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07.11 Senate Compromise on Immigration Reform

Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Danielle Stouck

With a final vote of 68 to 32, a bipartisan group of Senators passed a groundbreaking immigration reform bill late last month. The bill aims to clear the way for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to embark on a pathway to citizenship while enforcing tougher border security measures.

The future of the Bill in the House remains to be seen. However, in the Senate, the American people witnessed a rare political moment defined not by familiar stalemates and bickering but by solutions-oriented compromise.

How did immigration reform, a divisive and highly controversial topic, become an example of bipartisanship and collaborative decision-making in the Senate? And can we build on this forward momentum so that Congress can continue moving from arguments to dialogue and solutions that work for the American people?

The country has not seen comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade, even as the American public has called out for it. The legislature has taken up comprehensive immigration reform bills in the past. However, these have never made it to see a president’s signature, often due to partisan bickering.

Then, in January, the “Gang of Eight”—four Democratic and four Republican Senators including Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet and Flake—offered a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform.

The blueprint begins, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken.” This opening statement does not focus on past legislation or place any blame on any particular branch of government or specific legislative bloc. Rather, it illustrates a commitment to progress. The blueprint goes on to list four basic legislative pillars agreed upon by the bipartisan group, which became the building blocks for the bill.

Bipartisan groups, such as the so-called Super Committee, have tried and failed to effectively address divisive issues such as the debt crisis and the fiscal cliff. What was different about the Gang of Eight?

The eight Senators agreed to focus on four major issues of contention from the beginning, despite an overwhelming 300 proposed amendments (fully 200 of which were actually debated). While we can only speculate on the intentions of the Gang, this narrow focus seems to signal that the Senators understood that practical solutions require restraint and compromise.

Furthermore, each side conceded to the other on at least one main point. The "pathway to citizenship" supported by the Democrats is contingent on an increase in border security and a crackdown on visa overstay, sticking points for Republicans.

In the words of Senator Schumer, “The other seven members of the Gang of Eight, we have come to become friends. We have argued with each other, we have bonded with each other, but most of all we are united in this effort to make our nation better by fixing our broken immigration system.”

Now the immigration reform bill must pass through a skeptical House of Representatives. While many remain pessimistic on this front, we hope this bill can not only help mend our country’s “broken” system but also come to represent civility, bipartisanship and functional governance on Capitol Hill.

Read more about immigration, its affect on jobs and the economy, authorized vs. unauthorized immigration, potential approaches to reform and other complexities in our Citizens' Solutions Guide on the issue. How would you reform our country's immigration system? Let us know on Twitter, or comment below!


07.01 4 Ways Clickers Can Improve Group Discussion and Deliberation

Monday, July 1st, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

Though tech innovations can be helpful in improving communication and engagement, especially when immediacy is necessary, some make the mistake of relying too heavily on technology as a stand in for other communication practices.

Keypads, or “clickers” as they are called in higher education, are certainly no exception to that rule. Using these types of audience response systems alone won’t support better interactions between people, but they do have the potential to immensely improve engagement practices when used appropriately.

"Click to Engage: Using Keypads to Enhance Deliberation," a new paper from Public Agenda's Center for Advances in Public Engagement, supports the work of public engagers seeking to improve their use of keypads in group discussion and engagement.

Here are some ways clickers can complement small group discussion:

  1. Keypads can reveal who is and who isn’t in the room.

    Using keypads to field demographic questions enables discussion participants to understand who is in the room and situate themselves with the group. It also provides an easy way for the discussion facilitators and organizers to look back at the data. Using keypad responses for recording demographics can motivate those hosting the group discussion to improve their recruitment of persons from diverse backgrounds as well.

  2. Keypads can be conversation starters.

    Keypads can be a great way to break the ice among discussion participants. Asking a couple of neutral, even comedic, questions can set a comfortable tone and allow for some low-pressure conversation to begin. Incorporating this sort of ice breaker in the beginning typically generates more inclusive and robust dialogue. Another bonus: such questions help discussion participants get used to the device.

