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Practicing civic courage in our time

Author: 
Martha McCoy
February 14, 2017

The day after the election, we shared a piece by our board member Peter Levine, in which he called for civic courage. As division, uncertainty, and anxiety continue to grow, I find myself coming back to this important idea. When messages of fear become louder and more frequent, what does civic courage look like? How can we practice it?    

At difficult times throughout our history, many people have exercised civic courage. What kind of courage do we need to practice today? What will it take to advance a democracy that values the voice and participation of people of all racial and ethnic groups, economic means, creeds, ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and walks of life?  

Since Everyday Democracy is a national civic organization that focuses on providing ways to lift every voice, we have opportunities to work with and learn from civic practitioners and visionary leaders across the country. Here are a few lessons about civic courage we have drawn from their experiences:       

Reach in: The work of strengthening democracy is ultimately collective, but it is also an “inside job.” Those whose words and actions touch us most deeply draw on their inner strength – often rooted in their faith in God and grounded in deeply held beliefs, such as a strong sense of compassion and justice. Many leaders we work with spend time apart – in quiet retreats, with others of their faith tradition, in nature, in poetry, in meditation – so that they can enter more fully into the work of strengthening voice, participation, and justice. They show us that when we take the time to listen to and nurture our own longings for wholeness and connection, we are better able to find the courage to operate from our best selves and to persist through great challenges.

Reach out: It requires courage to connect with and seek to understand others, especially those who have experiences and beliefs different from our own. As our politics become more prone to personal attack, overgeneralization, and stereotyping (“all conservatives believe this, all progressives believe that”), it is becoming even more difficult to open our hearts and minds. But it is possible. In our work, we have heard thousands of people tell their own stories, speak from their own values and experiences, listen deeply to others’ stories and concerns, and find human and civic connection.  

The willingness to speak honestly and listen to others creates the empathy that is essential to democracy. Empathy helps us put ourselves in another’s shoes, understand the meaning of justice, and form relationships across difference. It enables us to be hard on ideas but not on people. It helps us make conflict productive. It prevents the “us vs. them” that is at the root of violence. It provides the foundation for working together, even when some disagreement (inevitably) remains. It makes it possible to stand for our convictions, even while we make room for others to stand for theirs.       

Stand up: It takes courage to use our voices to stand against anti-democratic behaviors and practices and to stand for more democratic ways of governing ourselves. Speaking out against racism is one of the most powerful examples of “standing up.”      

People are learning that racism goes well beyond bigotry. Racism is a web of attitudes, practices, and policies that treats people of color as inferior and creates unfair disadvantages. It has been a primary impediment to democratic practice since our very founding. And it has laid the foundation for other forms of disadvantage and inequity – such as those based on income level, education, gender, age, religion, ability, language, immigration status, and sexual orientation.

The more people understand the true nature of racism, the more they understand that it affects all of us – people of all colors, ethnicities, and income levels. Since our society provides very few ways to learn about this, it can be difficult for many to recognize those times when racism is being used to divide us from each other.   

Today, growing numbers of people of all backgrounds are demonstrating civic courage by standing up to name the effects of structural racism and call for racial justice. People of color and white people are showing that it is possible to use a clearer understanding of racial justice to strengthen their advocacy for all kinds of justice and their efforts to bring all kinds of people into dialogue and public problem solving. And growing numbers of white people are showing the power of “standing with.”     

Create spaces for democratic participation: We work with hundreds of leaders who bring people together across all kinds of divides for honest, sometimes difficult, conversations that are organized to lead to action and change. Such conversations allow people of all backgrounds and views to build trust and create solutions to public problems.

It takes civic courage and skill to build a welcoming public space where people of all backgrounds and views can share honestly and listen deeply, especially in the face of so much division. It takes courage to take part in dialogue, to sit down with others, especially when messages of distrust and fear bombard us daily. And it takes courage for elected leaders at all levels to sit down with everyday people and commit to listening to them.  

Yet, all of this is possible. Diverse coalitions of community groups, grass-roots leaders, and public officials are creating opportunities for all kinds of people to:

  • speak honestly and listen deeply to each other
  • find their own voices and leadership potential
  • dispel stereotypes
  • build relationships of trust that can nourish and sustain civic courage 
  • deepen their understanding of the nature of public problems and the roots of inequities 
  • explore each other’s views and find shared concerns    
  • consider a range of possible public solutions  
  • make recommendations to policymakers  
  • and develop action priorities and plans they can carry out together.  

We and many of our partners are working toward a society in which these opportunities and practices become routine – in the ways we relate to each other, strengthen community, solve public problems, and make public decisions.

In fact, that is what “everyday democracy” would look like.    

Cultivate hope: The late civil rights leader Vincent Harding once famously asked: “Is America possible?” He wondered whether it was possible to create a multi-racial democracy that works for all people.  His answer: “Yes, but only as we make it so.” Harding practiced civic courage in his own life, and then he shared his stories and lessons with many young people. He understood that advancing democracy was a multi-generational journey for the long haul, and that each of us can (and must) contribute.   

At Everyday Democracy, we are committed to making America possible, to creating an authentic democracy that works for all. We stand against fear and for hope. We stand against demonizing others and for encouraging the voices and participation of all. We stand against implicit and explicit bias in ourselves and others; we stand for understanding and attending to the ways that structural racism has shaped our relationships with each other and how we govern ourselves.    

There is great power in sharing stories of courage and hope and of how you are using these principles and values in your communities and in your work. It is possible for all of us to embrace civic courage by working to create positive change – in ourselves, our relationships, our institutions, and our systems.     

Please share your stories and thoughts with us:

  • What does civic courage mean to you in this time?
  • What does it look like?
  • What are you doing to exercise it?
  • What are you struggling with?
  • What resources are you calling on?  
  • What are you learning?

Please send your stories, thoughts, and photos to us at naflalo@everyday-democracy.org, and check back for updates from around the country. We stand with you as you take this important work forward. In this challenging time, your commitment and work are vital. Together we will make America possible.  

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