Civic Action

Civil Leadership for Uncivil Times

July 23, 2019  • Nike Irvin

The United States is at a critical inflection point. Shootings in schools and houses of worship have become alarmingly routine. Issues play out on the red carpet and stages of Hollywood awards shows, in town squares, back roads of Southern U.S. cities, and on sidelines of football games. We need to answer these questions: Can we engage constructively with those who hold different ideas or will we retreat into like-minded bubbles where our ideas are not challenged? Can we cultivate a generation of civic leaders with the skills and strategies to generate not just inspiring protests or provocative tweets, but constructive new policies and practices? Can we endow a cohort of change-makers with the relationships and resources to shift from legitimate outrage into long- term transformation? There is no better moment to tackle these concerns.

A partnership between the Aspen Institute and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and a new member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, the Civil Society Fellowship (CSF) contends this is the “now moment” for such a refresh and redirection of our country’s community and civil society traditions. By cultivating cohorts comprised of leaders from different backgrounds with disparate opinions, we can enable shared learning, facilitate real insights, and unlock sustained impact.

Through the Civil Society Fellowship, next-generation leaders will gain critical self-awareness, build networks, develop lifelong relationships, and meet trusted advisors, all moving toward a healthier American democracy given a diversity of voices and the demographic shift in the United States, a new agenda for civil society must operate on a broader platform than before. As we know from our reading of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s still resonant “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” injustice is something that must be a concern of all.

When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Nike Irvin at the 2018 Resnick Aspen Action Forum.

Movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Gun Rights Movement, and the Women’s March have burst out in the headlines, but they have not necessarily produced lasting social or legislative change. They may have been only “moments,” precursors to real change rather than actual points of leverage. And yet, we believe these movements possess basic elements that can be cultivated to enable a broad dialogue about social progress. Leadership development, through a series of deep investments in the intellects, hearts, bodies, and spirits of today’s activists, can generate the paradigm shift that the United States desperately needs at this critical crossroads. Specifically, leadership development with the Aspen Institute’s powerful pedagogy of text-based dialogue, expert moderation, and high-impact ventures will enable the next generation of leaders to embed their work more effectively within the framework of the civil society that sustains movements and impacts policy in the long term.

As Henry Crown Fellows, ADL National Director and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Greenblatt (2007 Henry Crown Fellow) and I (2004 Henry Crown Fellow) have experienced and 􏰂benefited from the investment that the Aspen Institute has made in a broad, diverse network. Over the past two years, we’ve had the honor of collaborating on the CSF vision and engaging the Aspen Institute in the launch of this effort to renew traditions of deep, respectful listening, moderated exchanges with healthy doses of agreement and disagreement — all within the special sphere of the AGLN, whose formula of rigorous selection at an inflection point in an emerging leader’s life identifies individuals already distinguished in their field and ready to make a bigger “dent in the universe.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail

By its nature, community activism and civil society are as much about action and place as they are about intellect and heart. For that reason, the CSF design favors an emphasis on place. The Civil Society Fellowship will happen over three and a half years, comprising five seminars with the first two seminars, The Challenge of Leadership and the renowned Aspen Seminar, to be held at Aspen Meadows or the Washington, DC area these two experiences ground CSF participants in the Aspen Institute’s unique pedagogy that forms the basis of the AGLN’s shared understanding of the burdens and blessings of leadership in the good society. Seminars three and four will occur in Western Europe and the Middle East, such that CSF Fellows will have immersive experiences in places around the globe with their own civil society tensions. Finally, Fellows bring their experiences home and reflect on the totality of the Fellowship during a trip to the American South which integrates the Aspen Institute’s Promise of Leadership seminar. Fellows may walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, or reflect on monuments to lynchings in Montgomery, Alabama developed by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

“Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Characteristic of the AGLN, we expect Fellows will leave seminars exhausted by their intellectual and emotional exchanges, yet energized by the caliber of the discussion and their capacity to agree to disagree — and possibly even change their minds. Imagine two next-generation leaders on opposite sides of the Second Amendment right to bear arms discussing this heated topic in a Fellowship seminar. We imagine these leaders learning to respectfully regard each other’s views and returning home with an enlarged perspective of what makes for a good society, and how they can help their home communities come closer to patient, civil discourse.

The Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama.

During and in between each seminar, each CSF Fellow will draw on her or his initial experiences to undertake a venture or project that serves as a signature part of the Fellowship journey. These ventures will solidify each Fellow’s commitment to continued advocacy and impact on community and civil society issues long after they leave their cohort. As with many AGLN Fellows, we anticipate that CSF Fellows will use their ventures to launch new initiatives while others may build out their existing organizations. This is appropriate and highly desirable because the Fellowship needs to be pragmatic to support the aspirations and objectives of participants — some of whom will arrive already deeply engaged in civil society reform.

In late April 2019, I participated in the 50th annual pilgrimage to Manzanar in California, one of the 11 concentration camps around the U.S. where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II after being swept out of their communities. While witnessing an interfaith ceremony including Buddhist and Muslim prayers for Manzanar’s survivors and their descendants, I learned a synagogue shooting had just occurred in San Diego, 300 miles to the south. I asked myself just what makes for a civil society? Certainly, books, prayers, plaques, and murals appeal to our hearts and souls. Dialogues, walks, talks, and protests give us a sense of agency and engagement. Yet, policies and systems change are necessary to ensure that our democracy evolves and lives up to our highest ideals. We need to develop leaders driven by purpose and grounded in values to realize the promise of a more inclusive country. What more perfect call to action than this for the Civil Society Fellowship?

Nike Irvin is a 2004 Henry Crown Fellow and Managing Director of the Civil Society Fellowship. The first Civil Society Fellows cohort will start in Aspen on December 8, 2019.