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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Defending and Expanding the Frontiers of Democracy

Monday, July 24, 2017

At Tisch College's annual conference, civic leaders, researchers, theorists, and practitioners came together to share ideas about this unique political moment.

Frontiers of Democracy 2017

Against the backdrop of political strife in the United States, rising authoritarianism around the world, and other threats to democratic and civic life at home and abroad, Tisch College held its 9th annual Frontiers of Democracy conference on June 22-24 at Tufts University’s Boston campus. More than 150 participants theorized, strategized, and shared the challenges and opportunities for civic engagement to meet this particular moment and to defend and expand democracy.

The conference was hosted by Tisch College and spearheaded by our Associate Dean for Research, Peter Levine, in partnership with The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Everyday Democracy, The Charles F. Kettering Foundation, and Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.

As it does every year, it featured provocative “short takes,” which are TED-style talks by notable speakers; engaging concurrent sessions on topics as varied as civic gaming, intellectual humility, and working with faith communities; and a series of plenary sessions, which this year focused on different theoretical frameworks for thinking about, organizing, and engaging in civic action. This year, there was also a preconference symposium on “Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Rising Authoritarianism.”

The gathering’s short take speakers included Wendy Willis, Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Director of Oregon's Kitchen Table at Portland State University, who spoke about what she calls civic loneliness and the need for emotional connections in civic work.

“What if—in our work–we decide to speak to people’s full selves, not just their big smart frontal lobes, but also to the parts of them that are anxious and fretting and alone?” she said. “What if we listened to meet the needs of the body politic, yes, but also the needs of the human body?”

Another speaker, the Reverend Dr. F. Willis Johnson, who is senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, also spoke about the connections between deeply personal human values and the public work of repairing and strengthening the civic fabric. He quoted his mentor, scholar and activist Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Meanwhile, Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, discussed research that shows nonviolent social movements have historically been more successful than violent ones.

The plenary sessions introduced and encouraged attendees to help refine frameworks for various types of civic engagement, from improving public dialogue to responding to the current political situation in the United States. The frameworks focus on thinking about aspects of civic life like values, processes, and levels of power. Our Associate Dean provides a rundown of the frameworks on his website.

Successful Summer Institute

The Frontiers conference followed the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, an annual two-week seminar for high-level theoretical discussion of civic life and its central question: “What should we do?” Run by Peter Levine and the University of Maryland’s Karol Soltan, the Summer Institute attracts participants from around the world; this year’s group included scholars and practitioners from seven countries—Brazil, Colombia, China, Israel, Latvia, the Philippines, and the United States—11 universities, a U.S. Embassy, and the private sector.

For two weeks, the Summer Institute’s participants spent more than six hours a day discussing texts from some of the most important political scientists, philosophers, economists, and theorists of civic life, as well as enjoying talks from invited guests. At the end of the Institute, they joined the Frontiers of Democracy conference. Next month, the third annual Summer Institute “sister seminar” in Eastern Europe will bring together scholars from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Germany for similar discussions.