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  • I'm a teacher and a practitioner of civics in America.

  • Now, I will kindly ask those of you who have just fallen asleep to please wake up.

  • Why is it that the very word "civics" has such a soporific, even a narcoleptic effect has such a soporific, even a narcoleptic effect

  • I think it's because the very word signifies something exceedingly virtuous, exceedingly important, and exceedingly boring.

  • Well, I think it's the responsibility of people like us, people who show up for gatherings like this in person or online, in any way we can,

  • to make civics sexy again, as sexy as it was during the American Revolution, as sexy as it was during the Civil Rights Movement.

  • And I believe the way we make civics sexy again is to make explicitly about the teaching of power.

  • The way we do that, I believe,

  • is at the level of the city.

  • This is what I want to talk about today,

  • and I want to start by defining some terms

  • and then I want to describe the scale

  • of the problem I think we face

  • and then suggest the ways that I believe cities

  • can be the seat of the solution.

  • So let me start with some definitions.

  • By civics, I simply mean the art

  • of being a pro-social, problem-solving contributor

  • in a self-governing community.

  • Civics is the art of citizenship,

  • what Bill Gates Sr. calls simply

  • showing up for life,

  • and it encompasses three things:

  • a foundation of values,

  • an understanding of the systems that make the world go round,

  • and a set of skills

  • that allow you to pursue goals

  • and to have others join in that pursuit.

  • And that brings me to my definition of power,

  • which is simply this:

  • the capacity to make others do

  • what you would have them do.

  • It sounds menacing, doesn't it?

  • We don't like to talk about power.

  • We find it scary. We find it somehow evil.

  • We feel uncomfortable naming it.

  • In the culture and mythology of democracy,

  • power resides with the people.

  • Period. End of story.

  • Any further inquiry not necessary

  • and not really that welcome.

  • Power has a negative moral valence.

  • It sounds Machiavellian inherently.

  • It seems inherently evil.

  • But in fact power is no more inherently good or evil

  • than fire or physics.

  • It just is.

  • And power governs

  • how any form of government operates,

  • whether a democracy or a dictatorship.

  • And the problem we face today, here in America in particular,

  • but all around the world,

  • is that far too many people are profoundly illiterate

  • in power

  • what it is, who has it,

  • how it operates, how it flows,

  • what part of it is visible, what part of it is not,

  • why some people have it, why that's compounded.

  • And as a result of this illiteracy,

  • those few who do understand

  • how power operates in civic life,

  • those who understand

  • how a bill becomes a law, yes,

  • but also how a friendship becomes a subsidy,

  • or how a bias becomes a policy,

  • or how a slogan becomes a movement,

  • the people who understand those things

  • wield disproportionate influence,

  • and they're perfectly happy

  • to fill the vacuum created by the ignorance

  • of the great majority.

  • This is why it is so fundamental for us right now

  • to grab hold of this idea of power

  • and to democratize it.

  • One of the things that is so profoundly exciting

  • and challenging about this moment

  • is that as a result of this power illiteracy

  • that is so pervasive,

  • there is a concentration

  • of knowledge, of understanding, of clout.

  • I mean, think about it:

  • How does a friendship become a subsidy?

  • Seamlessly,

  • when a senior government official decides

  • to leave government and become a lobbyist

  • for a private interest

  • and convert his or her relationships into capital

  • for their new masters.

  • How does a bias become a policy?

  • Insidiously, just the way that

  • stop-and-frisk, for instance,

  • became over time a bureaucratic numbers game.

  • How does a slogan become a movement?

  • Virally, in the way that the Tea Party, for instance,

  • was able to take the "Don't Tread on Me" flag

  • from the American Revolution,

  • or how, on the other side,

  • a band of activists could take a magazine headline,

  • "Occupy Wall Street,"

  • and turn that into a global meme and movement.

  • The thing is, though, most people

  • aren't looking for and don't want to see these realities.

  • So much of this ignorance, this civic illiteracy,

  • is willful.

  • There are some millennials, for instance,

  • who think the whole business is just sordid.

  • They don't want to have anything to do with politics.

  • They'd rather just opt out

  • and engage in volunteerism.

  • There are some techies out there

  • who believe that the cure-all

  • for any power imbalance or power abuse

  • is simply more data,

  • more transparency.

  • There are some on the left who think power resides

  • only with corporations,

  • and some on the right who think power

  • resides only with government,

  • each side blinded by their selective outrage.

