Reflections on the First Civic Season: What We Learned By Kickstarting a New Take on Old Tradition

We launched the Civic Season between Juneteenth and July 4th, 2021 as a time to reflect and celebrate the role of “we the people” in shaping the United States. As we look back at this effort, here are ten takeaways that can help us grow and evolve the Civic Season into a resonant annual tradition that is of, by, and for “we the people.”

Here’s your TL;DR version:

1. Many ways are the way

2. People are attached to traditions and symbols — and excited about being the ones to change things up

3. Think along a spectrum for impact

4. Build personalized on-ramps

5. Curation is key

6. Go local

7. Civic engagement is good for business — and not just on election day

8. The next generation is ready to lead, and they are seeking out history

9. Complex times call for agility

10. Hold your brand lightly, building relationships over time

Ready to dig in further? Read on.

The 250th birthday of the United States is just 5 years away. On July 4th, 2026, we’ll celebrate the “semiquincentennial” of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, reflecting on our past and launching into our next chapter as a nation. Already, all across the country there are groups of people taking stock, listening to the voices on the ground calling for a “more perfect union,” and working to imagine how We The People might celebrate and act at 250.

Commemorations are symbols that reflect our times, just like monuments and flags. As we find ourselves in a critical turning point for American history and democracy, how will we mark the occasion? More importantly, how might we use this moment to better reflect our complex story and springboard forward into the nation we want to become?

It was with this line of inquiry that Made By Us teamed up with Civics Unplugged to develop the inaugural Civic Season, a time of civic exploration and action between Juneteenth and July 4th. This joint effort was piloted during the summer of 2021 — the first year that Juneteenth became a Federal holiday — by a group of the nation’s future inheritors and America’s historic sites. People across the country took part in action from learning to service, attended local and virtual events, chimed in on social media and connected with others. 200 organizations joined in, submitting resources and propelling a dynamic conversation online.

WHO’S BEHIND CIVIC SEASON // Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In the experimental spirit that led to the founding of the United States, the first Civic Season piloted a big idea from a small, committed group of people working together.

Starting a new tradition requires many hands coming together to shape it, committing to the practice as well as the vision. It means finding the common through-line, the cause that unites those many hands, and balancing it with the flexibility to evolve over time and incorporate new perspectives.

So intentionally, our first year was one of strategic experimentation and learning, as we tested programs and communications on various platforms and sought to learn what resonated best with younger generations. Made By Us is an iterative, audience-first project, which means we’re continually testing and evolving approaches to serve the needs of 18–29 year-olds. The Civic Season was no exception; throughout each phase of the project’s development, we tracked our hypotheses, identified necessary pivots and sought input from different stakeholders. At its conclusion, the Made By Us team dove deep into the data of participation, through surveys, stakeholder retrospectives and analytics. As a result, we have begun to gather insights and uncover rich areas for further experimentation, to guide future Civic Seasons.

We’re eager to share all that we’ve learned from this effort. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s clear we must continue to learn and pivot — as our national and global context is being reshaped by everything from the pandemic to the platforms on which we communicate. With the 250th on the horizon, we aim to evolve and grow the Civic Season year by year, so that by that anniversary it is an inspired tradition that truly reflects and serves all of us. We hope you’ll be part of this emerging tradition, made by us.

Ten Takeaways from the First Civic Season

1. Many ways are the way.

At the very start of ideation for the Civic Season, we held Socratic Dialogues with students, historians and civic practitioners to surface key their interests and ideas related to July 4th and celebration. These conversations were visualized by the graphic artist Corrina Keeling.

Some of the brilliant Socratic Dialogue participants that led us to the first ever Civic Season themes.

A value that emerged over and over was pluralism. No two people felt exactly alike about July 4th, or patriotism, or traditions. Many people held evolving views, surprising even themselves. But instead of pushing for viewpoints to align, participants expressed a desire to let the multifaceted viewpoints stand — to view our country through a prism, rather than a magnifying glass. (Keeling’s skillful visualization makes this evident).

Pluralism, a concept on the rise thanks to innovative civic-minded groups like New Pluralists and The Omidyar Network, underscores the many strands that weave together (and strengthen!) our nation. It’s e pluribus unum brought to life. We don’t have to limit ourselves to a narrow consensus. With the Civic Season, and with history and civics education efforts generally, wherever we can offer a plurality of perspectives on a subject, it makes our understanding richer and fuller.

