Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.John F. Kennedy
America has always been a bold experiment in self-governance. Yet the foundations that sustain a healthy and functioning democracy are under severe stress. Belief in the value and credibility of institutions that are the embodiment of American democracy is at historic lows. Discourse is weaponized to inflame rather than construct. The very notion of truth is challenged, and facts dismissed as irrelevant. Participation in organizations which have historically brought people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together is in decline. The rise of the digital sphere has brought with it new possibilities for participation and inclusion yet simultaneously exacerbated existing cleavages and birthed potent new threats.
We are launching the Civic Innovation Center at the School of Public Policy in the aftermath of the most consequential election in generations. We do so with the commitment to tackle our democracy’s big challenges but also to sustain the incredible energy of the greatest voter turnout in a century.
With divided and polarized communities, institutions under stress, and growing doubt that our democracy serves the public interest, our country urgently needs engaged people who are empowered to fully participate in democratic processes. Institutions of higher education, particularly land-grant universities with public service at the core of their mission, have a special role to play in restoring our civic health. They possess the ability to instill the knowledge, values, and skills for civic engagement that last a lifetime. They also are uniquely able to push the notion of civic engagement beyond current ways of thinking and doing, with potential impact well beyond campus boundaries. Given today’s challenges, we need not just people who are civically engaged, but innovators who will transform how we interact with each other and the world around us.
We will examine and help to strengthen the foundations of civic health on the University of Maryland campus and the greater Prince George’s County community. We will contribute our voice and our resources to important debates about civic education, civic engagement, and needed democratic reforms in the state of Maryland, in partnership with our BIG10 colleagues, and in the nation’s capital. And we will work to build the connective tissue that connects students, scholars and practitioners across institutional, geographic and ideological divides.
The last four years have awakened many Americans to the reality that democracy is not a spectator sport and it doesn’t just happen every four years like the Olympics. We must set the bar as high for mid-terms as we do for Presidential elections. And we must fill the spaces between elections not just by voting but by joining, learning, speaking, engaging. By connecting. This is the founding mission of CivIC. I hope you will join us.
Director, Civic Innovation Center