Changes: Collaboration and Willpower for Civic Life

We’re opening up the conversation. The community around Politicolor has always been at its best when it was able to exchange ideas, share experiences and think through all of that together. Activity here has been slow as Shellee consulted with community members to imagine what it might look like to have a collaborative space online where all of that could still happen despite the distances between us.

Introducing our online community where an engaged citizenry is more than a recurring theme. It’s our shared project.

The people who make self-government work, by recruiting and supporting an engaged citizenry often do that work feeling exhausted, unappreciated and alone. We are shifting gears at Politicolor so we can provide a mission-focused community and collaborative learning experiences to connect these individuals with one another, creating a shared focus on what we know about what works and why it matters.

This collaborative effort of the civic-minded will leverage a mission-focused community to…

  • Keep you fired up to do the work you do with regular boosts for your own political willpower
  • Test your ideas and deepen your understanding of American political thought and constitutionalism
  • Think through and share ideas with the professional peers beyond the cubicle or classroom next door

We’re just getting started with a small group of beta-users this summer. While there’s a newsfeed that looks like all the other newsfeeds, the quality of the content shared and the conversations initiated represent a real opportunity to level-up when it comes to our work as civic practitioners.

What does that mean for this space?

Expect it to change! We will be redesigning it and it might get a little glitchy while we do. We are still committed to sharing what we have learned through individual work in local communities and through our collective inquiries. You will find all our latest articles in our Politicolor publication on Medium. You can request an invite to the collaborative community space and join the less formal conversation there.

We are also publishing a newsletter every other week to help you follow our work across the web. Use the form on the right to send us your email so we can keep you posted.

Let’s Talk More: Bringing Ben Franklin Circles to Austin

Waiting for the meeting at Austin’s Central Library

As it turns out, the discussion about temperance wasn’t as outdated as it seemed. Or boring!

With five months behind us, the Ben Franklin Circle meeting in Austin continues to work to surprising conclusions. We started with temperance but have now made an inquiry of justice, order, moderation and cleanliness. I facilitate the discussion but often find myself surprised by all the places we go when we connect with one another on Ben Franklin’s big ideas about a well-lived life.

Our most recent meeting focused on frugality. We were on the verge of the summer with all the buzz that brings to the table. Big trips planned. A new hobby to try while it’s nice outside. Old hobbies that need to be dusted off and invested in again. And yet we had 8 people show up on a weeknight to talk about Ben Franklin’s quip:

Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; ie. Waste nothing.

The conversation moved quickly from generational differences to cultural comparisons. It looked pretty bleak at times. One participant played the part of cost analysis and insisted that no one really cared about anything but the bottom line. How much does something cost and how much of it can I get for myself without paying as much as the next guy? Another participant suggested that we live in an age of plenty where no one really has to be as frugal as their grandparents once were. We all waxed nostalgic over different traditions of generosity and charity.

Answering the question about being cheap vs. being frugal seemed easy. Not everything is about cost. When we shift the conversation to value and aligning our choices to what we know matters most, we start to see our choices differently.

There’s no virtue in saving a fortune if there’s no values guiding what you do.

Our next meeting at Austin’s Central Library is July 12th. We’ll be talking about tranquility. Join us if you can or do us a favor and send your Austin friends our way.

[Read more about the larger project of Ben Franklin Circles (meting across the country) and our first discussion about temperance here.]


It’s time to act. Heather Heyer updated her Facebook page shortly before she was murdered by racial hate in Charlottesville this weekend. She added the quote, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”

Be outraged. Find a cause in your community and become an active agent working toward the future we believe is ours. Remember Heather.

This Week’s Canvas: Something is Burning

August 11, 2017

Returning to the fight to find something smart to read and we’re keeping our cool. No easy feat given the climate change report leaked recently suggests it’s nothing but record-setting high temps from here on out. Maybe devastation is the new black. Let’s see what we can figure out about how we got here.

North Korea WTH (also DJTWTH)

Is there anyone with more than WTH to say about the escalating war of words between North Korea and President Trump? I thought that was the only rational response until NYT’s new(-ish) podcast, The Daily, came to my rescue. The show’s host, Michael Barbora, interviewed former Secretary of Defense William Perry and asked much smarter questions than mine. Listen to the episode, “What a 1999 Meeting with North Korea Tells Us About Today” and have more context for this debate than most all of your friends.

