Save Our Snow Days! We Lose Something When we Go Remote During Bad Weather

A freshly broken trail on a snowy hillside.

Among all the things potentially ruined by the pandemic, this one is minor, and many adults may not even grieve the loss.  But I hope that I am wrong and the pandemic has not permanently eliminated snow days.  There is a lot to be cherished in weather closures, for kids and adults. 

It starts with the anticipation.  It begins to build days ahead of time as the weather forecasts begin to come in, predicting a real storm, a significant storm.  The idea is exciting, thrilling even.  One flirts with that age-old human contradiction, dreading the potential consequences but unable to shut down the exhilaration of novelty and even its attendant danger.  It feels safe to feel this way because, for most of us, fortunate as we are, a temporary power outage is the worst that is likely to happen. 

Hopefully, one has time to prepare, stocking up on food and hot cocoa.  Kids grudgingly put out their clothes for the next day hoping, hoping that they won’t have to change out of their pyjamas in the morning.  As an adult, one tries to tie up loose ends at the office, just in case. 

An SUV buried in deep snow.
There are some responsibilities.

Maybe the snow starts on one’s way home from school or work. Perhaps the evening before.  Or maybe, like this time, it sifts down for two weekend days.  On waking, one’s first task is to look out the window and assess, followed by checking a news website for closures. 

When a snow day is finally declared, one celebrates.  Kids throw their arms in the air and shout.  Adults think of all the work they need to do and feel guilty for their sense of relief. 

Once one has dispensed with the shovelling and car clearing responsibilities, the day belongs to oneself.  All the rules are suspended.  Having popcorn for breakfast and watching movies all day is somehow acceptable.  All those little household projects that need to get done are only done if someone feels like it.  It’s a holiday, and somehow it feels even more liberating that the holidays that one expects.  Barring vacation, a long weekend is so often seen as a chance to get things done around the house.  A snow day, on the other hand, comes with full permission to do nothing. 

Three mysterious lumps in deep snow.
The familiar becomes mysterious.

The world is transformed, and no matter how many times one has experienced a big snow, there is an urge to get out and explore one’s mutated surroundings.  One gears up, donning winter clothing like armor.  The young and energetic wade through the drifts with sleds or construct their snow forts and rain their snowballs on one another.  Somehow their shrieks and laughter only emphasize the deep hush that has fallen over the land.  Their elders ford the deep mantle to a road, and if it hasn’t been plowed yet, they marvel at how it is altered. 

Crafty sewing families get out their yardsticks, and the rest of us try to remember where we put our tape measure.  It’s weirdly important to know how much snow there is, in inches.  It is something we can share with our friends, and perhaps they will be as impressed as we are. 

When we come in, our clothes smell like melting snow. 

Even as the snow tapers off, we harbor a secret hope that somehow more will come in the night or that the roads won’t all be plowed in time.  We prepare for the next day at school or work.  We know the unexpected gift of our day off won’t leak into tomorrow.  But we wish. 

The next day we resent the snow.  The roads are still slick or sloppy and wet.  Maybe we have to clean off the car again in the morning before getting into the cold and somehow stiff vehicle.  Snow is back to being just another inconvenience, and we long for warmer temperatures. 

Granted, this scenario is very different for the people who have to be out in the snow.  Delivery drivers, first responders, and those with mobility impairments have a very different experience, to say nothing of people who don’t have enough money to pay their heat bill or are experiencing homelessness.  Parents who have to work struggle to find childcare.  Their perspective is altogether more appropriate to the circumstances. 

Black dog in deep snow
Dogs need snow days, too.

But for those of us lucky enough to really have snow days, it is a meaningful experience, an unexpected gem gleaming out from the quotidian of our everyday lives. 

As I was writing this piece, the school district where I substitute teach has issued a robocall to inform everyone that tomorrow will be an all-remote learning day.  Yes, remote learning and work will restore productivity to those lost days.  But it will also take away something that helps us go back to school or work with more energy, a bit of our joie de vivre restored from the daily grind.  Surely there is value in that, too. 

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

10 Things to Remember About Spring and Summer

Where I live, Fall has arrived abruptly with a more than 50-degree temperature swing overnight between Monday and Tuesday. Highs suddenly went from 80 or 84 to 28 and 32 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Toward the end of the week, things are climbing back up towards the 70’s, but it is assuredly no longer summer. Labor Day marked the end in a very literal way this year.  

It seems like a good time to document some of the things I want to, or, rather, should remember about this spring and summer.  

A close up of a sunflower covered in snow.
The end of summer.
  • Waking up to Amanpour and Company streaming on PBS over coffee. We needed more news, but quality news with context and nuance. We did this for a long time, but I ultimately had to give it up with no end in sight. I was spending too much time in front of the TV, even though it was nutritious TV.
  • Suddenly being inside Christaine’s home, and Judy Woodruff’s, Mark Sheild’s, David Brooks’, Amy Walter’s, and Tamera Keith’s. Sometimes in their offices, sometimes in their living rooms. In Hari Shrinavasen’s case, we were in front of his blank, white wall until the News Hour graphic loaded. As of this writing, we are still in John Oliver’s blank, white void. We met William Brangham and Lisa Desjardins’ cats. We saw their art and their books. Judy’s tome on Grant stood out. It was weirdly intimate, and it must have been so for them as well, showing their private homes to the world. Now it seems normal. It is something we have all stopped noticing. 
Two tan and white cats look up at the camera from a light tan couch.  One is near the camera on the arm of the couch, the other is further away on the seat of the couch.
The Brangham Cats as featured on Mr. Brangham’s twitter.
  • Darting back inside the house or the car to snag the mask I almost forgot to bring on my walk or wear into the store. How is it that I am still doing this, six months after masking became a thing?  
  • In the spring, I could not bring myself to spend any significant time indoors. I set up a patio table and did many of my unemployment-required work search activities outside. I did huge amounts of yard work, and went for long walks. I was keenly aware every single day of how lucky I am to live in a place with a yard, a patio, and great walks.  
  • The unforeseen shortages. There was a shortage of yeast, of kittens, of bikes, of puppies, of flour. The toilet paper shortage, though irrational, was something you would expect. No one’s emergency preparedness plans included kittens and flour.  
  • The agony of watching the country adopt a worst of all possible worlds approach, both tanking the economy and failing to control the virus. Knowing this was going to go on and on and on because we were so committed to getting it wrong, then having the gut-churning feeling of being right. The horrible helplessness of watching the country ignore the experts, with predictable consequences.  
A home made mask with a floral pattern and red straps.
My stepmother made me an extra mask while she was making some for health care workers. Now it is abandoned, unwashed, and mysteriously coffee stained. I sure was grateful to have it at the time, though!
  • The homemade masks. It seems like it took forever for companies to get around to making and stocking masks. It’s only recently that I have finally started seeing them in Walmart. Suddenly, even before lockdown started, everyone was doing DIY masks. They even sold kits at the arts and crafts stores. Many were donated to health care workers and may have been of some use, though they were not what they needed. People were making masks for their own use, too. But mostly, I think the sudden popularity of mask-making was about the feeling of doing something. It was so surreal to endure a crisis when the best way you could help was by doing nothing. Sitting at home binging on Netflix while New York was collectively gasping for breath just felt wrong. By making masks, people at least felt like they were helping.  
  • How utterly empty and spooky things were in mid-April. I went for 25 days without leaving the house except for outdoor exercise, and once just to drive with my mom. Walking towards my town, going through the local elementary and high schools’ parking lots, was haunting. There were no cars on the road, no voices in the air, no bustle, just empty parking spots and silence.  
A very low angle of a road in a rural area.  The road is empty, and the camera is nearly centered on the double yellow line.
Buffalo Park Road.
  • Conversely, how busy things were on the trails. There is a county Open Space park near my house. To be fair, the county’s more populous areas mostly foot the bill for our Open Space. In our case, the cities of Lakewood and Golden pay the bulk of the sales tax that provides this wonderful resource. This summer, it has felt like most of Lakewood and Golden has been up every weekend. The county next door was so inundated that they closed their roads to non-local traffic, and shut their parks down.  
Cars parked along the side of a road in pine woods.
It’s hard to overstate how much the demand for parking exceeded the supply.
  • How reassuring it was to see all those people on the trails. Don’t get me wrong. On several levels, it was far more alarming than reassuring. It was so crowded people couldn’t stay far enough apart, many people chose to hike in big groups in close proximity, and very few people were wearing masks. At a conscious level, a run in the park was actually pretty stressful. But on a subconscious level, it was a huge relief to see people, to confirm that the world hadn’t ended, that the empty streets didn’t reflect a post-apocalyptic reality. Humans are social animals, and the need to connect with others, even at the very superficial level of nodding or mumbling a greeting on a trail, is profound. Hiking or running in the park left you anxious about all that contact, but also relieved that people were still out there, and still people.  

