By Nicole Taylor, Campus Vote Project Intern
This year’s National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) took place October 19-20 in DC. This yearly conference utilizes civic engagement principles and organizations to connect people for the purpose of strengthening civic life and community building. Campus Vote Project attended and presented at the conference, alongside our Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) coalition partners.
One of my most important takeaways from NCoC is the power of open dialogue. The way we communicate and hear other ideas is powerful in bringing people together or driving them apart. NCoC encouraged all participants to practice open dialogue by conveying differing points of view and considering what others have to say— especially if we disagree. Hearing responses to the questions asked reinforced that listening to our peers is valuable and crucial in working together. I usually hold unwavering stances on issues, but hearing other takes on the issues we discussed proved to sway my opinion.
I feel the power of open dialogue can work to solve greater issues in our society. As Professor Putnam’s presentation showed, collaboration across party lines allows for the cooperation we need to enact policies guaranteeing equal rights and treatment of all citizens, and this collaboration starts with productive conversations. However, like Sam Quinones, journalist and author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic said, open dialogue is just one step. This idea resonated throughout the conference including some of the highlights below.
A presentation that stood out was the NCoC and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) panel of speakers representing the world of civic engagement and democracy, including SLSV coalition member Verdis Robinson, National Director of The Democracy Commitment. Each panelist offered a unique perspective on opportunity, equality, and equity within civic engagement—opportunity ensuring the chance to be civically engaged, equality ensuring access to opportunities, and equity ensuring the right to civic engagement. The panelists also emphasized the importance of engaging community college students because they reflect the atmosphere of the surrounding community.
Maya Branch, a student alum from the Mikva Challenge DC, noted she didn’t see many resources available for her or her peers to become civically engaged in DC. She mentioned the importance of engaging students at a younger age and providing these young students with more accurate history lessons emphasizing that democracy isn’t really democratic unless everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Director for the Democratic Practice-United States Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, highlighted a key to expanding civic engagement was to discuss and understand the institutionalized racism that keeps many from participating.
Small group sessions facilitated conversations about the responsibility we have for American civic life. Moderators asked whether it would be more useful to have people of diverse ideologies, demographics, or combination of both at discussions of how to remedy various political issues. This was one of my favorite sessions of the conference as I was able to hear the ideas of my peers and mentors, and adjust my own opinions as I considered theirs.
Robert D. Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, presented his keynote speech as 2017 Joseph H. Kanter Citizen of the Year focusing on social change in America from 1900-2020. As the 20th century wore on, our leaders began to work across the partisan aisle to improve civil rights and better the lives of Americans. In 1968, the year Professor Putnam jokingly mentioned he was first eligible to vote, our nation became more divided with a language shift from ‘we’ to ‘I.’ This shift highlighted decreasing cooperation in government and communities, and had larger implications on issues like income inequality. A chart mapping the rate of income equality from 1900-2020 shows a downward ‘U’ shaped trend—the times nearest 1900 and 2020 experiencing income inequality at its highest rates. This trend shares a correlation with activities including philanthropy, party collaboration, and the regulation of financial institutions. Putnam suggested the best remedy to these issues is collective action, cross party collaboration, and community building like that of the early 1960s.
NCoC concluded with the annual Civvy awards, and SLSV coalition members celebrated Sam Novey (Foundation for Civic Leadership) as a finalist for the National Civvy Award and the Student PIRGs as the winners of the Youth Civvy Award. We are proud of Sam and Student PIRGs’ work, and look forward to many more great years working with them!
Overall, I had a great experience at NCoC and look forward to connecting with the new people I met and bringing the ideas I learned, particularly on open dialogue and using community building and policy to enact effective change, to my work at CVP and Hamilton College.