On September 14, 2022, the Democracy Innovation program of the National Conference on Citizenship, in partnership with the Kettering Foundation, and the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), presented a one-hour webinar that focused on The Critical Role of Local Civic Leaders. Over 80 people joined the online webinar.
Matt Leighninger, Head of Democracy Innovation for the National Conference on Citizenship, was joined by other civic practitioners with both local and national perspectives, including:
- Derrick Hammond, City councilmember and the paster of the Oak Valley Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
- Betty Knighton, President of the National Issues Forums Institute and was the founding director of the West Virginia Center for Civic Life
- Brad Rourke, Kettering Foundation and the founder and former publisher of local online news source Rockville Central in Rockville, Maryland
The webinar presenters and participants explored the following questions:
How are local civic leaders faring, in the midst of a global pandemic, a more polarized political environment, and a changing technological landscape? How have their experiences with different civic opportunities - voting, volunteering, public deliberation, political activism - affected their thinking and planning?
Matt Leighninger launched the webinar by asking the presenters to speak to their experiences with, or observations of, civic practices of local civic leaders in the midst of crises in consideration of 1) democracy as a design challenge (how do we incorporate these practices on a regular basis?), and 2) democracy as a measurement challenge (how do we understand and measure the progress we are making?). He then asked the presenters to describe "specific steps that work, or steps that don't work" And then he asked about how the practice of "naming and framing" seems to be working in communities, before turning to questions that viewers had been posting in the webinar chat.
Presenters' discussion of the questions ranged across local and national work being done by leaders who may come from the ranks of volunteers, elected officials, or other groups. For example, Derrick Hammond described observing how effectiveness can empower citizens and decrease inequities, and that once obstacles are removed, opportunities "naturally will flow." And Betty Knighton emphasized the value in relationship-building while working across groups with different backgrounds, and said that it is a mistake to not look for the interactivity among seemingly disparate groups. Brad Rourke described the time of COVID as compounding and cascading crises that provided the opportunity to observe what happens when many of the community institutional mechanisms "get swept away."
Some of the mistakes that were discussed included: a failure to prioritize the importance of communicating; not considering the historical context of an issue; not having community infrastructure that includes places for people to come together; using the same sources of information for framing an issue rather than bringing the people who are most affected by the problem into the discussion; and assuming that this work is a linear process instead of recognizing that people may enter the work at many different points.
Numerous questions were posted in the webinar chat, including several that centered on whether we need a new definition of democracy, or at least one that puts citizens at the center of democary. People also shared a number of resources related to the topics discussed during the webinar. Some of the resources shared included:
- ActiVote Constitution Week exercise: https://acti.vote/ConstitutionDay2022
- National Civic League’s Model City Charter: https://www.nationalcivicleague.org/resources/model-city-charter-9th-edition/
- NCoC civic measurement page: https://ncoc.org/Civic-Health-Initiative-2/
- New Public: https://newpublic.org
- NCoC’s Engagement Scorecard: https://ncoc.org/engagement-scorecard/
- Matt and Tina Nabatchi’s book on Public Participation: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Public+Participation+for+21st+Century+Democracy-p-9781118688403
Click here to watch the recorded webinar.