Simply running a new set of public service announcements, or conducting yet another civic contest to entice people’s engagement, or throwing statistics at people in the hopes of jolting them into action will not do. In fact, so many of these tactics are trotted out so often that they hardly seem to hold meaning any longer.
Instead, people need to see and hear themselves again in community and public life. This is essential, and irreplaceable. They need to know that their realities count, and that their realities have been accounted for. They need to know that if they step forward – back into public life – they will find something beyond more acrimonious and divisive cross-fire. They need to know that their civic-minded actions – however big or small they may be – are valued. The conversation I have in mind can help make this happen. Indeed, without addressing these critical conditions, no program or initiative will work.
To be clear, this wouldn’t be yet another “town hall.” Think instead of the health care summit, with thirty or more people around a single table who have the ability to actually engage one another, listen to each other, and work together. When people in the country see and hear this, they will breathe a sigh of relief that such engagement is still possible.
Of course, these conversations will need to occur across the country and my expectation is that they eventually will tie to civic action. The president can tap into other talented Americans to help lead these conversations, even reach across the aisle to build bi-partisanship, and, ultimately, spur people in their own communities to take a leadership role.
To effectively move forward we must be absolutely clear about the challenge we face. It is not simply a programmatic one; rather, it goes to the heart of the condition of our civic health. An urgent need exists within our country to pry open space so that people can see and hear themselves again and rediscover the possibilities to step forward. In so doing we can actively create a new narrative about what it means to engage, one that combats the current narrative of negativity and polarization. The challenge we confront concerns our faith in one another and in our ability to effect change together.
Now is the time to act.