  3. Keypads can show variance in opinion and illuminate minority views.

    With divisive issues, each side may assume it has the strong majority and the opposition is merely an uninformed but vocal minority. Keypads have the power to provide a more accurate count of the splits and give voice to minority views that might not otherwise enter the conversation. This is not fool-proof though, and can have an adverse effect if audience members do not come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Organizers should take care in designing the discussion so that those with minority views do not end up feeling alienated. If a room predominately holds one perspective and only a few disagree, allowing those dissenters to have the floor, if they’re willing, can be a powerful means for exploring divergent viewpoints in a reasonable way.

  4. Keypads can assist facilitators in allocating remaining time.

    Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement through quick polling using the clickers can help a facilitator better allocate precious remaining time. If a topic reveals sharp disagreement, perhaps that topic warrants further, and deeper, discussion. Alternately, participants may not be ready to take on an issue if not enough time remains and the best option is to table it for more research.

The benefits of using a tool like the keypad to engage a diverse room of people far outweigh the drawbacks. Its immediacy and ease of use make it a powerful aide in deeper engagement. But thoughtful preparation, care and attention to design are crucial to using keypads successfully.

For more pointers on how to use this tool, including a breakdown of best practices and strengths and limitations, download our new paper here. For other tips on engagement practices, visit our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. We’d love to hear your successes, words of caution, and other tips regarding the use of keypads send us an email to Michelle Currie at


06.28 Revitalizing Democracy, Community by Community

Friday, June 28th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - June 27, 2013

At the level of national politics, the American democracy is in clear crisis. Rampant gridlock and partisan bickering undermine progress and earn the mistrust and frustration of the populace. Fortunately, a better story is unfolding in many local settings, where public officials and community-based leaders can make a real difference in addressing important issues like public safety, education reform and job creation.

One of the keys to solving local public problems well is the democratic art of public engagement: creating the means for residents to have a meaningful voice and role in addressing public issues.

A recent study from my organization on public engagement in California shows that both local public officials and leaders of community-based organizations are looking for new and better ways to engage their communities, because the old ones just aren't cutting it.

These older approaches, they say, too often lead to gripe sessions, are dominated by people with narrow agendas, and frequently omit large sections of the citizenry, including young people, low-income populations and immigrants. Such problems, of course, are by no means confined to California.

What's worrisome on the one hand and hopeful on the other is a cycle that I've seen throughout my career in this field: bad engagement begets bad engagement and good engagement begets good engagement.

Poorly designed public consultations -- public hearings and the like -- lower the expectations of both leaders and citizens. Public meetings that are done for formality's sake only, or worst of all that are rigged, are of course that much worse.

Even well-intentioned leaders who truly wish to partner with the public can become dejected by the vicious circle of bad engagement. As one superintendent I worked with put it, "I've experienced a lot more public enragement than engagement in my time."

Citizens, for their part, grow cynical and angry and learn nothing from poorly designed, empty-gesture or cynically rigged public participation exercises. As a consequence, the spiral of mistrust, gridlock and political dysfunction deepens.

Fortunately, many public officials and civic leaders throughout California are experimenting with more thoughtful, well-designed and inclusive forms of public engagement. Just over half of local public officials (53 percent) say they have participated in an inclusive and deliberative type of public meeting in the past year, and 43 percent of civic leaders say the same.

More and more examples of well-designed public engagement exist. One of my favorites is Participatory Budgeting, which started in Brazil and has spread to U.S. cities including New York, Chicago and Vallejo, CA. In Participatory Budgeting, residents identify community problems, develop proposals to utilize public money that is set aside for community projects, vet them with municipal agencies, present them to their community, and vote on which projects should receive funding. This voting process actually determines what happens.

Many other examples of sound, local civic engagement can be found in the writings of Matt Leighninger and at the websites of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the National League of Cities, and the Center for Advances in Public Engagement at my own organization, Public Agenda.

Just as bad engagement begets bad engagement, good engagement begets good. Sound and creative practices raise expectations and build communication and trust between the public and public officials. They generate the kind of public support and public-private civic partnerships that get parks cleaned up, bridges repaired, children educated and communities strengthened.

Through well-designed engagement, public officials come to understand that citizens can play a constructive role in shaping the policies that affect their community. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have involved watching public officials experience their first truly well-designed and deliberative round of community dialogue. They're amazed at how thoughtful and constructive people can be, given a little information, a few tools and a modicum of the right support.