Good historical fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about the past. It allows me to connect to different eras by providing reasonable speculation about what things were like. All of life is living through history, of course, but you are far more aware of it at a time like this. And you are far more likely to be asked, years down the road, what this time was like, how it felt, what you noticed, what you did.  

So from time to time I will write down some of the things that I think it is important to remember. Please leave some of the things you want to remember in the comments section. When my great-grand-nieces need to do a research paper, or decide to write a book about 2020, they will have a rich resource (if incomplete — I didn’t even get to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the presidential campaign, or the fires) full of information on what it was really like.

How to Worry in a VUCA World

A collage illustrating our VUCA world, with a woman printed with circuit boards, and globe made of portraits, and complex cables.  Volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are spelled out in German, and the acronym VUCA overlays in the center.
Apparently it almost translates into German. Mummelgrummel / CC0

I learned a new acronym today from the business world.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

VUCA stands for 2020.  

Nature did not equip humans to live comfortably in a VUCA world. There are sound evolutionary reasons to prefer a stable, placid, dull environment. Even at our most adventurous, we like a calm, constant refuge to return to at the end of the day or the trip.  

And it was already a VUCA world, even before COVID-19 showed up. A statistic I ran across in an August 2019 article tells us that one in three Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. I wonder how much that statistic will change as we all live through this upheaval of everything predictable.  

May you live in interesting times has never been a Chinese curse. Nevertheless, it is apt. Our age will not make the dryest chapter in the history books, but living through it is fraught and exhausting.  

Worry, when it is not dominating our conscious thoughts, is an ever-present background buzz in our minds, like an old fluorescent light that needs a new ballast. It keeps us on edge, unbalance, ungrounded, uncentered. It would be easier to deal with if the current crises were finite, but they’re not. We have no time frame, no point we can look forward to by saying to ourselves it will be over by next month, or next season, or next year.  

A lit up check engine light is shown next to a speedometer.  Worry is like a check engine light in our minds.
Wikiuser100000 / CC BY-SA

So what can we do with all this anxiety?  This article, which prompted me to think more deeply about worry in September 2020, espouses some benefits to worrying. It’s like a check engine light in your mind, giving you a heads-up that trouble awaits on your road. Just as with our car’s warning light, worry should prompt us to take action to mitigate or eliminate that upcoming trouble. It should help us to problem-solve and make plans and preparations.  

Of course, if you are living with your metaphorical dashboard lit up like a holiday display, it’s hard to use worry as an adaptive evolutionary tool. I would assert that you can look at most mental health disorders as too much of a good thing. Anxiety disorders certainly fall into this category. I figure they would be a lot easier to vanquish if irrational preparedness didn’t pay off in such a big way, now and then.  

Where is the line between adaptive worry and disordered anxiety? The above article suggests that worry graphs in a U shape, dipping down into productivity somewhere between too little concern and too much.  

A graph of worry is shown with a U shaped curve and a x axis of not enough worry to too much worry and a y axis of productive to not productive.

There is also, perhaps, a distinction to be made between actionable worry and helpless worry. It is one thing to be apprehensive enough to wear a mask, shop less frequently, and take other reasonable precautions. It’s something else to agonize over the course of the pandemic; something you don’t control in the slightest.  

If an anxiety disorder or even just excessive worry is simply the overstimulation of an adaptive trait, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that trait. There are so many articles on getting rid of worry, but it’s really about managing anxiety, not abolishing it.  

In social services, sometimes, a client may not be ready to change harmful behavior altogether. Many practitioners use a harm reduction model. Someone using IV drugs might not be prepared to stop, yet, but they can use clean needles. An alcoholic might not be able to stop drinking immediately, but they can give up their keys.  

Mitigating a trait one doesn’t want to eliminate might be seen as a different kind of harm reduction.  

An icon is shown of a worried stick-figure face with hair sticking up to the right.  A VUCA face, if you will.
worry by Alex Muravev from the Noun Project

Looked at that way, some strategies to “get rid of” worry in all those articles have some good tips. You can assign your worry a time of day, and deny it space in your head until its appointed hour. You can address procrastination and make a point of letting yourself feel the emotions worry may be suppressing. You can journal, talk about it with friends or a therapist, and address negative thought patterns.  

But my favorite ideas come from the article about the benefits of worry and a document on wellbeing developed by Edward Watkins at the University of Exeter.  

Give worry a job, as Kate Sweeny, a worry researcher featured in the article, puts it. Figure out what you can literally do to address the situation or potential situation. There is almost always some preparedness or precautionary action you can take.  

Worried about the election? Volunteer to phone bank or make social media posts, and plan out your voting strategy in advance. Concerned about the virus? Make sure to take all sensible precautions and be prepared. Go ahead and stock up for the next lockdown, but spread your purchases out over a more extended period, so you aren’t running stores out of crucial supplies. Freaked out by climate change? Make a point of making sustainable purchases.  

And if you don’t have time or money to do the things that feel most effective, do whatever you can to not make it worse.  

Just doing something proactive makes us feel a lot better. That was the deal with the national shortage of toilet paper before and during the lockdown. People felt helpless, and stocking up on TP was at least actionable.  

Even making a plan helps in and of itself. Setting up a series of if/then triggers for yourself can help reestablish (or just establish) a sense of control. If school goes all remote again, then I will… If I get sick, then I will take care of myself and others by… If there is another fire in my area, then I will… 

These things allow us to take helpless worry and turn it into actionable worry.   

