A Gap in Our Representation

There is an under-appreciated gap in our representative democracy: the fact that there is very likely no news source that covers the week-to-week activity of your Congressman. Local newspapers tend to cover the week-to-week activity of local government (at best, hard-hitting investigations of the mayor, but rarely the Congressman) and national newspapers tend to cover the big players, ignoring your run-of-the-mill representative. 10359555_826558480688070_897153686022742689_nOccasionally, when there is a big issue — Obamacare, a war vote, etc. — we find out what our Congressman’s position is on something, but this is rare.

This means that there are only two ways we find out about our Congressman: (1) from his or her opponent in the few months before an election, usually in over-dramatic television ads (and this only when he or she has a serious opponent, which is increasingly rare); and (2) from the Congressman himself!

The result: Congressmen are not really accountable to their week-to-week, month-to-month actions, inactions, positions, co-sponsorships, votes, etc. They are not only partially unaccountable in the sense that everybody back home knows but nobody back home cares, but more deeply unaccountable: nobody back home even knows!

I am facing this in my push to raise the federal minimum wage: there are six GOP congressmen who are in deep pro-minimum wage districts and have signed passionate pro-minimum wage pleas in the past, but are now refusing to act. They can keep ignoring our questions, because they know that their constituents will never find out, in the moment, about their inaction. If it’s brought up in the election six months from now by the digging of an opposition researcher, they can fudge the message in a campaign ad.

How do we solve this? I have an idea. We need an entity in each district, independent of the Congressman and his staff, that is responsible for mediating the representation between a district and its Congressman. This can be a creative two-way institution: (1) Congressman-to-District: reporting on the actions of the Congressman to the constituents, putting it into context by explaining bills, policies and initiatives, hosting forums for the Congressman and national policy experts, etc.; (2) District-to-Congressman: commissioning polls of the district, commissioning district forums for constituents to ask questions and share thoughts (currently Congressmen run their own forums!), hosting district debates for the Congressman to sit in on, publicizing insurgent constituent opinions and demands, etc.

Even better would be to not have only one of these “Congressional District Leagues” in each district, but to have many wards per district, which could facilitate this two way conversation: informing ward members of Congressional action and forcing Congressman to hear ward members. It would add a new layer to Congressional politics. You could imagine: aspiring Congresswomen not rising through party establishment or big donors, but rather through ward activity and leadership; campaigns being facilitated not through ads but through forums hosted by wards (With this new layer of democratic institutions, we could achieve something even deeper than campaign finance reform: not just democratizing financial access to running campaign ads, but ending the reign of campaign ads altogether!); causes not starting with random hodge-podge letters and calls and petitions, but rather through “Go to your Congressional ward meetings and get a resolution passed to ask your Congressman about X or Y issue.”

It’s not that hard of an idea to make happen: less than 10 people could get make this happen in their Congressional district and fill this gap in our representative democracy!

Local Civic Halls of Fame

I just had a guest commentary published in the Falls Church News-Press about setting up a “Falls Church Hall of Fame” in Cherry Hill Park:

When Albert Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department about what schools should emphasize, he responded: “in teaching history, there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment.” The genius was right: We need role models to look both back and up to. As citizens, we need civic heroes to remind us how much can be achieved when we embody our communal values in the way we live our lives.

I, for one, was greatly influenced by my exposure to the work of Annette Mills and Dave Eckert, Falls Church civic heroes of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I remember as a kid hearing about and benefiting from their seminal help in so many tremendous Falls Church projects: the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, Watch Night, the Blues festival, the recycling program, their Tripps and Four Mile Run stream advocacy, the neighborhood tree program, Operation Earthwatch, and much more. Because I was exposed to their work, I was inspired to get more involved in Falls Church civic life in the hopes of being a tenth as civic as the couple who Tom Whipple once called, “F.C.’s Dynamic Duo.”