  • There are the naive who believe that

  • good things just happen

  • and the cynical who believe that bad things just happen,

  • the fortunate and unfortunate unlike

  • who think that their lot is simply what they deserve

  • rather than the eminently alterable result

  • of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation,

  • of power.

  • As a result of all of this creeping fatalism in public life,

  • we here, particularly in America today,

  • have depressingly low levels

  • of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation,

  • awareness.

  • The whole business of politics has been

  • effectively subcontracted out to a band of professionals,

  • money people, outreach people,

  • message people, research people.

  • The rest of us are meant to feel like amateurs

  • in the sense of suckers.

  • We become demotivated to learn more

  • about how things work.

  • We begin to opt out.

  • Well, this problem, this challenge,

  • is a thing that we must now confront,

  • and I believe that when you have

  • this kind of disengagement, this willful ignorance,

  • it becomes both a cause and a consequence

  • of this concentration of opportunity

  • of wealth and clout that I was describing a moment ago,

  • this profound civic inequality.

  • This is why it is so important in our time right now

  • to reimagine civics as the teaching of power.

  • Perhaps it's never been more important

  • at any time in our lifetimes.

  • If people don't learn power,

  • if people don't wake up,

  • and they don't wake up,

  • they get left out.

  • Now, part of the art of practicing power

  • means being awake and having a voice,

  • but it also is about having an arena

  • where you can plausibly practice deciding.

  • All of civics boils down to the simple question

  • of who decides,

  • and you have to play that out

  • in a place, in an arena.

  • And this brings me to the third point that I want to make today,

  • which is simply that there is no better arena

  • in our time for the practicing of power

  • than the city.

  • Think about the city where you live,

  • where you're from.

  • Think about a problem in the common life of your city.

  • It can be something small,

  • like where a street lamp should go,

  • or something medium like

  • which library should have its hours extended or cut,

  • or maybe something bigger,

  • like whether a dilapidated waterfront should be

  • turned into a highway or a greenway,

  • or whether all the businesses in your town

  • should be required to pay a living wage.

  • Think about the change that you want in your city,

  • and then think about how you would get it,

  • how you would make it happen.

  • Take an inventory of all the forms of power

  • that are at play in your city's situation:

  • money, of course, people, yes,

  • ideas, information, misinformation,

  • the threat of force, the force of norms.

  • All of these form of power are at play.

  • Now think about how you would activate

  • or perhaps neutralize these various forms of power.

  • This is not some Game of Thrones

  • empire-level set of questions.

  • These are questions that play out

  • in every single place on the planet.

  • I'll just tell you quickly about two stories

  • drawn from recent headlines.

  • In Boulder, Colorado,

  • voters not too long ago approved a process

  • to replace the private power company,

  • literally the power company, the electric company Xcel,

  • with a publicly owned utility

  • that would forego profits

  • and attend far more to climate change.

  • Well, Xcel fought back,

  • and Xcel has now put in play a ballot measure

  • that would undermine or undo

  • this municipalization.

  • And so the citizen activists in Boulder who have been pushing this

  • now literally have to fight the power

  • in order to fight for power.

  • In Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama,

  • there's an organization on campus

  • called, kind of menacingly, the Machine,

  • and it draws from largely white sororities

  • and fraternities on campus,

  • and for decades, the Machine has dominated

  • student government elections.

  • Well now, recently, the Machine

  • has started to get involved

  • in actual city politics,

  • and they've engineered the election

  • of a former Machine member,

  • a young, pro-business recent graduate

  • to the Tuscaloosa city school board.

  • Now, as I say, these are just two examples

  • drawn almost at random from the headlines.

  • Every day, there are thousands more like them.

  • And you may like or dislike

  • the efforts I'm describing here

  • in Boulder or in Tuscaloosa,

  • but you cannot help but admire

  • the power literacy of the players involved,

  • their skill.

  • You cannot help but reckon with and recognize

  • the command they have

  • of the elemental questions

  • of civic power

  • what objective, what strategy, what tactics,

  • what is the terrain, who are your enemies,

  • who are your allies?

  • Now I want you to return

  • to thinking about that problem or that opportunity

  • or that challenge in your city,

  • and the thing it was that you want to fix

  • or create in your city,

  • and ask yourself,

  • do you have command of these elemental questions of power?

  • Could you put into practice effectively

  • what it is that you know?

  • This is the challenge and the opportunity for us.

  • We live in a time right now