Rolling Stone offers a timeline of events in the region while The Atlantic walks through four options of what might happen next. Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Sudan University in Shanghai, sees little hope for negotiating a deal with China:

Shen also dismissed the notion of a mega-deal between China and the United States, less because it wasn’t feasible than because the goal of such an agreement would be futile. North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “impossible to stop,” he told me, “just like it was impossible to stop American nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Chinese nuclear weapons, impossible to stop Israel’s nuclear weapons, Indian nuclear weapons, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.


Poverty Forever

Several outlets have run headlines suggesting the White House is quietly accomplishing many things while everyone else waits for the next presidential tweet to drop. All the policy headlines seem to add up to making it harder and harder to be poor. In an opinion piece for Time, Wes Moore writes “The War on Poverty Has Become a War on the Poor.”

This nation needs a battle plan so our poor citizens can fight their way into prosperity. Instead, after decades of inconsistent policies and disparaging rhetoric, the 45 million Americans living in poverty today are more vulnerable than at any point in this nation’s history.

And the vulnerabilities keep stacking up. Check out The Hill’s report that 81 institutions working to prevent teen pregnancy just learned that their five year grants would be cut off after receiving only three years of funds. The U.S. has a maternal mortality rate higher than any other developed country in the world and complications of unplanned pregnancies is one of the reasons. Then there’s “gutting” the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development as cities across the country face affordable housing shortages. Housing is harder to find, there’s little help available and the plan is to cut more.

If I had more time I’d dig up that quote about, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”


The State of the Opioid Crisis

All the speculation over whether or not President Trump would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency sent me looking for more information. I know it’s bad and people are suffering but I didn’t know what to make of this particular decision. Last February, Frontline took on the question, “How bad is the opioid epidemic?,” and effectively drew a chalk outline around the answer.

By Frankie Leon

One statistic that I had to read and re-read and still don’t quite understand:

12 states have more opioid prescriptions than people

If you read the previous section on poverty, you might be able to predict the states that made the list: Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma… There seems to be a trend but it’s also more widespread than you might think, cutting across demographics and geography.

The Washington Post then answered the question of what a declaration of emergency makes possible. Mostly, more money. States and localities can use the federal government’s Disaster Relief Fund to cover drug treatment and overdose-reversal medication. It could also make it easier to navigate around federal regulations that make it more difficult to get treatment.

If the current crisis is causing death rates comparable to the AIDS epidemic, maybe we should ask how we can improve our response rate this time. That requires federal funds and a strategy. I imagine I’m not alone in feeling this is the right answer even if I am unsure about what strategy would be the most effective. And when I say I “feel” it, I’m telling you that I still experience a wave of sadness whenever I hear a Prince song and am reminded of his loss. Casual attitudes about our prescription habits have delivered people deeper and deeper into a situation that quickly spirals out of their control.

It’s time to confront what we think we know about addicts and people who die from drug overdoses. They look more like us and our family members than we might imagine. The Science of Us has a treatment plan for all of us and it’s a doozy.

Combating the stigma of addiction may require a two-pronged approach, one that requires open discussion about mental-health issues on a policy level, while also forcing us to address our individual prejudices. Recognizing and stopping addiction when it happens is about being more aware and staying connected to one another — and this applies as much to our homes as it does to the communities we live in.

Want to fight fires? Find a way to connect with the people in your community. Follow those ups and downs like you watch what your high school friends are up to on Facebook.

National Academy 2017: Questions, Answers and More Questions

In today’s political forum, no one is looking to start another argument. It’s still true, however, that a good argument can make all the difference in what happens next.

Good arguments require connecting ideas. Listening to one another and thinking through a logical framework together. When we avoid arguing reasonably together, we also turn away the connectedness and empathy it cultivates.

Sadly, Election 2016 has us all imagining partisan battle stations with perfectly calibrated talking points. One good argument could bridge the gap between fighting one another and thinking together. Good arguments rely on good questions. One good question could prove to be an invitation to connect rather than divide.

Occidental’s Greek Theater, photo by Keith Gall

This year’s National Academy for Civics and Government started with the question, “What are you for?” The Academy is best understood as a three-week exploration into what it means to take constitutional science seriously and then to apply to understanding how the American system came to be. What is the United States of America for? The twenty-one Citizen-Scholars who convened at Occidental College this summer had written their own answers when applying for the Academy. At our first session, they each had the option of recalling what they had written previously or to submit a new answer in the moment.