The public officials and civic leaders in California and elsewhere who are embracing an ethic of civic participation and developing smart practices for fostering it are generating democratic hope. They open up possibilities for those of us who believe that our democracy can do much better.

In the words of one elderly resident following a Brooklyn community conversation with African-American, orthodox Jewish and other community members, "we should have done this years ago."

Follow Will Friedman, Ph.D on Twitter: @wkfriedman


06.27 Better Collaboration Needed Among Nurses and Physicians

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and DAVID SCHLEIFER, PH.D.

The United States faces a looming physician shortage that threatens to deepen once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. This is a well-documented issue worried over in policy circles, around the dinner table and within the medical community, and discussed in a recent New York Times Sunday Dialogue. Yet it may be that the physician shortage is just one part of the problem when it comes to the supply of medical professionals in this country.

Nurse-practitioners can provide many medical services, especially in primary care and women’s health, and could therefore help fill the doctor shortage gap. Moreover, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act move forward, nurses will be increasingly called upon to improve care coordination, help reduce medical errors and avoidable rehospitalizations, and improve transitions and handoffs.

However, some research suggests that an existing nurse shortage will grow more acute, both because nursing education programs do not have sufficient capacity and because many nurses are reaching retirement. And relying on nurses to deliver care for less money assumes that nurses should be paid less than doctors.

Furthermore, in the 2010 National Survey of Registered Nurses, only one in ten nurses reported having an excellent relationship with a physician (link opens PDF). In fact, since the survey began in 2002, that figure has never been higher than 11%.

During recent deliberative focus groups with members of the public around the country, we heard many participants talk about their experiences with a lack of coordination among doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Such experiences, they felt, had put their health or their families’ health at risk and cost them money. The groups strongly supported helping medical professionals coordinate care.

The task therefore becomes not only to increase the number of doctors and nurses, but also to empower nurses to work effectively and collaboratively alongside other medical professionals. Such an approach can not only help address the need for more medical professionals but also seems relatively acceptable to members of the public.

Want to learn more about public views toward measures to make health care more cost-effective? Keep an eye on this space, or contact Megan at and we will email you the findings of our research when they are available.


06.21 Civic Leaders: Inspiring Engagement and Empowering Communities

Friday, June 21st, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

"Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."

Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.

This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.

Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.

"They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."

Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.

These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.

Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.

"[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."

“Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement

In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.

Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.

"[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."

Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.

Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.” Book of Ra is a great way to experience what fun slot games can be!

Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.


06.20 Parents need help, not shame, in school involvement

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

Reprinted from Chicago Tribune, on June 18, 2013

The Tribune's editorial board was right to note the importance of parent involvement in education, but it missed the mark by oversimplifying the issue ("Parents have to be involved in their kids education," Editorials, June 13).

Initiatives to boost parent involvement will fall short if education leaders do not recognize a key fact: It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Parents have different priorities and needs - similar to students. Efforts to support their involvement must take this basic truth into account in order to be effective.

It will require much more than simply sending home report cards and publishing data. Public Agenda, a nonprofit researching public policy, found that 19 percent of parents don't feel ready or able to commit more time to their children's education. At the same time, these parents are concerned for their kids' learning and looking for guidance on how to help them succeed.

Instead of calling parents neglectful when they aren't present in school, leaders should focus on more constructive solutions. Put aside assumptions, examine parents' needs and provide flexible approaches to encourage involvement.


05.22 From Sea to Shining Sea, Who's Using the Most Fossil Fuels?

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from The Great Energy Challenge - May 20, 2013

A lot of the debate over energy and climate change has focused on changing how people live. But in a lot of ways, where someone lives is as important as how they live.

Not all parts of the United States are the same when it comes to how much and what kind of energy is used. That makes a huge difference in how to attack our energy problems.

There’s evidence for this in the latest federal statistics on carbon emissions by state and per capita. Some regions are just pumping a lot more greenhouse gases into the atomosphere than others. Consider this chart from the Energy Information Administration of carbon emissions per state, per capita.

