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.

Editor’s Note: November 2016 and Finding the Way Forward for Civic Education

Returning to “online news” with a fair measure of caution, I read a suggestion to “find solace in your tribe,” and I knew exactly who I needed to talk to in the days ahead. I have always counted a particular network of civic educators as one of the priceless assets of my career. Failing to put a value on it, however, puts it at risk of the same calculation that has allowed STEM education to push civics out of classrooms. All signs indicate that our communities might be more at risk than ever.

We need civics. It’s time we pull together, assess the strength of our work and put our weight into constructive opposition. Here’s what I think we can do together.

Civic Education as Our North Star

Like you, I spent this week wading through “What Do We Do Next? posts. My momentum for civic work hadn’t just disappeared, it had capsized. I recognized the frustration too. Like my fellow civic educators, I have watched Civic Education lose class time to the push for more math, science and engineering. STEM Education advocates point to a list of careers with higher than average salaries and proceed as though cutting civics to add more STEM is a matter of simple math. We have all shaken our heads wondering what it would take to convince people that living well in community with one another is an essential pursuit with a value that reaches beyond these calculations of lifetime earnings potential. This knowldge of living well together shapes that potential for all of us even if our economists have yet to develop a model for it.

When I felt like I had managed to read the whole Internet’s take on what to do next, it was a local activist’s post that pointed me to my tribe and marked out the way forward. Matt wrote:

Find your north star. Be inspired. Work towards that inspiration and keep that focus. Are you inspired by voter engagement? Do that. What are your goals? If you figure that piece out, outcomes like an election only reinforce your work or give you clarity to refine your tactics.

The Tribe in blue (sometimes National Academy alumni are spotted wearing matching shirts)

This is where I want help from the tribe. We have a network of civic educators scattered across the country who have all shared the experience of the Center for Civic Education’s National Academy for Civics and Government. We have other educators, learning professionals and community members who understand our quest and want to help. We have old friends with many conversations behind them and new allies joining us for the work ahead. The power of this tribe is in the combination of our perspectives. I could gather thought-provoking conversations about what to do next, one after another, and keep myself busy for days. In the end, the potential of every conversation would be limited to the two people who had heard it. I’m not looking for busy work. I’m looking for momentum to make Civic Education a guiding star in the days ahead.

The debate about whether or not we need civics is absurd. Consensus around its necessity grows with each new headlines and the talking points stack up. At the same time, we’re being enlisted to promote even smaller ideas of what passes for civics. A citizenship test yields answer-givers, not capable citizens. A computer game wraps that basic knowledge in a more entertaining package but does little to pursue better outcomes. We have been asked to accept an idea of Civic Education that yields little resistance to the talking points dressed up as serious issues dominating social media.

What I’m Asking You to Do

Civic Education has been the north star for many of us for a very long time. We know it has the potential to make all the difference for healthy communities as well as electoral outcomes.

We need to create a channel where our expertise is accessible outside the classroom. We need to offer some sort of transparency to our thinking so that accusations of inculcating “partisan thinking” fall on deaf ears. We need to demonstrate how people in their own communities concerned to bring Civic Education to their gatherings can do that.

Let’s talk to one another and work together to identify what has been lost, what we might revive and where we should innovate to bring the Civic Education we need back into our classrooms and communities. Let’s get those ideas out of the classroom. I want to hear your ideas. I want to help you write them up here at Politicolor and to promote them from here.

2015 National Academy: The Real Power of a Political Classroom

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The 2015 National Academy for Civics and Government crossed the finish line in Los Angeles as the summer rolled into its final act for teachers, students and their families. The first day of school is again imminent and the Academy’s alumni are returning to their classrooms with big ideas about how to talk about politics.

After three weeks of relentless reading, provocative learning and sometimes heated debate, alumni leveraged the work of a long summer seminar to present their own answers to some very big questions about our political life together. Panel teams worked together to articulate the tension embedded in competing American paradigms, to design a currency and a creedal affirmation that better fit the U.S. Constitution and to interrogate the nature of liberty itself or democracy as it is lived. An enterprise launched with Cicero’s claim that a tree planted in the mind achieves a certain kind of permanence marked its finale by gazing up at a paradigm created through the inquiry, deliberation and collaboration of a community interested in not only how we teach citizens but in how we understand that role in the first place.