Branches of a tree are shown with paper leaves attached by zip ties.  Things that people are grateful for are written on the leaves.  The nearest leaf is legible and says "my cat and my dog."
A gratitude tree clients made with me in my old job.

I also liked the suggestion to find something that is going right. It goes along with counting your blessings or the evidence-backed practice of listing the things you are grateful for every day. And you can project it into the future by figuring out some things you can realistically look forward to.  

There are other ways to use time, too. Looking back over your life, it is worth identifying the crisis points and figuring out how you got through them. Chances are, what worked before will work again, even if you must adapt it to different circumstances. And imagining how you will look back on today’s events ten years from now can put things into a different, calmer perspective.  

When it is all too much, worry researcher Kate Sweeny identifies at least three anti-worry states. Mindfulness, flow, and awe are incompatible with worrying, and beneficial in and of themselves. She suggests that mindfulness might work better for finite situations. Flow, when you can get lost in a project for hours at a stretch, and lose track of time passing, might be the best (and most productive) distraction in a situation where there is no end in sight.    

Awe might be why going for a walk or bike ride out in nature works so well for me. It is hard to focus on worry when the aspen leaves are fluttering just so, when the sky is brilliant blue and adorned with puffy clouds, when the wind blows through a field of grass, riffling in choreographed waves.  

An icon from the Noun Project representing adapt.  Three lines run vertically in the center.  Two arrows push in on the lines horizontally from either side.  The two lines on the outside bend inward to accommodate the pressure of the arrows.  Adaptability is key in a VUCA world.
adapt by Ralf Schmitzer from the Noun Project

And of course, to an extent, acceptance should be a strategy. We live in VUCA times, and will be living in them for the foreseeable future. We should be worried. We should even be worried in helpless, unproductive ways. Given the times, it is probably a sign of mental health, rather than mental illness. I’d say we all have an anxiety disorder now, but it is too appropriate to be called a disorder.  

Perhaps again in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, as in evolutionary times. Adaptability, not serenity, may be the end goal of mental health.  

Part Eight: Different Realities

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Image of a duck, or is it?  If you look at it another way, you see a rabbit.  The duck's bill makes up the rabbit's ears.  This classic optical illusion illustrates how perception creates reality.
There are duck people and rabbit people, and nobody is allowed to be both, anymore. Public Domain, Link

My Mom and I sat down over the last two weeks and watched the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The experience made it terrifyingly apparent just how different our realities are as Americans. Camp Red America might as well be on an alien planet from Camp Blue America. We live in alternate universes.

So much of what the Commission recommends is dependent on people of goodwill working together independently of their tribal partisan identities. But can that be done when our differences extend beyond even our identities and determine our fundamental perceptions? If we can’t agree on what is real, how can we agree on what to do about it?

That means that quite possibly, the most critical recommendation the Commission makes is to hammer out a national story we can all accept (6.2). But this can’t just be about history. Before we can even address the past, we need to generate a coherent, unified theory of us in the present. We flirted with this at the beginning of the pandemic, back before Dr. Fauci was politicized. But we couldn’t sustain it. It didn’t take long for our conflicting realities to reassert themselves.

That, then, begs the question; if an unprecedented national crisis can’t bring our worldviews together, what can?

When things transform as radically and drastically as they have in the US over the past 20 to 30 years, one must ask what changed? What is different now that might have led to this outcome? Since this has been a time of massive disruption, it’s easy to find phenomena to blame. It’s Facebook’s fault. The internet did it. The 24-hour news cycle brought us low. One can go on and on.

And one will be somewhat right. All of these factors, and so much more, have contributed to our situation. But I’m struck by one change in particular. The other day my Mom and I talked about the giants of news when I was growing up. Everyone knew who Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings were. And during my Mom’s young adulthood, everyone knew Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Edward R. Murrow.

Unusual color picture of Edward R. Murrow hamming it up with a cup of coffee for the Pan American Coffee Bureau.  Murrow and anchors like him helped to create a shared reality in America.
Murrow in 1953. Copyright 1953, Pan American Coffee Bureau / Public domain

These newsmen, and they were overwhelmingly men, had plenty of blind spots. The media was complicit in marginalizing people of color and women. The news of the day didn’t tell many important stories and didn’t report critically on a lot of other important stories.

Nevertheless, the anchors of the three big networks, between them, ensured that most Americans were getting the same information with a similar emphasis. Mom and I couldn’t think of a single person in the current mediascape who has that kind of broad-based authority and gravitas. Our fractured media landscape has opened the floodgates of differing ideas and opinions. In so doing, it has had the unintended consequence of creating conflicting realities.

I’m not sure we can begin to reconcile our realities without a common trusted news source.

That may be the recommendation the Commission forgot to make.

I don’t have an answer for how to reunite our worlds, but the Commission itself gives me hope. One can still find 35 heavyweight thinkers from across the ideological spectrum who share enough reality to have a rational conversation and find a consensus. They can even gather enough people interested in civil discourse to have nearly 50 listening sessions around the country. That has to be a good sign.

Now it’s really up to us. Emergency response training tells us that if something bad happens to someone, the impulse to step in and help varies with the number of witnesses. If you are alone with someone who suddenly experiences a seizure, you will probably help them. But if you are part of a crowd that witnesses the seizure, you (and all your fellow humans) will tend to think that someone else has got it, and not help.

Right now, there are 328.2 million witnesses to America’s convulsions. We’re all making the wrong assumption that someone else has got this. No one has it. It’s up to each of us to try to help. The Commission’s strategies and recommendations are a good place to start.

Part Seven: A Culture of Democracy

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

A crowded town hall meeting in Torrington, CT in 2011.  These citizens are part of a culture of democracy.
Standing room only at a 2011 Town Hall Meeting in Torrington, Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / CC BY

Working for the past 8+ years in low-income housing, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to change a culture. Humans are amazingly mimetic creatures. In surprisingly large part, we do what we see other people doing. Our collective behavior changes when we reach some mysterious tipping point. When enough of us see enough of us acting in some particular way, suddenly everyone is doing it.  

In low-income housing, you see this when people break the smoke-free housing rules. Suddenly, when a few people don’t use the smoking area, nobody uses the smoking area. It shows up in countless other bad decisions and leads to most lease violations.  

That’s why it is so important with something like masks for leaders, members of the media, and celebrities to don their PPE ostentatiously. That’s why online challenges are a thing. And, perhaps, that is why online trolling has become our new national pastime.  

Once a community reaches that tipping point for a particular behavior, or even attitude, it is remarkably hard to change. Reaching that magical point where behavior becomes self-perpetuating throughout a population isn’t intentionality friendly.  

When we talk about changing the culture of democracy in the US, which is the Commission’s sixth and last strategy, we are talking about a couple of things.  

  1. In the last 40 to 60 years, the US has gradually developed a culture of civic disengagement. So how do we change it back?  
  2. In the last 20 or so years, the US has lurched into an especially bitterly divided, vitriolic, and tribal partisan political culture. How do we change that back?  

A Culture of National Service

The author operates a video camera at a youth summer camp in the woods of upstate New York in 2006.  National service like this can facilitate a culture of democracy.
Shooting video at the site of my AmeriCorps service, a youth summer camp. I went back to work for a summer three years later.