The usual suspect of fake news, limited political knowledge and extreme partisanship played leading roles in the questions that appeared alongside their FOR statements. These Citizen-Scholars devoted nearly half their summer to a serious course of study because they are FOR truth, engaged citizens, media literacy and political leadership. After these introductions, Professor Will Harris launched into the Academy’s opening session with reading the Declaration of Independence as a clear statement of a people who are FOR good government.

Final Presentations: Finding Answers and New Questions

With renewed authority, the scholars of the National Academy presented their own “findings” of at the end of the institute. A proposal for a new national anthem wove together the work of Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, John Locke and Cicero and found harmony in between the melodies of “This Little Light of Mine,” “Fight the Power, “ and “Change is Going to Come.” Another team took Madison’s idea of revising and amending the U.S. Constitution (as opposed to adding another item to a list of amendments at the end of the document). The makeover yielded an Article IV that addressed a specific understanding of U.S. citizenship. Another panel of scholars gave the document the color treatment, applying the system Madison outlines in Federalist 37 for reviewing the proposed government. They assigned each category of review its own color and then analyzed the “color signature” of each article.

Photo from L.A.’s Natural History Museum (by Keith Gall)

As the complexity of the American system came into full view, one team of scholars traced the concept of equality through time, from Cicero and Aristotle to Locke, Jefferson, and the 14th amendment. They considered how the definition and different aspects of the concept combined to identify the purpose of government and define its role in society. The final panel of citizen-scholars took on the task of writing a new pledge, a credal affirmation, that would focus on promoting citizenship rather than saluting a symbol. They called their proposal a promise rather than a pledge and promoted it as an invitation to learn more about the founding documents it referenced and the commitments they represent.

The unsettled world had not grown any more quiet during the three weeks of the National Academy. The world still managed to look different to he citizen-scholars who had worked together to puzzle over hard questions. They returned to their own institutions of higher learning with new questions like how to create an “inter-text” dialogue where individuals, “debate the ideas of the texts using reason and empathy” and “what are the ways in which today’s environment might ultimately be good for Democracy and Constitutional Government?”

Questions of fatigue and despair had given way to questions with possibilities. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.

The Citizen-Scholars of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government

The citizen-scholars (and civic educators) of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government are:

Melissa Ackerman, Las Vegas, NV

Victoria Allen, Greensboro, NC

Scott Arronowitz, Keene, NH

Janet Bordelon, Palo Alto, CA

Angie Cosimano, Virginia Beach, VA

Amrita Dani, Boston, MA

Analia Escamilla, Salinas, CA

Cheryl Fleming, Brooklyn, NY

Adam Horos, Grand Rapids, MI

Michael Jackson, Swartz Creek, MI

Dennis Kass, Chicago, IL

Ross Ketchum, Dubois, WY

Erik Korling, Sacramento, CA

Amy Medlock-Greene, Irmo, SC

Tyler Nice, Springfield, OR

Andrew Orzel, Alexandria, VA

Dirk Schexnaydre, Geismar, LA

Jeanne Schierstedt, Racine, WI

Luke Schlehuber, Miami, FL

Emily Stout, Raleigh, NC

Steven Wang, Gainesville, GA

Christine Wilson, Washington, D.C.

Civic Perspective and the Cosmos

“‘Come!’ said Africanus, ‘how long will your mind be chained to the Earth?'”

Before setting out for Los Angeles, the scholars invited to the National Academy for Civics in Government read the Dream of Scipio. It’s about finding perspective. Where you look for answers shapes what you believe you know about the question.  Those chains can tie us down to the wrong question.

In a previous post, we turned to a contemporary space traveler to emphasize the point. From astronaut Michael Collins’s 1974 book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey:

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.

An update from this year’s National Academy is in the works. It’s all about how we see and what we know. It’s a three-week adventure of cosmic proportions.

This Week’s Canvas: On Getting Things Right

There’s no magic trick for picking three stories to put at the top of the concerned citizen’s reading list. I struggle to survive the daily deluge of news just like everyone else. I often fiddle with the idea that this week was the week when it became impossible. Fortunately there was one headline this round that kept me focused:

What if Politicians Studied the Social Fabric like Economists Study GDP: One of Washington’s most conservative legislators on an age of polarization, inequality and fragmentation

I took the bait before I read the last word. What if? What if politicians and partisans took some responsibility for maintaining trust in our institutions? What if we all worked hard at getting things right and let the party’s wins depend on that?