We cannot let the example of Falls Church civic heroes like Annette and Dave be lost to history. Our grandchildren should be exposed to the stories of citizens like Jessie Thackery, E.B. Henderson, Howard Herman and others. This is why I am calling upon our community to come together to create a permanent home for our Little City’s civic heroes: a Falls Church Hall of Fame. Just like how the mission of the Baseball Hall of Fame is to “preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball,” the Falls Church Hall of Fame’s mission will be to: “preserve the city’s history, honor excellence in civic action and character and make a connection between the generations of people who call Falls Church home.”

A Public Project Program for George Mason High School

In 2013, I launched the George Mason High School Public Project Program initiative in Falls Church, Virginia.  It is an effort to “establish a Public Project Program at George Mason that make the imagining, developing and implementing of a public project an institutionalized part of each high school student’s educational experience.”  Here’s the launch video:

A much-thicker outline of the program proposal is located here: GMHS Public Project Program Description.

Fortunately, the essay below, which helped launch the George Mason High School Public Project Program initiative, was originally published in the Falls Church News-Press on August 15, 2013:

“Democracy must be reborn every generation and education is its midwife” rings as true today as it did when John Dewey penned it a century ago. If my generation does not develop the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination to steward and grow our civic culture, then our public life will assuredly wither.

Fortunately, we have a civic culture in Falls Church schools and, as I recall, every individual in the school system was always willing to help students with civic development. However, at the high school level, we had very little institutionalized structure for developing the skills of civic creativity and public action in the way that we, say, had such a structure for English or Math. Mason’s single course on Government is not enough: learning how a bill becomes a law or why the 7th amendment matters in a classroom setting is not the same as developing the hands-on skills, experience and commitment that is needed for students to become the confident, public-minded, problem-solving civic creators that our Little City and big nation desperately needs them to be! Many Falls Churchians raised similar imperatives at the 2013 FCCPS Community Visioning: the need for adult mentorship, tighter bonds between the school and community, and project-based learning.

In response to these goals and in the spirit of Superintendent Jones’ commitment to community visioning, I have an idea: A George Mason High School Public Project Program that makes the imagining, developing and implementing of a public project an institutionalized part of each GMHS student’s civic education experience. This will involve: (1) making “the creation of a public project” a new graduation requirement; (2) developing a cross-curricular Public Project Program for the implementation of this new requirement; and (3) organizing community engagement with the program. Each student will: pick a public project to work on early in 11th grade; recruit an adult civic mentor and underclassmen teammates; learn how to articulate ideas in English class; learn how to place their project into historical context in History class; investigate the ins-and-outs of the problem they are solving; and spend their final two years of high school working to make their vision a reality.

Each student’s project has to be a concrete project they initiate. Volunteering at a soup kitchen does not count – this is not a service hours program – but starting the student group for the local soup kitchen does count. Attending city council meetings does not count – this is about more than just civic participation; it’s about student leadership, too! – but writing a serious report to the council on a public issue does count. Examples of public projects include: organizing a group to paint a public mural (as one Class of 2007 student did); proposing a safety initiative (as Marta Eckert-Mills did in creating the bike path bridge over Broad Street); setting up solar panels on the school (as James Peterson ’08 did); and opening up a local chapter of a national movement (as Matt Abel ’12 and others did with Transition Falls Church).

I anticipate some questions. First, how do we fit this in? One proposal could be to house the program in a class, as TJ High School does with its required student project. Some might insist we make such a class voluntary, to which I ask: “when we decided that foreign language learning or physical education were important to us, why did we choose to make them mandatory?” If you make civic creativity an elective, it will only attract those who are already exposed to civic creativity.

Second, wouldn’t there be too many projects? Students could work together or join an existing project in town, as long as their contribution is a discrete creation within the initiative they join. Finally, isn’t mandating service problematic? This is better than mandatory service hours, because it is a student-directed, integrated project experience on which you work long term.

