved, but it undermines social cohesion. We really want to make sure that we’re considering nonprofits that don’t undermine any of those five elements.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have hope that civic discourse and engagement will improve?

Sokoloff: Oh, absolutely. There are so many organizations out there that are engaging diverse groups of people in framing issues, in working through them, in working through the trade-offs involved in them. Philanthropies are funding them to help do this work. I am very hopeful that we’ve pulled ourselves so far apart that we’re starting to bounce back together.

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