And then I had this week’s list. Here’s hoping that Senator Lee’s project continues to be interesting to follow.

 It’s not Watergate

You may have noticed a new name in the headlines. Riding a blast from the past, writers jumped right over affixing a “-gate” to things and started comparing Trump’s White House to Richard Nixon’s. There are echoes, smoking guns and secret tapes to prove this is how impeachment starts. A fair comparison, however, might be more difficult than the talking points allow.

Bob Woodward talked about the comparison with the Washington Post:

It’s clearly a legitimate investigation, and Trump doesn’t like it. We’ll see. Some people think it’s a coverup already. Others think there’s no evidence, and let’s see. And what’s worrisome to a reporter interested in getting facts is, this is so polarized, this is so emotional. This is driven by tweets and assertions from people who don’t really know. It’s too bad we live in this Internet culture of impatience and speed, and it does not set us on the road to gathering facts.

Getting caught up in the pace of these comparisons makes it easy to forget that stable government requires meeting a high bar for impeachment charges. That’s one way to know it isn’t a witch hunt.

The Problem with Pre-Existing Conditions

Something that seems to have dropped out of the headlines is the American HealthCare Act. The U.S. House celebrated passing it like it was a done deal but now the Senate has it and no one is talking about it. Slate suggested it’s the Senate’s strategy to act busy. Very busy. There’s lots of legislating to do and the road ahead is complicated with many Republican concerns to navigate. The party isn’t wasting this time though. They have launched an ad campaign to shape what Americans think about the proposal even though our elected representatives seem to be a bit fuzzy on important questions like who wins and who loses. There’s also the strategy of skipping the questions.

Politics as team sport isn’t nearly as important here as understanding what the proposed changes might mean to you. Lifehacker waded through all the muck about pre-existing conditions to get straight to the point:

The ACA didn’t define pre-existing conditions, either, because it essentially outlawed the concept. Insurers had to set their rates for entire groups of people based on age and smoking status—”community rating”—and couldn’t charge you a different price due to your health status.

The new health care bill removes that provision. If a state asks for a waiver, then insurers in that state can use health status to set premiums again. For young and healthy folks, insurance will be cheap. But as soon as you get some kind of health problem, you’re in trouble. If you ever have a gap in coverage and need to go shopping again, you could find that the price of coverage is astronomical.

There’s also a concern about drafting healthcare legislation like this without including women in the working group. That tricky question about requiring maternity coverage doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone involved in drafting the legislation. See what they did there? When your “optics” are bad, there’s a good chance your policies are too.

Remembering History Like it Makes a Difference

Working to get our history right seems like a fitting task for a Memorial Day weekend. The last of the Confederate monuments came down in New Orleans this week. The effort overcame courtroom challenges and persisted despite the armed opponents that gathered in public parks. Politicolor already pointed to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s eloquent remarks about the opportunities that come to us when we face the “searing truth” of our history and a NYT Opinion piece gave Landrieu credit for “putting some poetry back in public life.” Here’s another gentle nudge to make time for this story this week.

Listen to his remarks here. There’s something great about hearing these words, as large as the American project itself, delivered in a local voice. ABC News has video of a statue’s removal and a few interesting pictures too.

What we’ll add here are the personal stories from people who have had to carry the burden of these symbols. From Topsy Chapman, a local musician:

I passed those New Orleans monuments all the time for most of my adult life. It never dawned on me that those statues were really honoring those people. But that point was made clear to me by the people who fought to keep the monuments there.

We know it’s a part of history. It happened. That’s the way things were in those days. But why do you want to hold on to something so evil?

From Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy:
What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are. The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don’t think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.

Landrieu offers a “message about the future.” He sees an opportunity for citizens to work together and lead the country from New Orleans by making it “the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.”

Here’s to a long weekend and the hard work of getting things right.

Together as One People

The original project to unite the people of the United States as one people began in May 1787. There’s a project taking place in New Orleans today that reminds us the project continues. The city started removing Confederate statues in the middle of the night. The original proposal to remove the symbols came in the wake of  the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and encountered countless legal challenges.

The time had come to take the statues down. The opposition gathered with Confederate flags and weapons on display. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke eloquently about why this project was necessary for getting our past right and for building a better future together.

You can’t do any better to remember what our veterans have fought for than to read the mayor’s full remarks.