We – Superintendent Jones, Principal Byrd, and the whole FCCPS community – have a chance to come out of our Community Visioning with a concrete initiative that: provides students a unique, self-driven lesson in commitment, leadership, creativity and resilience; makes every student a civic leader; and weaves a tighter bond between GMHS and the wider community through civic mentoring. Realizing such a vision is easier said than done – it is going to take a robust conversation among all stakeholders. However, I hope we can get started this year on the path towards making this dream – a public project for every student, a life lesson in civic creativity, and democracy reborn in a new generation – a reality at George Mason!

If you are excited, check out www.GMHSPublicProject.org to find out more information and sign our petition to Superintendent Jones. Email GMHSPublicProject@gmail.com to get involved.


BostInno on CommonPlace

BostInno, a Boston innovation blog, just spotlighted CommonPlace:

Founded by former Harvard roommates Peter Davis and Max Novendstern, CommonPlace was inspired by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. In the book, Putnam highlights how disconnected we’ve become from our family, friends and neighbors, warning that our stock of social capital and community connections have drastically decreased.

At the end of the book, Putnam challenges young people to invent new ways to get involved in their community. And that call to action was just what Davis and Novendstern needed to build the foundation of CommonPlace.

“We were sitting on that challenge,” Davis says. “The Boston startup scene was taking off, the iPad came out, The Social Network was being filmed.” The timing couldn’t have been better, as more people began thinking of college students as those who had the power to create these various networks and platforms. “We were thinking community needs to be revitalized,” Davis admits, and they wanted to use “the tools of the Internet” to do just that.

They launched the first CommonPlace in Davis’s hometown of Falls Church, Virginia. Through the platform, community members can create a profile and post conversation starters, requests and events, propose a meet-up or publicize a service or organization. Other members in the community can then respond publicly to any thread or click on the poster’s profile and send a private message.

Civic Creativity: Democracy as a Platform for Our Public Projects

For my senior thesis, I wrote a piece called Civic Creativity: Democracy as a Platform for Our Public Projects.  You can download the work here.

Here’s a summary from within the work:

The first big idea is that, for the individual citizen, there is a new mode of civic action – independent of voting, deliberating, and protest – which I call: civic creativity. It is defined as “the imagining and implementing of public projects over multiple platforms.”  In Part 1, I will describe the history of the three commonplace modes of civic action (voting, deliberating and protest), define civic creativity as new mode of civic action, and compare civic creativity to the other three modes.

The second big idea is that the individual act of civic creativity, being a social and collective practice, has ramifications for our understanding of democratic society as a whole— that there is a new way to understand democratic governance that goes hand-in-hand with this new mode of civic action: democracy as a platform for our public projects. In Part 2, I will describe this new way of thinking. In this understanding, governance is not just Government— the institution commonly referred to as the government is not the only force that governs our lives. Rather, the model acknowledge that a network of various institutions – the media, corporations, religion, web platform architecture, culture, language, neighbors, foundations, universities, civic groups, and more – also govern our lives. Each of these governing forces are themselves governed by rules. To turn a civic creation idea into a reality, you must navigate the various “platforms of governance,” convincing various people and entities that your creations and purposes are worthy of their support.

Plus, here’s the table of contents to pique your interest:

Introduction: A New Paradigm Shift in Democratic Theory

  1. Strange civic actions
  2. A disconnect between such actions and common civic concepts
  3. Paradigm shifts in democratic theory.
  4. Outline of the argument for a new democratic model

Part 1: A New Mode of Civic Action 15

  1. Beyond civic engagement finger-wagging
  2. The three dominant modes of civic action: a history of voting, deliberation and protest
  3. Another turn in democratic thought
  4. Gaps in the three dominant modes of civic action
  5. How the three dominant modes capture and fail to capture the new civic actions
  6. Civic Creativity: A New Mode of Civic Action
    1. Spearheading instead of just participating
    2. Problem solving rather than law
    3. Decentralized work instead of a focus on the state
  7. A broader understanding of civic creativity