2. People are attached to traditions and symbols — and excited about being the ones to change things up.

It was very exciting to be involved in kick-starting something new and nationwide — as one participant put it, “the opportunity to see so many other amazing people improve their communities.” 92% of younger participants (ages 18–30) said that Civic Season left them more likely to view our holidays and traditions as evolving. And we heard lots of interest in extending the spirit of Civic Season to the rest of the year, to have this shared experience in the summer where we reflect and learn, but ultimately ripple out to year-round participation (hey, Civic Holidays pals!)

That being said, throughout the Civic Season we heard about the many ways people already celebrate that are meaningful to them — like local parades, Juneteenth events, or time with family and friends. Rather than expressing a desire to totally re-invent July 4th, individual and organizational participants alike wanted to augment and amplify what exists rather than tear down and start fresh. And that means broadly conceiving of what “counts” as civic and community action — one participant from Civics Unplugged celebrated July 4th by calling her mom to catch up.

Responses from Socratic Dialogue conversations about July 4th, celebration and patriotism.

3. Think along a spectrum (or concentric circles) for impact.

How can calling your mom be a form of civic engagement? We attracted 450+ program and resource submissions for the Civic Season website and weighed them against the criteria set out by our Gen-Z advisors. As we did so, it served us well to embrace a broad vision of civic participation as an effort that can have impact at the personal, community, or national level. Civics Unplugged uses this framework, and PACE Funders has also done excellent work in this regard to define civic engagement broadly but clearly. Personal civic participation might look like fact-checking the news you consume, listening to a history podcast, or self-reflection to understand your own values and views. Community civic participation might look like picking up trash, attending local events, or talking to friends who don’t share your views. National civic participation could be registering to vote or running for office.

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement’s primer outlines a spectrum of civic engagement.

This broad but structured conception of civic participation allows anyone, at any stage of their journey, to participate during the Civic Season in learning and action. Individuals can take part in a variety of ways but the central through-line is clear and galvanizing. Organizations joined in from the local to the national, of all shapes and sizes. As one participating organization put it, “the collective messaging was powerful but allowed for organizations to keep to their own ‘flavor’ of programming.”

The 12 Freedoms gained on Juneteenth, as identified by Ms. Opal Lee’s efforts to declare Juneteenth a national holiday.

This reflects some of spirit in Ms. Opal Lee’s work, the 94-year-old Texan who we have to thank for Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday — after decades of her activism. Her work shows that Juneteenth actually commemorates many freedoms gained — 12, in fact — when slavery was abolished. These range from the personal to the community to the national — the right to marry, name your own children, own a business, worship, read, vote. Within the spectrum of celebrating “freedom” there are many aspects to connect with and appreciate, creating several avenues to meaningful celebration.

4. Build personalized on-ramps.

The challenge, of course, with going broad and pluralist — and offering hundreds of ways to participate — is that sometimes people are left feeling unclear about how to get started. And heading into the Civic Season we knew that more than 70% of Millennials and Gen Z are overwhelmed by the number of causes to support. One goal of the Civic Season was to help young adults easily find their on-ramp; tap into their personal civic identity and find bite-size ways to dive in.

We worked with the brilliant team at Citizen Best to build a website experience that made it easy to skim shallow or dive deep — users could select offerings that took 5 minutes or 2 hours, in-person or from your phone, on a theme of their choice. This worked well for users who knew what they wanted. But what about those who were newer to caring about civics or history, or just stopping by out of curiosity?

It was our brief, fun, 5-question personality quiz that worked well in these cases. The quiz asks questions about your own behaviors in your life today — not your knowledge base — and then provides you with your civic superhero archetype, characters in history who share your skills, and recommended activities to get started, based on that archetype. So whether you were a Builder, a Networker, a Nurturer, a Communicator or an Investigator, you could easily filter down to activities that suit your vibe. We saw similar success with messages and activities that bridged to new information to what people were already feeling or experiencing elsewhere — i.e. democracy or Captain America. Borrowing lessons from the education sector, we saw it was more effective to use existing scaffolding rather than introduce a brand new topic in a crowded moment.

5. Curation is key.

Another way to invite people in is to offer targeted paths through activities. In this first year, we went broad and inclusive, with 450+ programs gathered from 200 organizations. The birds-eye view was powerful when taken all together, but a lot to digest or explore in a three-week period. So we experimented with curated listicles of ways to take action (i.e. 10 Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth and Black History This Summer and Gen Z’s Civic Season Bucket List).

As we reach out to engage more communities, causes and groups with Civic Season it is helpful to consider how we can better match urgent concerns and interests with resources and knowledge. And not just by theme, but by depth; what might it look like to “advance” from year to year in your civic knowledge and involvement?