As if to prove this work is in no way wrapped in theory and kept at a distance from “the real world,” NPR recently posed a question about politics and classrooms driven by the research of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education emphasized the value of multiple competing views, investigating the context of current events and giving students the chance to do the talking themselves. The work of the National Academy represents a model for this kind of political classroom. A colorized framework of political order animates the Academy and works to generate political questions like those presented at its conclusion, questions that remain open to ongoing inquiry even as we each study and work to finally answer them. Open-ended questions about our shared political order create opportunities to breathe life into a civics curriculum and to resist the gravitational pull of partisan politics.

The National Academy “Writing Project” occurs after the first week of seminars and invites participants to step into a “world-making” text. The proposal requires much more than writing. The activity becomes an act approximating that of classic citizenship as Academicians find themselves “ruling” through a text they once considered so definitive and closed-ended that it ruled them. By re-writing the selected text in three different modes, the authors of this new writing, the Academicians, see the text anew and work to cultivate its power through emphasis, elaboration and visualization. Suddenly there is more to see in these familiar texts.

Unwilling to lose the gravitational pull of Cicero’s work, Shannon mapped out a parallel between On The Laws and Federalist No. 51:

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.46.38 PM


Dana mapped out the relationship Hobbes describes operating between an individual’s passions and reason and the commonwealth those attributes make possible:


With an entire library of political thought now built in the mind, Academy conversations in the last week shifted to questions of constitutional interpretation and the latest headlines. What does the debate over the American flag salute sound like from a perspective focused on maintaining the cohesiveness of the American people? From a perspective concerned for the natural rights of an individual and his conscious thought? What understanding of the government’s proper domain is necessary to lobby for legislation about marriage equality, abortion or marijuana legalization? These questions were no longer the domain of partisan policy making but were conduits to an interrogation of the multiple competing viewpoints on the very question of what it means to be a self-governing people..

The complexities of self-government came into view through those final conversations and were well-represented in the presentations on that last day too. A deep dig into the understanding of liberty within each text of political thought yielded a definition that retained at least two possibilities:


Panel Team: Central Concepts

An inquiry into the appropriateness of our current pledge, led one panel to propose two separate constitutional creeds, one for children and one for adults. The team believed connecting the individual to the constitutional order in a meaningful way required addressing different developmental capacities:

American Childrens Creed

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

A political classroom designed to pursue open questions rather than a partisan one delivering stale tropes is not an easy prescription but it is an accessible one. With the conclusion of this year’s National Academy, there are another 24 civic leaders returning to the classroom better equipped than ever to bring politics back into the classroom in the most meaningful ways.

What Julian Bond Had to Say about Non Voters and Wings on Frogs

Colleagues throughout the years have argued with me about non voters. I’ve heard it from teachers who answer the call to civic duty every day, grad students frustrated with apathetic communities and activists who spend their days knocking on doors asking for one simple act when the day comes. They all tell me that those who don’t vote have no right to complain.

First I contemplate this right to complain. I know my colleagues are as true to the freedom of expression as they are to the responsibility of voting. This idea that anyone in the United States has surrendered their right to complain will always hit me as absurd.

A system error. If allowed to stand as true it would bring the whole program crashing down. We wouldn’t be who we say we are.

I will argue for an individual’s right to complain as well as an individual’s right to skip the vote. If the rest of us are so damn smart, why haven’t we convinced the non voters that voting actually matters? That voting isn’t just a civic obligation that we talk about like Mass on Sunday but that it actually makes a difference to their interests.

However, at an event this week I heard Julian Bond compare those who don’t vote to wings on frogs. And I applauded with the rest of the packed auditorium. I had been laughing with them. Shaking my head with them. 10955797_10155093619450167_2864420614346220083_o

Watching Bond speak was an interactive experience. You had to get caught up in it. And who thinks they can argue with Julian Bond?