A pretty big spread, isn’t it? And there are several reasons why some places pump out more carbon per person than others:

Economics: Some states have economies that produce more carbon than others. The top five per-capita states (Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, West Virginia and Louisiana) are all big fossil-fuel producers, and you can’t produce fossil fuels without also using fossil fuels to extract and process them. By contrast, New York and Washington D.C. are dominated by office work: finance, government, media and so on. People sitting in offices use fossil fuels, but not as much as people in industry. Plus, these are places with large numbers of people who use public transit as opposed to driving, thus producing less carbon.

Climate: Some of these differences can be explained by geography. Wyoming and Alaska are cold, whereas Hawaii is, well, Hawaiian. So the heating and cooling demands in Hawaii are much less.

Then again, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are cold, too, and yet they’re near the bottom of the scale on carbon emissions. Which leads us to the third and biggest factor:

Energy choices: Vermont hardly produces any carbon emissions at all from producing electricity, and the answer is pretty straightforward: the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant supplies almost all the state’s needs. The other states with low per capita carbon profiles, like Oregon, Idaho, and New York, also get large shares of their electricity from nuclear plants or hydroelectric dams, which don’t produce any greenhouse gases.

This can be a trick question, however, depending on whether a state produces most of its own electricity or ends up buying it from other states. Wyoming and West Virginia not only produce their own electricity using coal, but they also export it to other states. So they produce a lot of greenhouse gases, even if the electricity itself is used elsewhere. In addition to its own hydropower, Idaho imports about half of its electricity, so the state’s carbon profile is low. The same goes for California, which consistently imports a lot of the electricity it needs.

All this means that the impact of energy policy varies significantly by state. Huge amounts of effort have been spent on “think global, act local” initiatives, but the impact of those efforts is going to vary. It’s useful when someone in Vermont or Idaho swaps out swap out light bulbs and buys energy-efficient appliances, but the energy saved was probably not produced using fossil fuels. Those same changes will have a much bigger per capita impact in places that get most of their power from coal, like West Virginia or Indiana.

By contrast, carbon emissions in California and Vermont most come from petroleum, so changes in the way people drive would have the biggest payoff there.

The fact is that most people around the nation don’t know where their electricity comes from, and don’t have that much say about it, at least on a day-to-day basis. If you live in the Pacific Northwest or New England, you probably get your electricity from hydropower or nuclear plants. If you live in the Midwest or South, you’re probably getting more of your energy from coal or natural gas.

Those are the decisions where the public needs more of a voice. Nationally, the trend is to replace coal with natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but still a fosil fuel (and controversial because of the technique of fracking).

But too many citizens don’t pay enough attention to the pivotal choices being made in their own cities and states. So the next time you glance at a headlines in the local paper about the plans for a new power plant or ideas for increasing solar and wind power locally, or changes that would reduce commuting in your area and make it easier to telecommute, remember these decisions are really where the action is in curbing fossil fuel use. Making your voice heard here could be just as good for the planet as ditching your old incandescent light bulbs—maybe more so.


05.22 Can Parents Save American Education?

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from Huffington Post - May 22, 2013

Research suggests that students whose parents are involved in their schooling make better grades and are more likely to go to college, and some states -- with California leading the way of course -- are passing parent trigger laws that give parents much more power to intervene when local schools are failing. President Obama has weighed in as well. He is one of many leaders calling on parents to step up to the plate when it comes to education. "We all know that we can have the best schools and the most dedicated teachers in the world," Obama said in a public service announcement taped in 2010. "But it won't be enough unless we fill our responsibilities as parents."

Most American parents readily agree with the premise that parents are a crucial ingredient in a child's educational success. A few years ago, when the Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey asked parents which is more important in helping a child learn -- parents or the school -- the results weren't even close: 78 percent of parents said "the student's parents" and only 21 percent said "the school." And an analysis of opinion research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation shows that most parents view participating in their child's education as a fundamental responsibility and see stronger parent and community involvement as a critical factor in improving neighborhood schools. As a DC dad in one of our focus groups put it: " I think [good schools] depend on the parent participation... Some schools have a lot of parents... in the PTA. They come to the school. They advocate for the school regularly."