For example, this year Juneteenth became a federal holiday, but many communities have long established traditions to celebrate it. So we included festivals and concerts that might appeal to those new to Juneteenth celebrations as well as deeper experiences about Black cowboys in Oklahoma, or the Seizing Freedom podcast, which would help those looking to augment their existing understanding. Future years might benefit from a sharper set of criteria, tools to create or adapt programs to fit, and a role for editors to create guided paths through the offerings.

Some of this year’s offerings tied to Juneteenth.

6. Go local.

While the ongoing pandemic prevented the majority of Civic Season events from taking place in-person, there was still a clear desire to find ways to take part locally and in-person. Our research with Cassandra prior to Civic Season showed that 75% of Millennials and 67% of Gen Z want to gain a sense of community through local events, and similar percentages through volunteering. This presents a powerful opportunity to extend the Civic Season into more communities with locally-relevant components.

Even in this first year, we witnessed enthusiastic adoption at the local level. The City of Madison, Wisconsin passed a declaration officially naming this period of time the “Civic Season” and offered Voter Tip Tuesdays throughout. The state of Utah similarly put their own spin on Civic Season, identifying nine key dates to commemorate. Civic Nebraska identified 31 additional ways to bring the Civic Season spirit to life.

Madison, Wisconsin passed an official resolution, setting the stage for other cities to follow along.

As we look forward, 93% of organizations that participated this summer are interested in doing shared or collaborative live programs in the future. 64% say the same about on-site events specifically. This fall, we’ll begin to ideate around how to bring this to life.

7. Civic engagement is good for business — and not just on election day

Many of the participating organizations in this first year were historic sites and museums, thanks to the Made By Us network. But an added bonus was the companies that stepped up to participate in Civic Season, to support their employees and customers with a nonpartisan, advocacy-free way to build their civic capacity and model this participation for others.

AMERICAN HERITAGE® Chocolate, a Mars brand, sponsored the official Civic Season website, held chocolate samplings at historic sites across the country during Civic Season, and shared an online resource hub that tied together chocolate, U.S. history and educational resources. Their involvement drove increased web traffic and engagement to the brand, and helped them reach new audiences — a win for all involved. Similarly, Made By Us worked with the Civic Alliance, a coalition of 1,250 companies, to develop a custom Civic Season Guide for Employees with ways to participate that any company could share with their staff.

Here’s the thing: civic engagement is like one big body of water, with many channels and tributaries. Voting and elections are where the rushing current is — important and time-sensitive — but other streams are focused on volunteering, bridging dialogues, news literacy, climate awareness, public health, and so forth. Companies can paddle to one stream in particular or operate from the big central pond, as long as they’re in the water. Staying on shore is no longer an option. The data is clear on this: the Civic Responsibility Project found that Americans overwhelmingly want companies to encourage and support civic engagement. And last fall, many brands and businesses rallied together to get out the vote, thanks in large part to the Civic Alliance. Now, as companies look for more ways to test the waters, the Civic Season and similar initiatives can offer multichannel participation that can be right-sized for almost any brand.

8. The next generation is ready to lead, and they are seeking out history.

Not that anyone doubted Gen Z, but the Civic Season made visible the many ways that they’re already shaping the future of the United States. As they step into this leadership role, it’s more important than ever for institutions to back younger voices and support them by sharing resources, expertise, connections, authority and vetting. Who better to provide supportive partnership than America’s trusted museums and historic sites? These places are packed with relevant stories and knowledge, they are respected, credentialed “heavyweights” and they are well-positioned to serve as conveners of people and knowledge — especially when they come together to tell pluralistic stories. And, as institutions make more space for younger leaders and thinkers to come in and roll up their sleeves, their collections and knowledge take on new life with a new generation.

Just some of the next-gen Civic Season enthusiasts, including Taylor Richardson, Kahlil Greene, Jamie Margolin, Gary Sheng, Sara Mora, and Cameron Katz.

Kahlil Greene, an ambassador for the Civic Season, is the first Black student body president of Yale University and “The Gen Z Historian” on TikTok. He wrote in The Blavity:

“To solve a problem, you first have to identify it. So, in practice, to approach this problem we must first become students of the past. While I myself am a History major at Yale University,I recognize that not everyone has access to the same resources. But thanks to Made By Us the long-standing barriers to a comprehensive historical education are finally toppling down.”

Civics Unplugged, our Gen Z partners in creating the Civic Season, have adopted historical literacy as one of their core tenets in the Civic Gym. And as Sydney Ward of Student Voice, a Made By Us partner organization, recently shared: “Until students learn to actively apply principles of American history, memorization strategies won’t last beyond graduation…No longer are tests a matter of what happened in 1776, but how students can reflect their own lived experience into that history.”

