PACE 2017: A Year in Review

Kristen Cambell, PACE Executive Director

Dear Colleagues,

When I wrote to you around this time last year, I’m not sure I could have envisioned what I would be saying to you now. Like many of our peers and colleagues, PACE and our members have been thinking a lot about “the moment” we’re living in — how we got here, what it means, and what we’ll do with it. The political and social dynamics at play in 2017, coupled with the devastation of natural and manmade disasters, made for an especially challenging — and urgent — backdrop to focus on civic engagement and democracy. The past year has been an important one, filled with challenges, but also with inspiration. With hardship, and with reasons for optimism. With the worst and best our country and citizenry have to offer.

And as an organization committed to serving our country and its citizenry, we have a lot to share about what we’ve learned during this time. We’ve decided to establish the practice of creating a PACE Annual Reflection — where the team and I will write about where we’ve been, what we’re celebrating and have learned, and that may be taking us next.

That’s right — my first celebration is that PACE became a team this year! I’ve always been honored for the opportunity to surround myself with thoughtful and engaging members, and now we have a dynamic team to support them. In February, I welcomed Adiel Suarez-Murias as our Communications Director, and she quickly got to work establishing more channels and avenues for PACE to amplify the work of our members and utilize our voice on issues for the field. We also formalized our Fellows program to help lead explorations around our strategic questions. And just last month, Janice Lombardo joined us as Director of Member Engagement, with a charge to deepen PACE’s collaboration with our members as we continue to amplify the learning and engagement across our network, and strengthen the voice of our field at a moment when our issues matter greatly. She’ll pick up that mandate full-time in April.

While I’m speaking of members, we welcomed 18 new members to the PACE network in 2017, and there is even more growth on the horizon in 2018. We are inspired and encouraged by the number of funders that see (or want to see) themselves as weavers of the civic fabric and part of a growing movement to support people being active participants in creating and strengthening communities and our country.

Over the last year, we received a multitude of calls and inquiries from funders, nonprofits, and others asking for help in understanding what civic engagement means and looks like in order to determine how they might engage and invest accordingly. Our responses to these inquiries became the Civic Engagement Primer, a resource we hope will continue to support understanding of why this kind of participation matters, and therein, why it is worthy of philanthropic investment. For more on all we’ve explored and created this year, please check out the reflections and updates from our team in their own voices, below. I’m so thankful for their vision and leadership.

This page is divided into updates according to our three strategic questions. Here’s a quick snapshot:

  1. Bridging divides. Our team conducted a series of interviews with key informants to gain a depth of understanding about the nature of difference across our citizenry. Our focus is on the opportunity for the civic engagement field to create a space to heal the divisions we face, and the exploration will culminate with recommendations for PACE to play a role in this process.
  2. Health & Safety. We launched a working group with the goal of creating a new body of research at the intersection of civic engagement, health, and safety. Members of the group represent various facets of the fields they represent; we look forward to sharing updates in the new year as this exciting collaboration evolves.
  3. Civic Learning. We engaged in multiple stakeholder dialogues, including two feature events, and aim to continue exploring how to create new avenues of support for civic learning and how to position it as a pathway to equity and opportunity. This stream of work is continuing with a working session to begin crystallizing learnings into a tangible plan of action for our field.

I encourage you to read more from each of the Fellows leading these streams of work below. In the meantime, here’s a quick by-the-numbers look at PACE’s 2017:

In short, here’s what we’re bringing into 2018 — a belief that, now more than ever, dialogues across difference, rooted in the values of our democracy, are critical. And we will continue to strive to be a space to have those dialogues, to welcome more funders into this space, and to strengthen the work that’s happening within it.

Yours in Service,

Kristen Cambell

Executive Director, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

Photo credit: Jorge Alcala

1. How can philanthropy create spaces for people to come together around complex and divisive issues?

Decker Ngongang, PACE Fellow

PACE believes that America will be a healthier, more successful, resilient, and productive if democracy is strong and the office of citizen is treated as central to how it functions. Put into practice, PACE serves as a connector, illuminator, and orchestrator of ideas, people, and actions that might not otherwise exist in collaboration toward effective civic engagement. This space creates opportunities for diverse actors to be in dialogue, listen and learn from one other, and identify areas for collective growth and action. PACE’s civic lens and values of cross-partisanship, inclusion, and diversity pervade the culture of these exchanges.