The Commission’s first recommendation is something that I have written about before. This country is crying out for a robust national service program. An expectation that everyone would spend a year after high school, or around that time, participating in paid national service could do wonders for our economy, our infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, our exposure to one another.  

As our sources of information become more and more siloed, as our civil society has withered, and as we have self-segregated into Camp Red and Camp Blue, it is worth noting that we are raising our children in this ecosystem. Despite some exposure to one another in school, a Camp Red childhood is very different from a Camp Blue childhood. We need to learn how to talk to and work with one another again. That means we need to expose our young adults to broader sources of (accurate) information and perspective, different kinds of people, and the art of collaboration.  

College is not enough. GED students, future service sector workers, community college students, those planning on entering the trades, and the dormitory-bound four-year college student all need to learn to work together, learn from and with each other, and value one another. They need to be Americans together, working on projects that benefit the country as a whole, as well as various communities particularly.  

The Commission specifies in its National Service recommendation (6.1) that people needn’t leave their communities to serve. There is great value and empowerment in working to benefit your own in concrete ways. But I see such a dramatic benefit in bringing young people of diverse backgrounds together that I would hope many would choose to serve in far-flung locations or situations.

An ongoing influx of youth in the country experienced in working across the metaphorical aisle, and across racial and socioeconomic strata, could have a considerable influence on the country as a whole. And all that is without even getting into the potential benefits to our infrastructure, both physical (roads, bridges, campgrounds, bike paths, etc.), and in human services (child care, food pantries, social work).  

Origin Stories

Four Tuskeegee Airmen walk across a field with two planes in the background.  We need common heroes in this country.
Can we at least all agree that these guys were rad? (U.S. Air Force photo)

One of the biggest gulfs between Camp Red and Camp Blue is their contradictory stories about how we got where we are. Were the Founding Fathers heroes delivering freedom from tyranny, or were they brutal slavemasters and genocidal maniacs? No one seems prepared to accept the uncomfortable reality that they were both at the same time. Or the even worse contradiction that the advent of constitutional democracy doesn’t absolve the genocide and slaveholding, and the genocide and slaveholding don’t negate the advent of constitutional democracy. Nobody likes cognitive dissonance.  

But if we are going to navigate out of our current maelstrom of impasses, we have to accept the reality of our messy and contradictory history. The Commission’s second recommendation in this strategy (6.2) is to develop an origin story that rings true for Camp Red and Camp Blue.  

This seems a tall order in a country where a quarter of the population believes that the powerful possibly or probably planned COVID-19.  

Nevertheless, without a starting point of general agreement on the outlines of our history, I don’t see how our national road doesn’t come to a fork. The Commission suggests coming to that agreement via a series of facilitated national conversations. It seems to me that such discussions would, in some way, need to be official, so that their results could feed into the content standards for our schools.  

It also seems to me that we can and should designate some space in our various curricula for learning to sit with and ultimately live with that cognitive dissonance. Even if, through national discussion groups, we can come up with a narrative we can all accept as valid, that narrative is inevitably going to contain painful contradictions. Somewhere in the gap between our noblest aspirations and our basest deeds lies the reality of our national identity. If we genuinely value critical thinking as a 21st Century Skill, educating to this discomfort is necessary.  

The Commission says: 

Whatever new narratives emerge from these conversations, they should be honest about the past without falling into cynicism, and should demonstrate appreciation of the country’s founding and transformative leaders without tipping into deification. They should acknowledge our faults and take pride in the progress we have made. They should grapple with the reasons we have routinely needed to reinvent our constitutional democracy and how we have done it. They should articulate aspirations for the elevation of our democracy to new heights in the twenty-first century. Working through how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves is a necessary part of renewing our capacity to work together for constitutional democracy.

Our Common Purpose

As with anything else, the visible and demonstrated acceptance of a new narrative would be crucial for its adoption. If people don’t see the media, politicians, celebrities, and substantial numbers of facebookers, youtubers, tweeters, and instagrammers buying in, they won’t buy in themselves.  

Democratic Faith

A long line of voters outside a polling place in Denver in 2006.  These citizens are participating in a culture of democracy.
Voters faced long lines in 2006 in Denver, but participated in their democracy, nonetheless.

“Democracy works only if enough of us believe that democracy works.” — Our Common Purpose

John Dewey called it Democratic Faith. It’s easy to forget how many of the things we take as real in our lives are acts of collective faith. Money is just pieces of paper or electronic blips. Human rights don’t exist outside of human imagination. America itself, along with every other nation-state, is a fiction in which we have all decided to participate. According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his seminal book Sapiens, this ability to believe collective fictions is our superpower as a species. It is the secret sauce that has allowed a naked ape with small teeth and weak claws to take over the planet via staggering acts of mass cooperation.  

Democracy, like so many other elements of human life, is just an idea. It only works by a sort of mass hallucination for the common good. Even once we think this through and realize that it is a fiction, we still behave as if it were a concrete reality. But when enough of us stop believing, suddenly it becomes all too obvious that we are treating an idea as if were a real thing like a rock or a tree.  

I, for one, would feel much more comfortable if we could get back to treating the fiction as an unquestioned reality. One can’t unknow things, but I’d like it if we could all start pretending like our democracy isn’t a house of cards set to topple at the slightest collective national sneeze again.  

The Commission suggests in its third recommendation in this strategy (6.3) that the way to do this is to recreate, or perhaps create anew, a culture of our democracy.  

“Democratic faith requires cultivation. It requires culture: shared rituals or ceremonies and intentional forms of play, work, reckoning, storytelling, conversation, and gathering that allow everyday citizens to make moral sense of our times in the company of others, and to try to close the gap between our high ideals as Americans and our persistently unjust realities.”

Our Common Purpose

There are many organizations already working in this arena, creating a culture not just of democracy but also of civil society. The Commission suggests that we support them, and facilitate the advent of new organizations fostering such culture.  

Advertising Democracy

The iconic I Voted sticker that used to come with our ballots in Colorado, but no longer does.  This was a great, cheap way to advertise a culture of democracy.
In Colorado, or at least in Jefferson County, where I live, voters no longer get a sticker. I don’t understand why they discontinued this. It was brilliant free advertising. Whoisjohngalt / CC BY-SA

There is one form of behavioral intervention that we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, works. There is a century of evidence proving its efficacy, and an entire industry built upon it. It is an industry that many other industries depend on utterly. You could say it is like the gasoline in the engine of our consumer economy.  

Call it advertising, call it marketing, call it propaganda, the point is, we know how to do it, and we know it can change behavior. Is it a bit sinister? Absolutely. But it seems that we are willing to accept such cognitive manipulation from giant profit-driven corporations. Shouldn’t we then accept it when it is actually in our interest?  

The Commission suggests (recommendation 6.4) that we support and build on the efforts of organizations already extant, such as the Purple Project for Democracy, and the I am a voter campaign organized by the Creative Artists Agency.  

Graphic design is powerful. Music is powerful. Words are powerful. And most of all, seeing other people doing something is powerful. We already watch people who are disproportionately thrilled with their toothpaste, laundry detergent, or dishwasher soap. Why not watch smiling, happy, connected, and joyful people voting, going to town hall meetings, being poll workers, and going to school board meetings? In the age of social media, such images can be shared far beyond the initial audience.  

