The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

Democracy Revitalization Project

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

Community and civic organizations are essential to healthy communities and well-functioning democracy. Yet, over a generation, a range of these institutions in the U.S.—from community groups to worker organizations—have been slowly and systematically eroded. Such institutions fostered democratic engagement within communities; connected citizens across racial and geographic difference to be in conversation toward shared goals; and harnessed the power of citizen contributions to address local community needs and drive solutions to broader problems. Many of today’s greatest challenges—from inequality to climate change—have been worsened by the weakening of these institutions. Our project is two-pronged: 1) changing the public narrative about the necessary preconditions for a functioning democracy; and 2) scaling up new financing mechanisms for civic institutions that foster habits of democratic engagement across difference. The result will be self-sustaining civic institutions that amplify voices of historically-marginalized communities in decision-making and provide a counterweight to the threat of autocracy.

Problem Statement

For the American system of government to be democratic requires more than mere voting; rather, it requires a practice of self-government, across difference, in which individual citizens work together to collectively affect outcomes they work together to imagine, create, and build. Yet this practice, and the civic institutions—charities, religious organizations, community associations, and labor unions—that served for much of the 20th century as the training grounds for this collective self-governance, have eroded. Sociologists and historians are increasingly pointing to this shift as among the reasons we see an increasingly polarized electorate and—perhaps most urgent—an emerging embrace of autocracy in the U.S. To address this challenge, we must harness the power of narrative, organizing, and government to build the institutions of the 21st century that can develop and inculcate the practice of democracy across difference. To be successful, these institutions must be self-sustaining and democratically-funded. As sociologist Theda Skopcol notes, civic organizations are increasingly relying on elites who interact with the government but have abdicated their roles in inculcating habits of democracy among citizens. A return to self-sustaining, democratically accountable- and led- organizations, engaged in by a large proportion of our citizens—as labor unions once were—will require a robust engagement of thought leaders, government actors, and practitioners, who can work together to build 21st century democratic institutions at scale.

Solution Overview

Revitalizing our democracy means restoring the idea that democracy is a practice. This requires changing how we—as leaders, citizens, and community members—think about and engage in democracy. The Democracy Revitalization Project will bring together thinkers, doers, organizers, and citizens to deploy our collective power, including the power of government, to create self-sustaining, self-governing civic institutions where citizens can practice democracy. Over the five-year grant period our project will: * Develop and drive a narrative in public discourse about kinds of institutions we need to create a truly inclusive and responsive democracy, how we (as citizens and community members) can engage in these institutions, and how we can support them. * Train and support 50,000 leaders in the skills needed to develop, maintain, and lead local civic organizations.* Directly involve 1 million residents in 25 or more cities in the practice of democracy through local civic institutions, by becoming deeply engaged and sustaining members of these organizations.* Scale up and refine new financing models to support these local civic institutions. New financing models will include: recurring and automatic membership dues mechanisms; contributions paid by employers and linked to employee benefits; mandated contributions from corporate entities that interface with our communities (such as utility companies, landlords and property developers, healthcare providers, etc); and “democracy enhancement fees” contributed by local governments.

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