The seeming intractability of the divisions in our society — and the fact that these divisions are hardly specific to the recent presidential election — present a challenge and an opportunity for PACE’s mission and the work of PACE members. Earlier this year, PACE embarked on a learning process to better understand the seeds of division in civic society, and what philanthropy can do to help, an exploration that will culminate in recommendations for PACE’s role in cultivating that support.

During the initial stages of this process, we spoke with several PACE members, experts, researchers, and influencers to gain their insight, perspective, and recommendations. The project was executed in a series of overlapping phases: 1) due diligence: gathering perspectives of key informants on questions at the heart of the topic; 2) data and information collection and documentation: review notes from key informant interviews, relevant periodicals, and research from topic experts to inform the observations and recommendations; 3) deliverable development: explore traditional and unique ways to share results of this learning process; and 4) ongoing engagement: as the information and perspectives at the heart of this topic continue to evolve, provide ongoing and evolving support to a growing PACE community.

Central to our learning process was the question: If we accept the evidence that fundamentally different and often irreconcilable discourses are at work in America today, how is dialogue, debate, or deliberation possible?

The assumptions, as evidenced in many calls for civility and underlying many of the civic engagement sector’s activities, assume ordinary people, busy with their lives and with no firsthand experience of policy-making or public administration, are applying a logical understanding of the issues at the center of civic debates. This conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research, and is evidenced in the current pressures on democratic norms and institutions.

It is important to recognize that before they are members of a particular political party, citizens are, first and foremost, members of social groups — with numerous and complex social identities and group attachments figuring crucially into their political loyalties and behavior.

Today, the civic engagement sector has an opportunity to inspire increased engagement around these complexities in their discussions of civic discord — especially in this current moment — adding depth to the default binary that often frames civic discord (examples: black and white, democrat and republican, conservative and liberal, etc).

Through our exploration, we are finding that this moment of divisiveness and hyperpartisanship is a reflection of a disconnect between the way democratic institutions engage citizens and the ways in which citizens understand their own social identity — their own lives, jobs, religious views, race, gender, geography, and other variables.

A reluctance to wrestle with the complex identities citizens bring to our most contentious debates has exacted a heavy price, draining public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributing to the technocratic, divisive politics that affect society today. For PACE, bridging civic divides may require that we engage in a new conversation that operates from a new context — one that we have not had before — a civic context that is driven by exploring and valuing our differences rather than artificial similarities.

Philanthropic institutions can begin to shape this new context by modeling a new way of engagement and debate about what drives our society and public spaces. The “moment” isn’t a “problem to solve” as much as an opportunity to better understand the seeds of division and to transform the culture of civic dialogue from one of fear, mistakes, and self-interest into a culture of diversity, connectedness, imagination, and possibility. The key to bridging divides in our community is in asset-based framing with a focus on gifts, on associational life, and on the insight that all transformation occurs through language.

In 2018, PACE plans to support our members in modeling a more robust, complex, and honest approach to discussing the issues at the core of our civic debates. This approach is complicated not in concept but in execution, as it requires we reason together, beyond our silos, and in public, about how to value the social goods we prize.

We don’t expect that a more robust public discourse will lead to agreement on every divisive issue; however, we believe this approach will make for a healthier public square and a more resilient democracy.

Photo credit: Adrian

2. How can investments in civic engagement increase health and safety outcomes for communities?

Marian Mulkey, PACE Fellow

Today, we know a few things about the intersection of community engagement, health, and safety: Community engagement to build healthy spaces helps build healthy communities. A stronger non-profit sector is associated with reductions in crime. Civic engagement among marginalized groups can influence policy toward better health access and improved public health outcomes. As these and many other observations emerged in programs and communities around the country, PACE found itself in a position to accelerate knowledge about the connection between philanthropic investment in civic engagement — and health and safety outcomes.