Teach Civics

Immigrants whose clothing suggests a South Asian origin hold up a Citizenship Certificate.  People who have studied for the Citizenship Test typically know more about our democracy than native-born citizens.  We need to do a better job of educating ourselves if we want to foster a culture of democracy.
These new-minted citizens probably know more about our democracy than you or me. Charles Chauvel / CC BY

The Commission’s last recommendation (6.5) is perhaps the most obvious way to shift our culture back in the direction of civic participation: teach civics. The report cites my own state, Colorado, as one in which recent legislation is reinvigorating civics education, but as far as I can tell, that bill actually stalled out in committee. Considering that all it did was give schools the option to adopt a civics curriculum, that is concerning. And it is alarming that my nieces, who are going into eighth grade, report not having any classes or units on this stuff, to date.  

Not participating in our democracy seems like a much more reasonable decision if one has never been taught what it is and how it works.  

The Commission is right to point out that this recommendation can’t just be a K-12 thing. We need ongoing civics education. A couple of generations need filling in on what they missed out on in their schooling, and all of us, adults and children, need reminders and updates.  

To train people in civic participation, civic education cannot be a passive experience of listening to lectures and filling out multiple-choice tests. The Commission is also right to draw attention to some of the ways learning can be experiential, like:

  • Civic projects,
  • Service-learning, 
  • Student government, 
  • Debate training, and
  • Participatory budgeting.  

The Commission wraps up with the following: 

“As we approach the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, civic education must do more than teach names and dates, or even impart hands-on experience. The American citizen today must be prepared to acknowledge our nation’s mistakes, to recognize that we have grappled over time to improve our imperfect union, to find pride in those struggles, and to recognize that at our best, everyone is included. We suggest that citizens today must be able to deal with ongoing debate and argument, be able to engage in that debate, find compromise, and from it all find their own love of country.” 

America in Transition

An Iraqi Kurdish woman in exile in London places a rose atop a ballot box after casting her vote.  We all need to be this excited about voting.
In 2005, I was privileged to witness the exiled Iraqi Kurdish community in London voting in the first post-Saddam Iraqi election. Regardless of what has happened since, getting this excited about voting is something to aspire to.

All of the Commission’s recommendations under this strategy can help shift the US from a culture of political and democratic disengagement and of extreme polarization. National service can teach us to work together with a diverse cross-section of our peers, and breed an ethos of civic participation. A national story we can all get behind would go a long way toward reconciling our red and blue realities and relieving some of our cynicism. Developing a culture of participatory democracy with rituals and intentionally civic-oriented forms of work, play, conversation, and gathering can create an ecosystem of involvement. Using the practical tools we have to market our democracy to ourselves and to demonstrate reconciliation between Camp Red and Camp Blue can bring us together and turn us out in numbers we haven’t seen in generations. And teaching and learning the nuts and bolts of our participatory system of government is an absolute no-brainer.  

All of these recommendations would work in part by showing people doing what we would like to see more people doing. People do what they see other people doing. It’s like monkey see, monkey do, but with great apes.  

National service would develop a continuously renewed cohort of participants demonstrating an ethos of service and graduates demonstrating the ability to work together. Telling our national story can give us role models of civic engagement. Some of the best of them are currently lost in the shuffle of history but should be given roles as exemplars of democracy. By its very nature, creating a culture of democratic engagement will show us our peers practicing Dewey’s democratic faith. Advertising largely works by showing us how fun and rewarding others find a particular activity or item. If we can make it look like all the cool kids are doing civics, we’ll probably want to do it, too. And a good education in civics will be full of watching people participate in and enjoy the fruits of our democratic system.  

All of the Commission’s strategies and recommendations are interdependent. A culture shift toward engagement and mutual respect must take place within the context of improving equality of voice and representation, empowering voters, improving the responsiveness of political institutions, reinvigorating civil society, and reforming our digital public square. But all of these are also dependent on a cultural shift. Very little can happen in a vaper locked political culture.  

Though cultural shift is the last of the strategies outlined by the Commission, in some ways, it must be our starting place as citizens. As an individual, one has little power to expand the House of Representatives or legislate social media companies into creating a virtual public interest space. But one can participate in service. One can work within one’s community to tell our messy national story. One can create rituals of voting, writing to representatives, and going to town meetings in one’s own life One can advertise one’s participation in the process and market it to one’s social circle. And one can learn and teach our system of government.  

We’re all part of the culture in the US. We’re all responsible for shifting it.  

Part Six: Internets in the Public Interest

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the 21st Century highlights many things that are wrong in our democracy. Our institutions aren’t as representative as they could be. Our voting system is antiquated. Our politicians aren’t responsive. Our civil society is dwindling. These issues are either long term trends or the result of baked-in functions whose time has passed. The most dramatic and recent problem for our democracy has cropped up over the last 20 years— the internets.  

Surely a network that was already so vast in 2005 should operate in the public interest.
Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on opte.org. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines are indicative of the delay between those two nodes. This graph represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in early 2005. The Opte Project / CC BY

(I use the term internets because it amuses me, but also because it is more accurate to the current situation. We have a multitude of internets, each increasingly siloed from the others.)

If American democracy was on shaky ground already, the advent of social media has been an earthquake.  

Things started with such promise! Back when my household got its first computer, circa 1995, the internet was going to make everything better. Surely a more connected society would be a more democratic society. Surely the chance for individuals to know people from all over the world and from all walks of life would render our society fairer, more just, and more equitable. Early adopters saw a bright future ahead for all of humanity.   

Back in the early days, we all thought the internet would just automatically serve the public interest.
The early days. Microsoft / Public domain

That was before everyone was online, and we discovered that human vitriol and relative anonymity are a combination forged in hell. Before we all learned how shockingly credulous we are in the aggregate. Before bad actors figured out what spies have known forever: the most effective hack is done on hearts and minds, not machines.  

It is boggling even to begin to think about how to fix the ensuing mess. But the commission rightly points out that we, as humans and as Americans, have created these systems. There is no reason (bar a lack of political will) we can’t change them for the better.  

Perhaps the first step touches on the commission’s second (5.2, tax the advertising online and create public platforms) and third (5.3, regulate private platforms to dedicate spaces to public interest applications) recommendations. Before we can get down to business, we have to reengage with the ideas of a public good and the public interest. When TV started, it was understood that broadcasters were using airwaves that belonged to the public. That is, to every person in the country. Therefore, they owed it to the public to produce programming in the public interest, and they paid for the privilege.    

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of this principle. And with the advent of the internets, we seem to have lost track of it entirely.  

Perhaps it is because the public good is a little harder to identify. Facebook, Google, and Twitter don’t use the public airwaves, so what right have we the people to regulate them? I submit that our collective data is every bit as much a public good as airwaves, national forests, BLM land, and our coastal fisheries. We may sign away rights to our personal data when we sign up for an account, but our collective data belongs to the public as a whole. And if a company is going to monetize it, they should incur both taxes and fees, and an obligation to provide for the public interest.  