Throughout his remarks Bond expertly paired all the celebrated triumphs of the Civil Rights movement with the stories of activists who lost their lives right alongside those celebrated headlines. From his own perspective he said that the second Brown decision ruling against segregated schools didn’t mean anything to him. What occupied his mind was the story of Emmet Till who was only a few months older than him. That, Bond said, was what he needed to know and it terrified him.

I had to consider what a privilege it is for so many of us to think that a court case decided the right way could change the world. I don’t think a magical moment of full turnout can change the world either. What matters is how we think of each other. How we then treat one another.

Bond turned that story from his childhood around with his memories of the Little Rock Nine. That was the kind of story he wanted for himself. He shared one mother’s story of wringing spit out of her young daughter’s clothes. The all white high school she would attend was nearby but her path was lined with crowds who yelled and spit. So many young people covered unimaginable distances. Bond referred to these stories as the stories of “the people who made the movement mighty.”

He concluded his remarks with a call for an activist movement. Activists don’t stop at threats, at the obstacles in the path or even at apathetic neighbors. I’m still not going to hassle you too much if you don’t vote. But I sure as hell hope you’ll find something you’re passionate about and get involved with it. Deeply involved in it as though it could be your chance to save the world.

As though we can teach those frogs to fly.

Echoes: Creativity and Aristotle’s Potluck

As classic works become more familiar you find those ideas are anything but dead and gone. In fact, they have us surrounded. The ubiquity of ideas you’ve come to associate with Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Federalists or Antifederalists suggests those writers captured something fundamental about how we understand the world and ourselves. Our Echoes series attempts to capture these reverberations through time. Perhaps there is new insight to be seen by presenting the past to the present and vice versa.

I recently read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer in an attempt to keep thinking creatively despite the doldrums of dissertation writing. It’s a smooth read that attempts to match the mythology of creativity with the science behind a number of recognizable moments of genius, from the Swiffer to Pixar and from 3M’s masking tape to Broadway’s biggest success stories.

Jonah Lehrer shares his understanding of how creativity works

There was one moment, however, where I thought I saw Aristotle among these modern marvels. Lehrer was talking about why brainstorming doesn’t work.

I know a good number of you are teachers. And I can guess that some of you have used brainstorming in the classroom. With my eight years in the classroom and lifetime of thinking, I regularly came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. I never managed to unlock the magic mojo. It always felt silly, random and exhausting. I hated being the person at the front of the room who had to DO SOMETHING with the list once it was generated!

So, when Lehrer beat down all the magic talk of brainstorming with evidence that constructive criticism does more for creativity, I nearly threw my fist in the air and shouted, “hell yeah!”. He demonstrates how Pixar used their morning meetings of criticism and “plussing” to take Toy Story 2 from a dismal beginning to blockbuster success. Plussing makes all the difference; it’s “a technique that allows people to improve an idea without using harsh or judgmental language… whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner.” Lehrer then connects this practice with an experiment conducted by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkley where she put brainstorming into direct competition with constructive criticism.  The group encouraged to debate produced more ideas while they worked together and had even more to add after the session had ended.

According to Nemeth, the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn’t that the point of a group:? If we’re not here to make one another better, then why are we here?)

And the echo I heard was from Aristotle’s “pot luck” feast in Book III of Politics:

There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass–collectively and as a body, although not individually–the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person’s expense. For when there are many, each has his share of goodness and practical wisdom; and, when all meet together the people may thus become something like a single person, who, as he has many feet, many hands, and many senses, may also have many qualities of character and intelligence.

This “creature” of many feet, hands and senses gets to a qualitative assessment of how we come together over brainstorming or plussing or any effort at collective action. The trick is in designing an experience that not only seeks to have everyone contribute but seeks to have everyone contribute according to their strengths and unique perspective.

National Academy 2013: Seeing Big in L.A.

The challenge for this year’s National Academy was to “think spatially and graphically.” And it certainly got visual.

