By Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer
Americans have not only lost confidence in our political system, but have also lost hope that our politics can solve the most important issues facing our country. They have even lost hope that our politicians can discuss these issues civilly.
The hyper partisanship and toxic blame game that we have grown accustomed to and even expect inside the beltway has begun to seep into public life across the country. We the People are starting to behave with greater incivility, following the example of our leaders. This is a real threat to American democracy. When people lose hope, they disengage, give up, and believe that they cannot make a difference.
Democracy is a conversation. One that requires that all voices be present at the table, that all citizens feel free to express their views, and that all participants are confident that they will be listened to respectfully. The field of deliberative democracy has demonstrated time and again that Americans are quite capable of coming together across their differences to discover their collective views on critical policy issues and resource decisions. This is how we behave when we listen to our better angels and are supported to do so.
People are social beings. They respond to the structures and signals of the context they find themselves in. Today too many of our public meetings, and certainly the images that mass media presents us with of ourselves, are exactly the opposite of that respectful exchange and exploration of views. Americans find themselves in structures and processes that support the angry expression of their opinions, with the intention of drowning out anyone who thinks differently than they do. This is how we behave when demagoguery is all we hear and our leaders make incivility seem acceptable.
It is in this context that I am honored to let you know that I have accepted the position of Executive Director of the National Institute of Civil Discourse created at the University of Arizona following the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the winter of 2011. The Institute’s National Advisory Board, led by Honorary Co-chairs former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and its Working Board, led by former Chairman of the U of A Board of Regents, Fred DuVal, have set a powerful course for the Institute. They intend to bring together the best of scholarly research and active practice to improve the health of our civic discourse, to increase Americans active engagement in our public life, and to work directly with political leaders and our democratic institutions to increase civility and solve the most important issues facing our country.
All of you know that I have given heart and soul to AmericaSpeaks over the last 17 years and I could not be more proud of what we have accomplished. I feel profoundly blessed to have worked with so many dedicated people on the AmericaSpeaks staff and Board, its Associates Network, and the more than 5,000 professional process facilitators that donate their time and energy to support the safe, democratic spaces we create for the public to come together to discover their collective priorities.
As I write, I am struck by so many images: of Citizen Summits in Washington, DC; Listening to the City after the tragedy of 9/11; Community Congresses in New Orleans after Katrina and the flooding; healthcare reform in 21 states culminating in CaliforniaSpeaks; Voices and Choices in 16 counties in NE Ohio; setting a real agenda for economic development; Our Budget, Our Economy; the June 2010 National Discussion on Debt and Deficit…I could go on and on.
Now I am crying as I write. It has been an extraordinary gift and privilege to have the opportunity to help Americans be the best that we can be and bring our founders’ vision of self-governance to life. Democracy work in this country is really challenging, even exhausting, but the rewards are awe-inspiring. It is a treasure to experience people discovering their ability to make a difference in the decisions that most impact their lives. To see them feel truly empowered and motivated to stay engaged in the public life of their communities and our nation. Unfortunately, these experiences are still the exception rather than the norm.
All of you who know me know that I would not leave AmericaSpeaks unless I were completely confident that all that we have built together will go forward in the very best hands. As President of AmericaSpeaks, I have been blessed to have a great partner by my side for the past 11 years: Steve Brigham, our Chief Operating Officer. And now, as Founder of the organization, I could not be more pleased to pass the baton to Steve. He is a wonderful leader. He has been integral to many of the breakthroughs in our work and has been Project Executive on many of our most important initiatives, most recently the One City Summit here in Washington, DC. Steve has asked me to stay on the AmericaSpeaks Board of Directors and I look forward to discovering strategic opportunities for collaboration between AmericaSpeaks and the National Institute of Civil Discourse.
Steve and I were discussing the changes at AmericaSpeaks with many of our long time Associates, and one said that she did not see this as me leaving the work of AmericaSpeaks, but rather creating the opportunity for all of us to expand our work on the health of democracy. She is exactly right. What’s changing is that my passion and my voice will now be leveraged from a different platform.
What is most important to me is the community of AmericaSpeaks supporters: our colleagues in the field, Associates, facilitators, funders, sponsors, community partners, and all those Americans whose lives have been touched by our work stay committed to continuing on this shared journey to a stronger democracy where people’s voices really matter. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for sharing a deep and abiding belief in the idea that is America and for realizing the vision of self-governance embedded in our founding documents. Thank you.
Next week, Steve Brigham, who will be AmericaSpeaks‘ new President as of July 1st, will formally introduce himself to all of you and share his goals for the organization going forward. Stay Tuned!
For more information, read the AmericaSpeaks press release announcing Steve Brigham as its new President.