July 21, 2016


Testing Democracy's Resilience

Democracy in America and around the world is under severe strain. Those who value it must mobilize on its behalf. As we move deeper into election season, how can our actions support a healthy democracy rather than further its strain?

A convergence of tough challenges is posing a deepening threat to our democratic values and institutions. These include:  
  • Growing economic inequality coupled with diminishing economic opportunity, a poisonous combination.
  • A palpable uptick in politically-charged violence in many forms -- from terrorist acts to violence by the police to violence toward the police.  
  • Chronic political dysfunction, despite our mounting problems.
  • New manifestations of our stubborn racial divides.
These challenges are creating a political environment increasingly open to demagoguery, and to rhetoric and policymaking animated by fear and wishful thinking rather than our values and deliberations. 

There are still reasons for hope in the resilience and resourcefulness of local communities, as I've argued in a previous column. Indeed, the tragedy in Dallas was compounded by the fact that its forward-thinking police force has been hard at work improving community relations. And the Dallas police chief, David Brown, has demonstrated inspiring and unifying leadership in his response. Many cities are innovating to enhance economic security through, for example, minimum wage and other economic experiments. Likewise, many are working to empower communities through, for example, practices like participatory budgeting.

All of that is good and hopeful, but we would be foolish to put the entire burden of democratic renewal on the backs of cities and states. Without a functional national government playing its part, we are unlikely to make progress fast enough to counter the troubling trends we are seeing. We will also be in constant danger of having local progress undermined via another deep recession, foreign conflict or some other catastrophe.

So let's continue to work locally, where progress seems most possible. But let's also be mindful of the importance of improving our national politics, beginning with the looming election. We should vote with democracy's health in mind, not just our pet issue. We should engage our fellow citizens with civic respect and intellectual seriousness, not the easy disdain and ideological rigidity that our political leaders so often display. We should proceed as activists fighting for democracy itself, not just our political party or interest group, by ensuring that everyone has a voice in our national conversation and opportunities to contribute to the democratic enterprise.

In sounding the alarm, I do not mean to dash hope. America's democratic experiment has proved itself resilient again and again, even the face of the kinds of pressures we see now. Democracy survived the trials of my father's generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. It survived the culture clash and political turmoil of the 60s, when I grew up. Our democracy can manage our current crop of problems today, but only if we work for it.

Will Friedman
President, Public Agenda

Donor Profile: Lisa Belsky

Public Agenda is fortunate to have committed and engaged donors, and we are truly appreciative of their support. Our goal is to build a community of supporters dedicated to strengthening the democratic process and finding workable solutions to our most pressing national and local concerns. 

Each month we will highlight a donor and share with you why they support Public Agenda.  Meet Lisa Belsky. Lisa is a longtime donor to Public Agenda. Lisa's mother was Deborah Wadsworth, a former president, board member and board chair of Public Agenda. Deborah cared very deeply about Public Agenda and shared that passion with Lisa.  

In Deborah's honor, the Deborah Wadsworth Fund Initiative was created.The fund is designed to identify and address concerns determined by a particular community and create a collaborative nonpartisan space to develop solutions. Lisa is honoring Deborah's legacy as a second-generation Public Agenda supporter. 

Lisa Belsky (center) and family

How did you become familiar with Public Agenda and its work?
My mother, Deborah Wadsworth, introduced me to Public Agenda and its work in the early 1980s. I quickly became an admirer of its mission and programming. A few years later, as a freshman in college with a desire to contribute in the civil sector, I lobbied Public Agenda for an internship and worked for several successive summers, predominantly as a research assistant.

In your view, what are Public Agenda's most important impacts on society?
Public Agenda's fundamental belief that a well-informed electorate can and must be an active participant in our democracy resonates deeply with me and helped launch a 30-year career in community development. That belief is as strong today as it was when Dan Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance founded it. Public Agenda has been an important driver of citizen engagement on a full complement of domestic policy issues from its health care initiative, to its work with the Department of Education and leading thinkers in education policy from around the country, to its efforts to promote and make community college available to all. Most recently, a Wadsworth-funded initiative is partnering with WNYC to help tristate residents engage in respectful dialogue about the issues that most affect our region. I'm excited to watch as that program unfolds.

Is there a particular area of Public Agenda's work that you connect with or think is particularly important? 
The community development sector mirrors Public Agenda in one critical sense: it understands that the challenges in communities across the country are complex and interwoven. My work in that field has taken me deeply into the critical connections between housing, education, health care, community facilities and services, afterschool programming, and most importantly public safety, violence reduction and helping people successfully transition home from prison. I've spent decades helping create meaningful and mutually respectful partnerships between police departments and citizen-led nonprofit organizations that build community and lower crime rates -- difficult but vital work that has been informed in many ways by Public Agenda's engagement strategies.

Why do you personally support Public Agenda and why is it important for others to support Public Agenda as well? 
My affection for and loyalty to Public Agenda are profound, substantive and personal. Foundations, corporations and individuals alike that understand the importance of developing an engaged and well-informed citizenry must invest in the work Public Agenda does. They -- we -- must step up to and stay at the plate. Far too often in America our conversations are contentious. Public Agenda works tirelessly to help untangle complex challenges, engage people in discussions that help us become better and more informed about the things that matter most to us in our daily lives, and participate in the policy process at both the local and national levels. I urge past supporters and new friends to join me in making an ongoing commitment to its vital work.

To join Lisa in supporting Public Agenda you can make a donation online by clicking here or by mail at Public Agenda, 6 East 39th Street, 9th Flr., aAttn: Development Department, New York, NY 10016-0112.

New from Public Agenda

Matt, Carolin and Allison wrote about the promise of participatory budgeting in Governing magazine, which was also covered in Planetizen and picked up by Philanthropy New York

From the Blog
Early last month, we began a series on Second Chance Pell, a federal program that permits the use of Pell grants for incarcerated individuals. In this post, Alison Kadlec and Zoe Mintz find gaps in research, policy and public attitudes when it comes to correctional education. 

People across the country are deciding how their communities should spend tax dollars. This report tells the story of those efforts and their outcomes so far.

The Transfer Playbook serves as a detailed guide for two- and four-year colleges to help more students transfer and earn a bachelor's degree.This report is part of a larger project with from the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center (CCRC). Other publications include "Tracking Transfer", a report that assesses institutional effectiveness in transfer student outcomes nationwide and at the state level, a slide presentation and an infographic.

This report summarizes major activities and outcomes of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) between March 2015 and March 2016. C-BEN recently hosted a conference in Santa Fe, NM. 

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org.

Help our nation make progress on its toughest challengesDonate today.