All that is without even getting into the idea that the internet itself is a sort of international public good.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and What's App (pictured as keys on a keyboard) should serve the public interest, since they are taking advantage of public goods.
They may not use the airwaves, but they use the public’s information. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Once this is understood, taxing these companies to fund public alternatives (a PBS of social media platforms, if you will) and regulating them to serve the public interest on their platforms is fair. They’re using data that belongs to we the people. They should pay for the privilege and use it in a way that benefits us, or we’ll sell it to someone else.  

The commission’s other recommendations in this strategy (5, Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose) have to do with: 

  • how we determine that public interest (5.1), 
  • how we gather data to see if it is being met (5.4), 
  • and developing a data source and clearinghouse for research that supports social and civic infrastructure (5.5).  

These are by far the most technical of the commission’s recommendations. A working group (5.1) to “…articulate and measure social media’s civic obligations…” would be a great start. The commission uses the analogy of railroad gauges when talking about creating interoperability between social media platforms. That recommendation (5.4) is primarily concerned with giving researchers and the government access to the data social media platforms are garnering on us. The final recommendation in this strategy is to create the Democratic Engagement Project, a space hosted by a university or consortium of institutions where extensive data gathered on democratic engagement can be studied, including longitudinally.  

In his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then FCC Chair Newton N. Minow (pictured) called TV a vast wasteland, and extolled programing in the public interest.
Newton N. Minow, JFK’s Chair of the FCC, described TV as a vast wasteland in a speech in 1961, laying out the need for more broadcasting in the public interest. The words are certainly apt for the internets. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Unfortunately, the United States has become so polarized that even ideas like a public good and the public interest are political. That makes implementing at least three of these ideas (taxes and fees to fund public social media, regulations providing for public areas in established social media, and interoperability and access to data) hopes for the future. In the current political climate, they are going nowhere.  

Our polarization stymies some of the steps to fix our polarization.  

But perhaps this situation won’t last forever. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We think of ourselves, the public, as powerless before the titanic forces unleashed by the internets. We resign ourselves to a toxic sea of misinformation, slander, hatred, and aggrieved whining as if there is nothing we can do about it. In reality, the internets and everything we put into them are ours. We should take them back.  

Part Five: Civil Society

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

I first encountered the term civil society in college, taking International Relations classes. Developing countries tended to have weak civil society institutions. It was one of the reasons their governance was so often dysfunctional.  

A graphic of a fairly big group of people demonstrating diverse races, ethnicities, disabilities, clothing, religious affiliation, etc.  Civil society teaches respect for diversity, not only in the ways we tend to think of it, but also diversity of personal attributes like attitude, mien, friendliness, and opinion.
Civil society is a nebulously defined concept. It can mean the third sector of society. If there is a public sector and a private sector, there must surely be a personal sector, right? But it is also frequently used to mean the full range of non-governmental, non-workplace activities, communities, and groups. It can additionally have connotations of components of liberal democracy, such as freedom of speech and association. The term covers the organizations that we typically think of as NGOs, such as Red Cross/Red Crescent, MSF (Doctor’s Without Borders), and Oxfam, but also includes very localized groups that aren’t issue-centered, such as book clubs and walking groups.

Without a substantial sector of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), there were no institutions formally and informally holding government accountable. Without miniature democracies operating in communities, like Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), book clubs, and environmental interest groups, citizens had no place to gain confidence in processes used in national, state, and local government, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. And without the stability of groups, community voices on issues waxed and waned depending on a given individual’s ability to commit time and energy. All of that is not even to mention the empowerment of simply belonging to a group.  

As with so many things that I learned in my international relations classes, it was only later that I fully realized that my country has this problem, too.  

The book cover of Bowling Alone.  All the way back in 2000, author Robert Putnam documented an alarming decline in civil society in the United States.

In my senior year, I did a paper on Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone (2000).  In it, he documented an alarming decline in civil society in the US. We used to have powerful community connections in this country. When my parents were growing up, concerned (mostly) moms nearly overpopulated PTAs. Membership in clubs like Elks, Kiwanas, and Rotary was commonplace. Most people attended some variety of religious services regularly. As the title suggests, bowling leagues were a popular way to engage with one’s community. Though many of these activities weren’t political, and were sometimes specifically apolitical, they kept participants informed of developments in the community in ways that made apparent the importance of politics in everyday life. They also connected people with different political perspectives.  

When Putnam wrote his book in 2000, all of these types of activities had witnessed a massive decline in membership and participation. I’m not versed in current numbers, but recent statistics on loneliness in America tell me the situation isn’t much improved.  

Our democracy is suffering for it.  

If nothing else, we have forgotten the importance of the civil part of civil society. Growing up with a strong community both in my school and in my home, I learned a lot about civility. One of the key insights I think many people have forgotten is that one doesn’t have to like everyone in one’s community. I have seen people jettison all the benefits of a community experience because they dislike one individual. We’ve forgotten how to be civil towards people we don’t like. One doesn’t have to like everyone. We’ve forgotten how to thrive in an environment with diverse personalities, perspectives, and mannerisms. It has made us altogether too willing to write a whole group off because one person has opinions we disagree with, a nature we see as ornery, or are just annoying. It has rendered us unable to collaborate or compromise, particularly at a political level. It has created a vacuum of identity in our lives that is too easily filled by the knee-jerk remonstrances of tribal politics.  

Be Kind written in sidewalk chalk.  Being members of a community, as found in civil society, can help us be kinder people.
Being a member of a community can help us be kinder people. Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

The last three strategies, with their attendant recommendations, in Our Common Purpose, the report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, focus on civil society, rather than the mechanics of government. We can make our government more representative (Strategy 1), fix our voting systems (Strategy 2), and improve our infrastructure for participation in democracy, such as public meetings (Strategy 3), all we like. But if the people don’t buy-in, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Buy-in comes from civil society (Strategy 4); in the modern world, it comes from functional social media (Strategy 5); and it comes from culture, with its norms and expectations (Strategy 6).  

Strategy 4 in the report is to dramatically expand civic bridging capacity. I know roughly what the Commission is getting at, but it is hard to pinpoint what that means. What is civic bridging? What gap is being bridged? Do they mean the space between civil society and participation in governance? Or do they mean the chasm between involvement and non-involvement, period?  

The recommendations provide some insight:

  • 4.1, Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy. 
  • 4.2, Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy. 

The first one is about creating the literal, physical space for civil society to operate. Book clubs, bible studies, environmental groups, and local issue groups need meeting rooms in libraries, parks with walking paths, affordable coffee shops, rec centers, picnic tables, etc. In other words, real places where they can meet, have uninterrupted conversations, hold seminars, host get-togethers, have conferences, and interact. In my observation, the density and safety of these resources vary by the income of the community. The Committee specifies that funding should go to under-resourced communities.  

An image of a community room with windows for walls in Richland, WA.  Civil society needs places like this to meet, organize, and gather.
Civil society needs common spaces for meetings, like this space in the Richland, Washington Community Center. Lori Ehlis / CC BY-SA

This is pretty straightforward. If one wants a civil society, one needs places for it to happen. We should never forestall community building for mere lack of space. It benefits democracy that such things should happen, and the infrastructure is a good investment.  