But what exactly do we mean by "parental involvement"? Are we talking about traditional parental roles -- the moms and dads who check on homework and report cards and support the schools from time to time by helping out with clubs, sports, and bake sales? Or are we talking about parents as change agents -- citizens who push school reform forward by voting for candidates who share their views on education and challenging local officials to make sure their schools have world-class standards, top-notch principals and teachers, and sufficient funding to do the job?

It's rapidly becoming clear that "parental involvement" actually means very different things to different people. Based on a recent Public Agenda study for the Kauffman Foundation, parents themselves seem to differ in their view of what kind of parent involvement is most effective and in their comfort levels in taking on various roles. Although the study focused on parents in the Kansas City area, it may well have implications for parental involvement initiatives around the country. It identified three distinctive groups of parents:

  • Nearly a third of the parents surveyed could be considered "potential transformers." Parents in this group say they would be very comfortable playing a more significant role in deciding how schools operate. Meeting with district administrators, sitting on committees to decide school policies, and talking to the media about their education concerns and priorities are some of the areas where these parents seem ready to act.
  • "School helpers" made up about a quarter of the sample. These are parents who say they could do more to help out at the schools their children attend, but they strongly prefer traditional involvement activities -- volunteering and coaching, for example -- to advocacy roles. Only about 1 in 3 of these parents say they would feel comfortable meeting with district administrators to push for improvements in local schools.
  • About 1 in 5 of the parents were in a third group we called the "help seekers," and this is the group that may prove to be public education's biggest challenge. These parents are concerned about their own children's learning, yet admit that they either aren't very comfortable or don't have time to become more involved at their children's schools or as education advocates. These parents are often more critical of their schools, even as they seem to be looking for more guidance from those schools on how to work with their children at home to help them succeed.
  • Some parents didn't fall neatly into any one of the specific groups, and overall, the Kansas City area parents were divided on what form of involvement is most important for improving education. About half (52 percent say) said it was improving the quality of parental involvement at home, versus 42 percent who said it is getting parents more directly involved in running schools. The main take-away from the Kansas City work is that increasing parental involvement isn't really a "one size fits all" endeavor. Parents and families come to the schools with different priorities and different entry points.

    Parent surveys also raise questions about the degree to which more parental activism will unleash broad school improvement.Nationwide, only 28 percent of parents say they know a lot about the qualifications of their child's school principal, and only half know a lot about how their child's school ranks academically compared to others in the area.

    Do we want parents and communities significantly more involved in local schools? It almost goes without saying. Do we need more explicit, well-thought-out plans to bring parents and other citizens into the schools to bolster education and insure that all children have the opportunity to learn and flourish? You bet we do.


    05.20 Improving Public Engagement in Local Government

    Monday, May 20th, 2013 | Public Agenda

    Want to print this infographic? Click here.

    While it's no secret that Americans tend to hold federal policymakers in disregard, they are much more likely to trust their local city or county officials. Local officials are close to home, and local government is often only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.

    Local officials recognize this connection between their constituents’ trust and government’s proximity to the people. New research in California by Public Agenda suggests that, in communities across America’s most populous state, local officials are interested in engaging citizens in more thoughtful, robust and inclusive ways.

    The research includes a survey, interviews and focus groups with local, elected and nonelected public officials throughout California, as well as with leaders of community-based and civic organizations. What these leaders and officials have to say offers important considerations for public engagement in communities around the country.

    Nearly 8 in ten California public officials say they're interested in learning about public engagement practices that have worked elsewhere, and 85 percent report that their views toward public engagement have changed since their careers began. Many say they have come to understand and value public engagement more over time.

    Yet both local officials and civic leaders see hurdles to improving their efforts to engage residents in public decisions. Sometimes officials and civic leaders-- potential partners in engagement-- disagree about the root of the problems they face.

    Regardless, local officials and civic leaders share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers, and desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration. The research suggests some avenues for improvement.

    Click to read more | Comment (1)

    05.09 How to Break the Cycle of Millennial Discontent in Politics

    Thursday, May 9th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

    Young America’s current view of government does not bode well for the future of our democracy. According to a new Harvard poll of 18-29 year-olds, these so-called millennials are becoming more polarized, more distrustful and more cynical about politics than in previous years.