Consistent with PACE’s core belief — that America will be healthier, more successful, resilient and productive if democracy is strong and the office of citizen is treated as central to how it functions — we launched this exploration with the aim to demonstrate that civic engagement, while a worthy end in itself, is also a critical means to advance outcomes that matter to all Americans.

Recognizing that knowledge at the complex intersection of civic engagement, health, and safety is widely held and diffuse, PACE began by recruiting a diverse set of foundations and funders, nonprofit organizations, researchers, and thought leaders to explore the topic. We were delighted to attract about 25 individuals working at many different levels and within different geographic areas around the country who shared a passion for and curiosity about the topic. Support for the group is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The resulting PACE Health & Safety Working Group first convened in September 2017 with a two-fold goal:

  • To build new relationships and exchange expertise that span types of organizations, content areas, and approaches; and
  • To identify a particular project or investment that could help demonstrate how civic engagement improves health and safety outcomes.

A guiding hope is that by demonstrating the link between civic engagement and health and safety outcomes, civic engagement will be more widely and more effectively funded.

We expect that the group’s findings will influence funders concerned with wise investments related to civic engagement, funders working to improve health or safety outcomes, and those committed to both strategies.

PACE staff members are currently working to develop approaches that merit the group’s attention and investment in 2018 with the goal of producing a project to advance knowledge and learning at this intersection. Through that work, we intend to demonstrate ways that civic engagement positively affects health and safety outcomes, and to build knowledge and connections that form a compelling narrative to encourage greater and more strategic investments in civic engagement. We also seek to integrate an equity lens into this learning by understanding how race and place influence the intersection of these issues and how we might create more equitable outcomes accordingly.

Through the Health & Safety Working Group, we are charting new territory, both on these topics and as a model of learning and collaboration for PACE. As with any new pursuit, we are learning as we go. We seek to build a group in which divergent views are welcome, while also advancing a shared purpose greater than the sum of its parts. We want to draw out the creative ideas of working group members even as PACE exerts leadership to maintain focus and urgency. As we explore, we will continue to refine our approach, and look forward to sharing process lessons along the way. Please keep an eye on this space for ongoing updates.

Kristen Cambell, PACE Executive Director, and Decker Ngongang, PACE Fellow, participate in a panel discussion at the 2017 National Conference on Citizenship: “Civic Engagement as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity.”

3. How can philanthropy invest in information and education that prepares people for active civic participation and sustains their involvement over time?

Sally Prouty, PACE Senior Fellow

“[The youth of today] are not the future; we are the present.”

Maya Branch, a student leader at Temple University, closed her address to a room full of civic engagement enthusiasts with these words earlier this year. They capture the spirit that animates PACE’s commitment to civic learning — a broad term that describes the process of helping young people understand what it means to play an active role in their communities and in democracy while building the skills necessary to enable them to do so.

These educational experiences can occur both in and out of classrooms, and can include experiential learning, civic simulations, dedicated civics courses, leadership development, and more. Their effect is real: studies have shown that civic learning deepens civic participation, including interest in politics, application of knowledge to solve public problems, and participating in the voting process. These learning experiences build lifelong civic engagement for our nation’s young people, and deepen the connection to community at the heart of active citizenship. But today, some young people understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and feel supported to fully engage, while others do not.

Young people from lower-income families in rural and urban areas, in particular, have fewer civic learning opportunities and, as a result, experience diminished levels of participation in civic life. These disparities deepen existing social divisions and inequities in our nation. Civic deserts — places with few or no civic opportunities — alienate young people, perpetuate distrust in government institutions, and set the stage for lifelong disengagement. It is up to us to shift that balance. Like all structures, access to civic learning must be equitable and inclusive in order to serve the wide range of American people who call our country home.

Earlier this year, PACE released the Civic Learning Primer, a tool that builds on decades of research and practice to lay the groundwork for understanding civic learning and create a starting place for dialogue. The Primer highlights six practices that have been proven to advance civic learning, as well as a series of innovations that are bringing civic learning into the rapidly-shifting civic landscape of our 21st century democracy, and closes by highlighting unique opportunities for funders to play a role in improving our country’s civic learning landscape.