As they say, the past is prologue — and Gen Z in particular has a hunger for historical context and critical thinking that America’s cultural institutions must work to meet.

Civics Unplugged’s Civic Gym has 6 focus areas, including historical literacy. Calling all museums and historic sites to lend their expertise!

9. Complex times call for agility.

We’re living in a moment where information changes rapidly, and people are overloaded by a wide variety of stressors that dial up and down from week to week. Some trends researchers have gone from quarterly reporting to weekly, so rapid are the shifts in moods and behaviors.

While it would be an organizer’s dream to plan Civic Season a full year in advance, with tidy ways to measure participation and impact, that kind of planning wouldn’t allow for the necessary responsiveness to speak to the national mood and circumstances. In fact, annual strategic plans are even becoming a relic of the past, replaced by adaptive planning.

And yet…many people’s motivation for civic engagement is tied to the issues of the day that affect their lives. How can we share relevant support, without a crystal ball (or a last-minute scramble?)

One way is to focus on building an adaptive, agile process over a finished product. For Made By Us, this looks like strengthening our channels for input by building a deeper bench of Gen Z advisors and museum staff. It looks like including time for reviews and iteration into the planning process. It means acknowledging we won’t “arrive” at the final destination right away. And it means rethinking how we measure impact.

Civic participation is notoriously hard to track, outside of direct political action such as registering to vote, voting, and running for office, and outside of civic knowledge measures obtained through K-12 assessment. This first year of Civic Season illuminated the gaps in the field for identifying and measuring actions like volunteering, learning part of history, visiting a local site, starting a club, or engaging in constructive dialogue.

Further still, because of the current climate and fast pace of technology, it makes sense to track behavioral or attitudinal shifts over time rather than discrete actions; to measure outcomes rather than outputs. As we operate in the realm of New Power, leveraging the best practices of co-creation to create an effort that lands and sticks, how can we track our collective progress? Sustaining relationships are going to be one key way.

10. Hold your brand lightly, building relationships over time

In a complex time, relationships hold immense power. For movements like Civic Season, it seems obvious that you’d want to have a resonant, cohesive online persona — call it a brand — especially for driving a conversation in trending online spaces. Indeed, across the board, we received positive feedback on the Civic Season brand. It was vibrant, fun and engaging. It worked for individuals and organizations alike.

And yet, appreciating a brand and using a brand are different levels of engagement. (This may be old hat for the marketers out there but some of us are still learning!) Many younger adults have their own personal brand on social media, so taking on a fully-formed, external identity has limited appeal. Filters, stickers, catchphrases, or other atomized forms of branding are more popular ways to venture into a community or a cause. And, since our goal is not for Civic Season to be a surface level campaign, but an experience that moves the needle on behaviors and attitudes, then it follows that use of the Civic Season lexicon, concept, and spirit — even in one’s own words or aesthetic — is more powerful than sharing or liking a branded post itself.

In fact, that’s what Made By Us strives to do with history overall; it’s not important to merely visit historic sites, or know a set of facts — it’s about using history in daily civic life, in your own way, for your own concerns and interests. It’s kind of like AT&T’s catchphrase — “more for your thing, that’s our thing.”

LEFT // Kahlil Greene put his own spin on the Civic Season in IG Stories; RIGHT // another example of holding a brand lightly is Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 campaign website, which was the first time a presidential candidate shared a tool for supporters to create their own campaign art, though supporters have long made their own, unauthorized versions.

Holding a brand, or a program, lightly is pluralistic, inclusive and more effective with Millennials and Gen Z. It is one way to broaden reach. But what about depth?

For example, given infinite budget and time, one could envision a Civic Season in the summer that leverages celebrity endorsement, mass media appearances and gazillions of social media posts. And we certainly hope that by the 250th, Civic Season is a widely celebrated tradition. But scale is meaningless without effecting behavioral shifts, deeper connections, or a palpable payoff the deeper you go. (Anyone watching The Activist?)

We want to grow reach and depth, and one of those axes can only move at the speed of trust, in the time it takes to build and sustain relationships. For a meaningful celebration that really propels us into a “more perfect union,” we must work with various communities and groups over time, rolling in participation and input in expanding loops of feedback and growth. And we must build a ladder of ever-increasing engagement, so that participants can start right where they are and access deeper levels as they go.

We’ve got to go through it.

We won’t get there in one year. There aren’t shortcuts to doing this well. That’s why we’re glad to be starting now, in 2021, to evolve and grow and bring YOU and so many others into the process.

As we go, we hope you’ll share with us what you’ve learned and what you think, and consider how a summer tradition like Civic Season can serve you and your community.

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