    The difference between the way young Democrats and Republicans view the President has never been more dramatic than in the last six months, the poll release said. The President’s approval rating among young Democrats is 85 percent, versus 11 percent among young Republicans. This divide has been growing in recent years, with the gap widening by 11 percentage points since last year.

    Millennials also consistently rated the country’s institutions poorly. Only 22 percent would trust the federal government (as a whole) to do the right thing, and just 18 percent would trust Congress. The president and Supreme Court garnered a bit more trust (39 percent and 40 percent, respectively), with the military rated most trustworthy (54 percent said they would trust them to do the right thing).

    Cynicism for the political process as a whole has increased at a rapid pace. The poll found that nearly half of millennials (48 percent) don’t believe their votes will make a real difference, up from 29 percent just a year ago.

    While this study does raise myriad reasons for concern and action, the picture is more complicated and less gloomy than it suggests. Millenials have high rates of volunteerism and political activism, and they are arguably masters at networking and collaboration. Some say that this combination may actually break down the partisan divide.

    Still, Harvard's survey does merit a genuine discussion of ways we can keep division, distrust and cynicism from taking hold.

    So how could we counteract it? Perhaps by first examining the causes we can identify some solutions and find a more favorable prognosis.

    Possible Causes for Division and Discontent Among Millennials

    One potential source for growing cynicism among the young may be the lack of progress when it comes to our lagging economy. The consequences of our current weak economy have been felt acutely by the young, who also face the ballooning cost of higher education, often staggering student loan debt, the reality that a degree or credential is increasingly required for employment in any field, and the ill fortune of belonging to a generation that will not be better off than their parents. While college graduates seem to have weathered the recession well, they are often underemployed or working jobs below their skill level. For young people without a college degree, the unemployment rate is much higher.

    Meanwhile, these underemployed and unemployed youth watch as policymakers avoid making the important decisions necessary to setting this country on a viable economic path. No wonder this group is so frustrated by the current political system.

    In general, this generation hasn’t seen progress on most major reform movements in their lifetime. People’s political attitudes often coalesce at the beginning of their adulthood, when they enter the political process, said Trey Grayson, Harvard’s director of the Institute of Politics, which means that millennials could already be conditioned to doubt and distrust.

    Shortfalls in the civic education that young people received (or failed to receive) in secondary school may be a contributing factor as well. Civic education can foster pride in the democratic process, encourage active citizenship and build a constituency of inspired leaders for tomorrow. However, signs indicate that students' civic mastery is faltering, and, nationally, our education system's emphasis on civic education has dwindled.

    Outside of formal schooling, young people have few opportunities to develop civic skills. In fact, we can likely attribute millennial polarization in part to the political isolation they experience socially. Only 12 percent of millennials surveyed said that their most recent significant other had different political beliefs from their own, and 72 percent reported that all or most of their friends share their politics, according to the Harvard Crimson. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, sure, but homogenization of social groups doesn’t typically encourage the types of critical discussions that have to happen in order to come to terms with tough issues.

    It may be the case that the Internet and other digital tools can help improve civic engagement and encourage political activities that bring people of differing politics together. As of yet, however, such technology has failed to broaden the reach of engagement beyond those who are already civically active. Furthermore, research indicates that online commenting tends to negatively affect civil discourse and reduce objectivity.

    Improving the Outlook for Millennials and our Political Future

    Whatever the myriad for the younger generation’s increasingly polarized, distrustful and cynical attitudes toward public life, there are no clear and simple solutions. Here are some principles previously discussed in our work that we believe are likely to help:

    We've also seen many instances where community leaders help citizens engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue with people diverse views. Such conversations often have a marked effect on participants, who come away understanding why others have views counter to their own, accepting that there are no easy answers, and seeing their political opponents as people instead of caricatures. Can such a model be used in the higher education classroom to instill a respect for civil dialogue in our nation's college students?

    These ideas are certainly not exhaustive. Do you have any others?

    Concentrating on ways to shift the political perspective of our future leaders will be a continuous process. Yet not doing so may let them succumb to deep, lifelong polarization and will be detrimental to the health of our society. Let’s get a jump on them while they're young.


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