We released the Primer in the lead-up to the 2017 Democracy at a Crossroads Summit in Washington, D.C., where PACE was represented on the steering committee and our members, William and Flora Hewlett and Robert R. McCormick Foundations were supporting sponsors alongside the Carnegie Corporation. The Summit convened over 200 civic enthusiasts — including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — to discuss how civic learning can best serve our nation’s young people. And the call for continued dialogue on civic learning was resounding. Follow-up surveys indicated 77% of participants — and 80% of funders — increased their optimism in civic learning as a result of the event.

To explore the intersection of civic learning and equity, PACE co-hosted a salon discussion with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) at the 2017 NCoC Conference entitled “Civic Engagement as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity.” Panelists and participants explored civic learning as a tool to equip communities in addressing the challenges and divisions they face, and identify tangible ways philanthropy and other leaders can support and invest in civic learning as a mechanism to influence equity and opportunity outcomes. In March, 2018, PACE and NCoC will co-host a working session in collaboration with our member, the Kettering Foundation, focused on realizing the recommendations that surfaced in the discussion.

Today, we know that when young people are equipped with the skills to discuss and analyze controversial issues, learn about the history and systemic causes of inequities, and are invited to be part of solutions, they have the opportunity to find their voice, to become a part of something bigger than themselves, and become active participants in civic life. Today, as our democracy faces faltering trust and participation, our field is charged with transforming this civic moment into a movement that reflects our democratic values. We know civic learning will be key to this transformation, and we are committed to supporting our members and partners in this shared journey.

Clockwise: Kristen Cambell presents at San Diego Grantmakers Conference; Maya Branch, student, and Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, PACE board member at the NCoC Annual Conference; panelists at a recent meeting on religious pluralism; “Civic Engagement as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity” panelists.

PACE Communications

Alongside our mission to inspire philanthropic interest, understanding, and investment in civic engagement, PACE also aims to be a voice for philanthropy in larger conversations taking place in the fields of civic engagement and democratic practice. These corresponding visions motivate our communications, a facet of our work we’ve been able to amplify this year, as we answer the call for increased dialogue around the issues we care about. Below is a snapshot of some of the publications, podcasts, and events we’ve been a part of in 2017:

Central to communications this year, was the launch of our Medium publication, Office of Citizen. A place for PACE members and partners, alongside the PACE team, share stories about their work, their visions and challenges, and invite others to participate in a dialogue about the issues we care about. We invite you to subscribe and follow for updates. Above all, we encourage you to reach out to us if you’d like to contribute; there will be many more stories to share in 2018.

PACE on the Airwaves

We sat down with Independent Sector’s Kristina Gawry Campbell and Jamie Tucker for a feature on their weekly podcast: 100 Days for Good.

Generation Citizen’s inaugural podcast — Civic Engagement Philanthropy: Reactionary Moment or Sustainable Movement— also featured an interview with Kristen Cambell, PACE Executive Director.

A local radio show — Grace in 30 — featured Kristen on a recent episode. The conversation covered recent events that have inspired civic engagement and community action across the country, along with PACE’s commitment to this work in these tumultuous times, and Kristen’s personal inspiration for being of service. You can check out the recording here.

Feature in Inside Philanthropy

Photo credit: Inside Philanthropy

Earlier this year, Inside Philanthropy covered PACE’s work in a feature entitled, A Funders Group brings a Wide-Angle Lens to Democracy Issues by Philip Rojc. The piece highlights our intention to hold space for democracy, in an intentionally cross-partisan way.

“People look to PACE for the wider-angle lens on the perspectives folks bring to this work. Our members are ideologically diverse, and there’s a focus on the thematic elements of democracy.”

A Feature Event for the Civic Engagement Primer

PACE Executive Director, Kristen Cambell, was a keynote speaker at the San Diego Grantmakers Strengthening Democracy Summit, an event which featured PACE’s Civic Engagement Primer, a tool for grantmakers to assess their interest and understanding of civic engagement, and support their journey toward integrating civic engagement into their scope of work.

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