The second recommendation is a little trickier. Who counts as part of the civic one-million? Does one’s organization have to be explicitly civic, or do other parts of civil society, such as book clubs and walking groups, count? Is the Commission calling for foundations (and whoever else is part of the ‘range of funders’) to exclusively help with leadership training expenses? What other kinds of funding might be called for, here? Investing in these NGOs could mean funding many different types of activities.  

Whatever the details, both recommendations are sound, but I have the same concerns that I did for Strategy 3, Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions. The average American may or may not have more leisure time on her hands now than she did in previous decades.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says more, but it sure feels like less. And to make it worse, when humans think that a resource is scarce, be it food, friends, time, or money, we tend to get trapped in short-term thinking and make poor choices, ironically garnering us even less of that resource.  

If we don’t have time or just feel like we don’t have time, we aren’t going to invest in civil society as individuals, no matter what the government or foundations do. And if we have forgotten how to deal with community members that just aren’t our favorites, we aren’t likely to flock to community activities.  

The Slytherin logo from Harry Potter.  Putting all the people we don't like into one house, like in Harry Potter, doesn't do much for our ability to work together as part of civil society.
Of course, unlike in Harry Potter, we can’t just
put all the people we don’t like into Slytherin.

I would propose two additions to the Committee’s recommendations here. One would be to emphasize community in schools. It’s easy to avoid learning to operate within a community when you go to a high school with thousands of classmates. If schools can’t be smaller, there should be schools within schools. We could have houses, like Harry Potter, but without the boarding in a giant magical castle. Learning to cope with and, indeed, value people we disagree with or simply find disagreeable is a skill best learned in youth.  

The other would be to strengthen legislation regarding the eight hour day and to increase the minimum wage. For many, if not most, salaried workers, the eight hour day is a sort of beautiful theory that never makes it into practice. If one works overtime, one should get paid for overtime, and overtime shouldn’t be the norm. There is a reason our forebearers fought, bled, and died striking for the eight hour day. Work should be part of our lives. A big part of our lives. But not our whole lives. And hourly workers should not be working two or three jobs to make ends meet or need food assistance while working full time.  

Until we address the scarcity, or even just the feeling of scarcity, of time, and re-learn how to deal with a diverse range of personalities, I posit that our civil society and government will continue to ail.  

Part Four: Too Busy to be the Public?

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Jefferson County, Colorado, where I live, is having a virtual public ‘meeting’ about changes to one of the main drags through my town. They’ve done some work trying to promote it, sending postcards to impacted neighborhoods, making a few announcements on social media, and using the mobile traffic message signs (points for creativity). There is a YouTube video outlining two proposals, one that our community can afford, and one that we can’t. The public can give feedback via Survey Monkey. Because these are preliminary proposals, there isn’t much detailed information on the environmental impacts. The residents most impacted may or may not be tech-savvy enough to comment. I found out about this on Monday, and the window for input closes on the 29th.  

If you’re an Evergreen resident, and you’re reading this, you should probably watch this sooner rather than later.

Why does it feel like this decision is already made?  

The county is also currently accepting applications to engage in government by being on one of its many volunteer boards and commissions. These boards and committees handle essential stuff: the Jefferson Center for Mental Health board, the board of health, the housing authority board, the open space advisory committee. Twenty-two boards and commissions are looking to fill 63 plus positions.  

One of the questions on the application reads: 

“By clicking the box marked ‘Yes’ I acknowledge that I have read and understand the duties and functions of the board or commission, including the duties and obligations of persons serving as a member of this board or commission, and that the board or commission may, at times, require several hours per week outside normally scheduled meetings and hearings to perform site visits, review staff reports, attend programs, workshops, or training.”

There are unusual people who, after a long day at work and potentially a long commute, a second job, or kid’s activities, are raring to go to a meeting, hearing, or site visit. They can muster enthusiasm for reviewing staff reports and attending programs, workshops, and training. But let’s be honest. That isn’t most of us.  

A woman juggles items symbolic of things that keep her busy, a clock, children's shoes, a phone, money, a house, a weight, a bottle, etc.  The public is very busy.
Holding government accountable sounds great, until we remember our lives feel like this. Image via Adobe Stock.

Civic involvement is a tough sell.  

W.B. Yeats said that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” in his apocalyptic poem that seems more and more suited to 2020. I don’t want to badmouth the people involved in local boards and commissions or attending public hearings. For one thing, not doing those things myself, I don’t have the right to talk. But it should hardly surprise us that often the most vehement are the loudest, or indeed only, voices representing public opinion.  

My dad, who is a civil engineer, has many stories about how ill-informed (and sometimes absurd) the debate is at the many public meetings he has attended. My favorite is the woman who fiercely opposed paving a park parking lot because her dog preferred walking on dirt. Mind you, they were talking about the parking lot, not the trails. There are valid reasons to oppose paving a parking lot. That isn’t one of them.

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship outlines four recommendations for ensuring the responsiveness of political institutions, which is the general purpose of public meetings and voluntary board positions. Apparently, new meeting formats can help expand participation and minimize the domination of well-organized groups and deterioration into gripe-fests so common in public meetings.  

A white goose is shown on a field of green grass.  She appears to be complaining.  Some people just come to public to complain.
Sometimes, people only show up to complain. Image courtesy pixabay.com user Didgeman / 2376 images .

The commission recommends expanding their adoption and leaving real room for public input instead of making the decisions and having the meetings only for show. They also suggest expanding the information available about local government issues, including adding translated summaries of meetings where appropriate; making sure to announce meetings well ahead of time; and scheduling them when most people can attend.  

And that’s all within Recommendation 3.1: Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.

The commission recommends having members of congress engage with a random sampling of their constituents to have an informed and substantive conversation about policy at least quarterly (3.2). Participants would have the chance to interact personally with their representative. This sounds like governance by focus group.  Focus groups are of debatable value in the era of big data, but they are still prevalent in the marketing industry. Given that it seems we currently have governance by a combination of special interests and polls, focus groups could hardly do worse.  

There is no way for someone to represent nearly 750,000 constituents fully. Focus groups may be susceptible to groupthink, often dominated by the most outgoing, and have too small a sample size to garner valid data. Still, I would feel better if my congressperson had to talk to real people every so often.  

If one congressional representative can’t engage with even a substantial sample of their constituents, what are the odds of 435 Representatives meaningfully interacting with all 328.2 million of us? In an expanded version of the focus group idea, the commission recommends Citizen’s Assemblies on issues of national import (5.3). There have been many models of this used in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic) countries just this century. The UK has one going on climate change, and Iceland used a version to set its course after its financial crisis, to name two instances. The system has been used with large enough samples of random citizens to even out some of the individual influence in smaller groups.  

A very large conference room full of randomly selected members of the public is shown.  These citizens are helping to guide the future of Iceland.
A large, randomly selected sample of citizens from across Iceland come together for a day-long discussion. Their discussion informed the National Assembly when it generated overriding principles for a new constitution after the financial crisis. Then around thirty citizens, not formally affiliated with any party, and generally not politicians, were elected to be part of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted the new constitution. Image and explanation courtesy of Flickr.com user Matito.

Finally, the commission recommends implementing similar systems at the state and local level, including approaches like Citizens’ JuriesParticipatory BudgetingDeliberative PollingDialogue to Change, and Citizens’ Initiative Review. All of these approaches have been used successfully in parts of the US or other countries.  

