With Washington stuck in a cycle of partisanship — made worse by the prospect of mid-term elections a little more than six weeks away — it’s refreshing to hear a room full of people cheering on the role ordinary citizens are playing these days.
At the 65th National Conference on Citizenship, held Friday at the Library of Congress, the focus was on BIG Citizenship. BIG stands for Business, Innovation and Government – suggesting there are many ways Americans are trying to bring about change. Sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship, the program was designed to highlight the growing activism of people in all walks of life.
In one discussion that sought to answer whether today’s citizen involvement is heir to great moments in United States history — like the fight for women’s suffrage or the Civil Rights movement — or something altogether different, the answer was: it’s both. Alan Khazei, the founder of the “Be the Change” group urged the audience both live and online to jump into activism, whatever cause they champion.
Among those on hand to contribute: Anne Eleanor Roosevelt, a descendent of that famous political family, and a vice president at Boeing, who spoke about the role that corporations are playing in addressing the needs of communities. And Erica Williams, who runs a diversity initiative at the progressive Center for American Progress. Williams has deep experience working with young people and said the younger generation is not waiting to bring about the changes they want to see in American life: their rate of civic participation is “exploding,” in her words. Finally, Jonathan Ehrlich, who directs Consumer Marketing at Facebook, described the ways that technology and the social media are permitting ordinary people to connect, to create change from the ground up. Ehrlich rejected the idea that citizens must wait for a leader to give them their marching orders. The new way things are done, he said, is for people to generate their own “marching orders,” rather than taking instructions from a leader.
There was little reference to the tea party, or any of its offshoots, in this conversation, but the description of a citizens’ movement building on its own, not waiting for word to be handed down from the top, sounds very much like the political phenomenon that is re-shaping American electoral politics so far this year. But could that lead to even more gridlock than is already the case in Washington, instead of the change these citizen activists are seeking? It’s certainly a process worth watching.