Part 2: A New Understanding of Democratic Governance 79

  1. The restricted spectrum of democratic models
  2. The restrictive assumption of the two models
  3. Democracy as a network of platforms of governance
    1. Governance is more than government 87
    2. Platforms of governance have their own specific rules and procedures 90
    3. Multi-platform governance and civic creators 92
    4. The ramifications of multi-platform governance 93
  4. Democracy as a platform for our public projects 96

Conclusion: On Generativity

I hope to develop these ideas into a book. You can follow progress on that book’s development here.

Harvard Thinks Big 3

Harvard Thinks Big has reached its third year. The Crimson covered the event:

The audience in Sanders Theatre heard speeches on topics ranging from symmetry in Beethoven’s music, to incarceration in the U.S., to genetically modified food on Thursday evening, all in the space of an 80-minute event.

At the third annual Harvard Thinks Big forum, eight esteemed Harvard professors addressed a packed house for just ten minutes each in a whirlwind tour of big ideas in academia.373067_314614091913883_1158655183_n

We had a great Motown band to play in between the acts, too:

Peter D. Davis ’12, who hosted the event, said, “My goal was for this to solidify Harvard Thinks Big as a tradition, for it to be something that people look forward to, something that makes Harvard, Harvard.”

He added, “Like the Oscars, we like to add something new.”

That added touch at this year’s iteration of the event was performances by the student band The Nostalgics throughout the evening.

“In my three years at Harvard, Harvard Thinks Big is one of my favorite events,” said K. C. Jaski ’13. “Harvard Thinks Big is like an intellectual rock concert, complete with inspiration, goose bumps, and great music.”

The Harvard Political Review had a rundown:

Doug Melton shared with the crowd how we could create better, healthier bodies if we began to target and stimulate stem cells.  In the case of muscle stem cells, he suggests that we simply find ways to remove or reduce the influence of the inhibitor that helps to control the cell’s growth.  Similarly, he argued that we should be looking to find food that will help to stimulate nerve stem cells that can help us grow smarter.  Making stronger, smarter, and generally better people is how Professor Melton thinks Big.

Eleanor Duckworth presented the topic “Confusion, Play, and Postponing Certainty” in which she shared with the community gathered in Sanders her thoughts on education and how children should properly be taught in school.  She not only condemned teaching to the test, but also argued that “students are being deprived of a good education.”  Furthermore, she was able to demonstrate through an example of examining poetry that what matters in the classroom is that students are constantly thinking and supplying their own ideas.  Teachers may supply their own.  But their main role is simply to lead students through thought processes.  She encouraged Harvard to think big on education.

Nicholas Christakis gave a short lecture about “How Social Networks are like Carbon.”  The professor and Pfoho House Master made the point that “connections matter” in every aspect of life, and he talked about how connections between people have an effect on the happiness of others or even the success of a Broadway show.  In the end, Kristakis drove home the point by comparing graphite and diamonds, both made of carbon.  Though they are both made of carbon, they have very different properties.  Thus, he made the point that how these elements appear collectively changes the properties that define it.  He encouraged us to apply this principle to our daily lives.

Daniel Lieberman gave his talk on “Making the World Smaller,” in which he argued for the return of an old Harvard tradition which existed from 1920-1970, a four hour per week fitness requirement.  Lieberman pointed out that obesity has been and is becoming a much greater problem for the United States and the world.  And so, in light of the fact that we cannot simply change our biology, and because drugs, therapies, and education are often not enough, the single best tool that we have to fight obesity is coercion.  Lieberman said that “If we can’t change our biology, we must think about changing our environment.”  To do so, Lieberman advocated for the return of the fitness requirements for Harvard undergraduates.