These sound like great ideas, but the commission fails to address what I see as the number one barrier to civic engagement (and thus responsive government) in the US.  

We’re exhausted.  

I was surprised to find that on the whole, we have slightly more leisure time on average than we did in the ’60s. In theory, we should be as well-rested, as ready to engage, as excited to join the PTA, a bowling league, and our civic organizations as that generation. Maybe even more so, since we now have even more theoretically time-saving gadgetry at our disposal, and extensive online networks to help us find other civically-minded people.  

So what gives? I don’t have the resources to test my hypotheses, but here are some ideas about the situation.  

  • The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, relies on self-reporting. I posit that human memory (even recent memory, like yesterday) is a very fallible way to gather this data.  
  • Most women work now. How could that but leave less time for adulting?  
  • As of July 2019, 71% of all nonfarm payroll employees work in private service-providing industries. In 1962, it was 59.1%. Note that the 2019 figure doesn’t include public service-providing jobs. I assert that service jobs, where an employee has to be “on” all day, providing a bright and cheerful demeanor and good customer service, are socially exhausting. It is only the very extroverted who wish to engage with other people after a long day giving excellent customer service.  

If we want a more responsive government, and we really should, we have to figure out why we are all so tired all the time. It will do us no good to implement all four of the commission’s fine recommendations, from the national to the local, if no one will show up.  

If School Can’t Pause, We’re Doing it Wrong

I will return to my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US next week.

Two students are shown in an old photograph shoveling dirt, working on wildfire reclamation for a botany class in school, circa 1996.  Student on right is author.
Experiential learning, back in the day. I’m shown on the right. As part of a botany class, we spent some Saturdays doing wildfire reclamation work in Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

I was really worried when I went to college. Part of my elementary and all of my middle and high school years happened in a public school of choice (like a charter school, but established long before charter schools were a thing) with a radically alternative pedagogy. I hadn’t been formally graded since I transferred to the K-12 school in fifth grade. And I was hung up on the fact that I had never had a US history class.

Classes at the Open School were and are designed to incorporate the classic subject areas (readin’, writin, an’ ‘rithmetic, plus science, social studies, history, language arts, etc.) not by teaching them specifically, but as natural side-effects of deep learning. Courses ranged from the historic and contemporary music of the American South (as a preparatory class for a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) to a group read of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (long after my time, but a perfect example of the type of classes offered). Students also did extensive learning in the classic content areas as they pursued personal projects and self-directed learning experiences.

So, no, I had never had a class that specifically studied US history. I did not have the background that I imagined all the other kids would have from their traditional schools.

The nail in the coffin of those worries came when I spent my sophomore year abroad in Nairobi. I was hanging out one evening with some other American students and some of my Kenyan classmates. One of the Kenyans was studying US history. Having a few handy Americans available, and not wanting to look it up, he asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Of course, I deferred to the kids who had been through a traditional school education. They had no idea. “I’m pretty sure it was 1776,” I told him, still lacking some confidence.

As I have gone on in life, it has become increasingly clear that our school system crams young brains with facts which are retained long enough to be regurgitated on a test, then promptly flushed from memory.

A hand with a pencil taking a standardized test -- the old school paper version, where you had to fill in the little bubbles.
Standardized tests are usually done on computers now, but many of us will remember this format. Image courtesy of flickr.com user Alberto G., used by CC2.0.

In a survey of 41,000 Americans, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (name change pending in the Fall) found that only four in ten Americans had enough historical knowledge to pass the citizenship test. If I’m reading the article correctly (the language is a little ambiguous), that drops to only 27% among those under 45. And mind you, that doesn’t refer to acing the exam, just passing it, even scraping by with a D.

In the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. Alarmingly, this was a significant improvement over years past. In 2017 (I don’t know why they are not citing updated numbers here — maybe they changed the wording or something), more than a third of respondents couldn’t name any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

A graph showing trendlines for results of the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.  Lines are plotted for survey respondents who could name all three branches of government (39% in 2019, a substantial improvement) and those who couldn't name any (22% in 2019, a significant decrease).  Even given that these are improvements more of us should be retaining this information from school.
An encouraging trend — let’s hope it is long-lived.

In the 2017 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), a general test of workplace skills administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans were able to hold their own in literacy, coming in a bit above average. However, adults in the US tested 24th out of 32 countries in numeracy, and only 31.4% of the adults who took the test scored at levels 2 or 3 (the highest) in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

A description of the levels of competency in the Problem-solving in a technology rich environment section of the PIAAC test.  In level 2, adults can - complete problems that have explicit criteria for success, a small number of applications, and several steps and operators - can monitor progress towards a solution and handle unexpected outcomes or impasses.  In level three, adults can - complete tasks involving multiple applications, a large number of steps, impasses, and the discovery and use of ad hoc commands in a novel environment - establish a plan to arrive at a solution and monitor its implementation as they deal with unexpected outcomes and impasses.  
All of these are skills we should be retaining from school.
Description of levels proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Courtesy OECD.

It’s clear that the summer slide that so concerns teachers turns into a permanent slump once students leave school.

Given all this, people are right to be very concerned about switching to distance learning during the pandemic. But it is equally clear that this isn’t just a pandemic problem. Students are not retaining the information and skills they are learning in school, regardless of interruptions.

If our kids can’t even handle summer vacation without falling behind, and if we can’t respond to a public health crisis without jeopardizing their future, shouldn’t we be taking a deeper look at how we teach, instead of just agonizing over how to open schools safely?

A young girl sits in front of a desktop computer screen.  She may be playing a game, or she may be in school in a distance learning sense.
Hragaby / CC BY-SA

We have talked a great talk in recent years about teaching “21st Century Skills” such as critical thinking (which I posit has been a crucial skill throughout history and will continue to be one well beyond the 21st century). Perhaps our performance as adults will improve as more students are graduated from a curriculum that focuses more on such underlying skills.

But what I haven’t heard in articles and from pundits is a discussion of meaning in education. I was very lucky to go to the school that I did. Critical thinking skills have always been an important part of curriculum there, but it’s hard to think critically about something, let alone retain it, if it isn’t imbued with meaning and context.

Talking about meaningful education can sound pretty touchy-feely, but without developing a context of importance to one’s self, one’s various communities, and one’s own history, why would our brain retain facts? We retain what we care about, and it seems to me that many students in our current system aren’t shown very many reasons to care about what they are learning. Teaching to the test means that teachers are swimming upsteam, fighting their hardest to imbue learning with meaning, while the current is constantly sweeping them towards the next content standard.

W.B. Yeats may or may not have said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Plutarch did say “the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” A student who is (metaphorically) on fire gains more knowledge during the summer break, instead of forgetting everything they’ve learned. A student who is on fire might actually benefit from a gap year during the pandemic — it would be a chance to further pursue the things she or he had found most interesting in previous years.

If we choose to use it, this horrible health crisis actually presents us with many opportunities. We can build back a better, more just, more equitable economy. We can rethink commuting. We can use it as a chance to create a national health system that brings us up to the standard of other developed countries. And we can think deeply about how we can create an education experience for our kids that creates context and meaning. An education to remember, if you will.