Standard issue Sharpie allotment for the National Academy (Photo by John Markwell)

The model of political order Will developed through his work with the National Academy over the years was presented as our launch pad this year. It’s where our three weeks started in contrast to years past where it was slowly revealed as an ultimate landing zone. Each seminar included time to think inside and throughout the visual models presented. Will shared what the models represented as well as how they had developed and often continue to do so.

Participants tried their hands at transforming texts into their own models and re-made Hobbes’s Leviathan as a comic strip. These represented real power and imagination even if they lacked the whimsy of a small boy and his stuffed tiger! The writing projects submitted and the final presentations all included excellent examples of visual thinking. And, even better, they demonstrated the power of these strategies to supercharge thinking inside (and outside) the classroom.We’re collecting it all and building a great portfolio space we’re calling “Seeing in Politicolor.” One panel presentation investigated the Federalists and Antifederalists use of of light and dark in communicating their

Chibuzo, Mike, Randy and Ndudi enjoying dinner together on the bluff

political visions. They have posted their work here and we have encouraged others to follow their lead. As other groups and individuals agree to share their work, we’ll post it here. And everyone is invited to keep this community working together well into the future by writing for Politicolor.

We can’t wait to see what you’re thinking!

Kelly, Rebecca, Lisa and Lavinia at an L.A. favorite, the Getty


Write for Politicolor

If you believe political life has more potential than red vs. blue or even waving the red, white and blue, chances are that you have a story to share. Politicolor contributors believe we can breathe life back into our political community if we share the stories of what ordinary people are doing to make their corner of the world a better place and the ideas that have helped them believe it was possible. Or maybe even think it was imperative.

The Politicolor Pitch

The basic premise of Politicolor is that we can make it easier to see what active citizens do, how they push against opposition or the status quo and how they connect with allies, and that showing our work will improve the likelihood that our communities will overflow with good work.

At the very least, we will learn from one another and connect through the ups and downs of civic work.

My Pen by yaili,

My Pen by yaili,

The Details

We use the online writing platform, Medium, to write and share our work. It makes writing easy. It also makes it easy to collaborate with our editorial team. With those logistics covered, you can stay focused on the story you want to share.

If you have an idea for a story, take a look at our general call for submissions to make sure it aligns to one of our themes of civic storytelling. We accept these stories between the 1st and 10th day of every month.

We know it isn’t always easy to figure out how to write within those broad themes, so we’re posting monthly writing prompts. We accept stories responding to these questions between the 15th and 30th (or 31st) day of each month.

See? Really easy. We can’t wait to read your story.


Our Writing Prompts

February 2016: The Music is the Message

March 2016: Everyday Leaders (link added 2/15/16)

April 2016: Defending Civics in 272 Words (link added 3/15/16)



Seeing and Knowing

Or, you might be thinking, “seeing is believing.”

Any survey of Politicolor quickly reveals a certain fascination with SEEING. But, here, seeing is not constrained by our…

but is something of another (grey) matter. Our posts have asked what we know from what we see and how seeing changes how we think about what we know. That sentence could make you dizzy but that’s the point. There is an inextricable bond between what we see and what we know.

Our previous investigations have involved reference to Cicero and Scipio’s Dream or Carl Sagan and astronauts. And sometimes both.

We have another name to add to the list.

In 1994, this guy had an asteroid named after him, 13123 Tyson, and, six years later, People Magazine named him the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. This makes Neil deGrasse Tyson is more of a modern thinker who suggests we “consider the category” before making too much of that last honorary. He has sparred with Colbert and is a regular favorite on WNYC’s RadioLab.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to inspire. He wants us (and the U.S.) to innovate.

In this 2013 commencement speech at Rice University, he works his way through our history of space exploration to focus on a familiar image, Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Taken from space by the Apollo 8 Mission in 196, Tyson demonstrates how that image empowered us to take action. Seeing the Earth “as nature intended” gave us a reason to think about new and different questions.

In what Tyson describes as a “cultural response” to this image that Apollo 8 made possible for us all to see, a country at war was transformed into an “innovation nation.”

Tyson explains that we went to the moon to explore it but discovered the Earth instead.

*Tyson starts discussing the image at 11:00 if you don’t have time for the whole video