Claim – and spread – your civic power

Anyone can claim, exercise, and share civic power, and create meaningful change. 

In this polarized age, it’s not all that surprising that a lot of our focus and attention is on the acquisition, nature, and use of power. Power shows up everywhere in national headlines: a constant drip-drip-drip about how it is wielded by government actors, about how it’s separated in our Constitution, about how a particular political figure is nakedly pursuing it, or about how it is transferred from one administration to another.
This kind of power – state-based and governmental ­– is and always should be the subject of scrutiny. But this is not the only kind of power being practiced in the United States. Large corporations, businesses that dominate local or regional economies, well-resourced institutions and advocacy groups, and individuals with wealth, pedigree, or connections all work to amplify a self-perpetuating narrative that says power is reserved only for the elected, appointed, or privileged few.
We can accept this paradigm, or we can address it as the illusion that it is. All Americans, regardless of station or background, are entitled to power. And of all the different brands of power, the kind that citizens wield ­– civic power – is best at creating meaningful and lasting change. To acquire it, civic power requires no entry fee, no particular birthright, and no special favors or tributes. Anyone can be a civic actor at any time. This, of course, is by design: Democratic power by its very nature is intended to be widely distributed. Throughout our history, our nation has tended to be at its strongest when more of us have had access to the overall share of power.
Civic power collects. It compounds. And, if fully realized, it spreads to new places, energizes, and multiplies. In 1981, President Jimmy Carter touched on the inherent nature of this vast, largely untapped power in his farewell address. “In a few days, I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office,” Carter said, “to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”
This might sound quaint these days. Self-proclaimed “realists” contend that there’s only so much power to be had; that it can’t just be simply claimed or conjured, but seized from someone else. And that even if the average American does become motivated to seek power and agency, they’ll find all of it except some table crumbs already locked up by elites.
But power is not finite. It is not zero-sum, and most importantly, it is not reserved for the predetermined few. In America, it can be created out of nothing. It can emerge in unlikely places where none previously existed. It can be multiplied, increased, and – most importantly – spread to others in pursuit of common goals. We know this because we’ve seen it, over and over, in our democracy-building work: citizens who master the methods and use of power by organizing, connecting, and acting. From neighborhood advocacy to nationwide movements, ordinary Americans have rediscovered the infinite well of civic power. You can, too.
To begin, it’s necessary to first understand the landscape of power. Take the time to form an objective evaluation of your community’s structures of power. Ask yourself: Who are the people – elected officials, business leaders, community advocates, others – who run things? How do they exercise power? To what end? Then ask yourself: Why is this so? How do they maintain power? And, finally: How can this be different? What must happen to reshuffle the landscape of power? Research these questions thoroughly. Then, reflect on the answers. This reflection will form the foundation and framework of your pursuit of civic power. 
At some point, you will inevitably move from reflection to action, and from action to connection. The very process of seeking answers to the questions above increases the potential for forming and joining networks of like-minded people who happen to be asking similar questions. This civic exercise is fundamentally American: Physical venues such as town halls, neighborhood meetings, marches, or protests have served as ways to connect Americans through the ages. Today, digital social networking makes it easier than ever for fellow travelers to meet, organize, strategize, and activate en masse. During the COVID-19 crisis, non-union “essential workers” across different industries – grocery chains, distribution services, restaurants – flocked to an online platform called to unify around a range of reforms, including better health and safety precautions, hazard pay, and even benefits for part-time workers. It’s an example of how a multitude can rewrite political, social, and cultural rules.
As your civic power and platform grow, it is important to spread it exponentially by telling, sharing, and amplifying stories that can motivate and unite others to take up the cause. The power of storytelling allows us to communicate important truths and bring people together with a common purpose. Stories can elevate visibility, fortify collective identity, magnify inequalities and injustices, build political influence, and encourage would-be bystanders to get involved.
Consider the story of Bold Nebraska. In 2010, it formed as a small progressive group on the notion that issues, not ideology, are what drive people to make local change. It ended up successfully battling Big Oil to an international stalemate. When TransCanada proposed building the Keystone XL oil pipeline through Nebraska, Bold Nebraska began a hyperlocal campaign that told the stories of real Nebraskans whose rights and livelihoods would be damaged by the pipeline. Invariably, people saw themselves in the individuals in those stories – most famously Randy Thompson, a farmer and stockman from rural Nebraska whose land was in the path of the proposed pipeline.
Before long, the campaign caught fire, growing from a small group of local liberal activists to a national coalition of farmers and ranchers, Native tribes, environmental activists, families, church leaders, and celebrities from across the political spectrum, all pledging to “Stand With Randy.” Some joined based on their objection to the violation of personal property rights. Others were motivated to protect the treasured Ogallala Aquifer. Still others urged the powers-that-be to focus on building an energy infrastructure that benefited Americans, rather than greenlighting a massive export pipeline across the country to move Canadian oil to China. As of 2021, the pipeline’s future remains in doubt, reeling from legal setbacks, disapproval from the Biden administration, and declining public favor. The civic power of the many trumped the well-financed and well-connected few.
It’s important to note that the Keystone XL drama has unfolded over a decade and is, in fact, still unfolding. And it is but one cause of many. So remember that civic power requires persistence and patience. Wielding civic power for long-term, structural change entails a determination that often runs counter to our modern culture of instant gratification. Not to mention our time-honored political and governing structures, in slicing up power among federal, state, and local boards and bodies. Sustaining civic power becomes even more difficult when considering at each of the federal, state, and local levels, power is further separated among different branches of government, and then granularized across an array of departments, boards, commissions, and agencies. This can threaten to sap the energy of any cause or campaign, no matter how urgent or righteous – even those individuals and groups skilled in organizing, building, and exercising civic power struggle with this shape of things.
Which brings us back to the first step. In these moments, we can ask ourselves: How can this be different? What must happen to create positive change? Achieving true civic power means more than winning a few one-off battles. Creating meaningful, sustainable change means constantly re-imagining and, if necessary, restructuring our systems – governmental and otherwise. That way, the connections, stories, and activism of civic power can ensure the central functions and goals of those systems are centered on citizen engagement, involvement, and mutual accountability.
 When people organize and systemize the use of civic power, the barriers that maintain the status quo are much more difficult to justify. Fortunately, democracy is flexible and adaptable. It thrives on new ideas, energy, and innovation. And it is unquestionably strengthened through the very existence of civic power.

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