Donhee Ham gave a rousing lecture on what he called “broken symmetry.”  By demonstrating his own piano talents through per-recorded videos, Professor Ham was able to demonstrate for us the symmetry that we often experience in life, particularly in music, and how wonderful it usually is.  But then he also was able to demonstrate how asymmetry also could be used to create an even more profound outcome, as demonstrated through a photo of Maryland Monroe whose beauty was enhanced by a mole on just one side of her face and through Beethoven’s Third Symphony which was very fiery and quite pleasing to listen to.  And through these demonstrations, he educated the crowd on his grand theory of broken symmetry.

220724_1268777_630x418Jill Lepore took on what was dubbed “a very modest topic.”  Her presentation was on the meaning of life.  Throughout her segment, Lepore brought us through the history of board games about life with her starting point being Checkers, created by Milton Bradley who was a Harvard drop-out.  This original checkers set had a board with half of the squares containing different events in the typical life of a person starting from infancy.  She compared this to older games like the Indian “Game of Knowledge,” which later became “Snakes and Ladders,” and later “Chutes and Ladders.”  And she brought us to the many evolutions of the game called “Life,” for which the main goal is to make money.  In the end, she concluded that board games have changed as our conception of life has changed.  And she thought big by challenging us to think of what our board game of life might look like.

Stephen Geenblatt presented to those gathered in Sanders Theater his thoughts about “Speaking with the Dead.”  By giving us the examples of so many hundreds of words that Oxford Dictionary credits to Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, Professor Greenblatt was able to covey how important it was to connect with those that have passed on through that which they say, write, and create.  It is through literary works much like Hamlet that we are able to see the dead more clearly and come to understand them as people more fully.

Finally, Kaia Stern gave an exhilarating speech entitled “Act Big: Dare to See.”  In this final segment of the night, Professor Stern recounted for the audience her many experiences in prisons and the kinds of dehumanizing behaviors that happen there and all around the world.  She even expressed her concern that today more than one in  thirty-one people are imprisoned in the United States.   Stern may have been one of the most compelling of all of the speakers in her call for Harvard students to make a difference and to stop such injustices from happening.  She very boldly stated at the end: “What will you do in the face of dehumanizing behavior?”

Here’s what I told them about the purpose of the event:

Current Harvard Senior Peter Davis came up with the idea of Harvard Thinks Big just three years ago, and it has been a success ever since.  Davis says that he believes that professors should share their talents and ideas with Harvard students.  He sees Harvard Thinks Big as an opportunity for students to think about the problems of our day in a whole new light.  In a sense, he wants Harvard students to think big.

As Harvard President Drew Faust stated in a video introduction to the show, “Harvard faculty are heirs to the great innovators of Harvard University.”  President Faust was spot on when she called on the faculty at Harvard to be as innovative as possible and to engage in the kind of grand thinking that Harvard is renowned for.

Peter Davis put it best when he said that the goal of Harvard Thinks Big is to bring these grand “ideas back to the center of undergraduate life.”

Here’s the original promo video for the event:

And here’s one of the more popular talks, by Professor Jill Lepore on the history of the board game Life:


Harvard Thinks Green video

Harvard’s Sustainability Office took the Harvard Thinks Big concept and made an environmentally-themed version: Harvard Thinks Green.

Here‘s a feature on it in The Harvard Gazette:

A problem as complex and potentially intractable as climate change demands equally big solutions. At the first Harvard Thinks Green on Thursday, six Harvard professors gathered at Sanders Theatre to provide just that kind of thinking.whiteposterwebsite_0-1

The event was meant to tap into the “original fundamental reason why we are all here on campus for four years: ideas,” said Peter Davis, a senior who co-foundedHarvard Thinks Big, which co-sponsored the event with the Office for Sustainability and the Center for the Environment. At Harvard, students have the opportunity “to propose them and play around with them and fight against them and to sometimes even work to implement them.”

Their ideas, which touched on corners of society from science and medicine to politics and urban planning, made it clear that reversing the declining health of the environment can’t be left to any one group.

Here’s my intro remarks: