In business or in civic life, it’s innovate or die

J Petersen on leaving old ways behind in favor of re-inventing civic life in a way that makes sense for us now.


I recently read an article titled “This phrase will kill your business!” The phrase is We have always done it this way, or any number of variations of the same sentiment – fear and rejection of change and innovation. I’d argue that this phrase is dangerous to more than just business. This phrase will kill our Republic.

The Founding Fathers were many things: philosophers, businessmen, aristocrats, slave-owners, and countless other titles good and bad. They were dreamers, envisioning a country more just than any before it. They were innovators and doers, putting in the time, work, and sweat to sew together a new nation from the thirteen scraps with which they had to work. The document they wrote, the Constitution of the United States, is often referred to as a work of genius.

It is much more rare, however, to hear people acknowledge that it was not a first attempt. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were the first draft of a governing document. The government they formed was an utter failure. The Articles were written at the end of the Revolutionary War and were heavily marked by the urgency of that origin. It took four years for the new states to ratify them, and within a few years, they were in dire need of replacement. That’s when the construction of the Constitution as we know it today began in earnest. The Founders had to set aside their pride, admit that their first attempt was not doing the trick, and move on to something new.

Over two centuries later, as a nation, we struggle with this. We are heavily polarized, with both sides clinging to their respective histories and founders. Many conservatives are traditionalists and argue that the Constitution should remain as is, should never be changed. In the same spirit, though, many on the left cling to founding documents of their own movement: Engels, Marx, Alinsky.

One of the things I am most proud of in my work at the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table is our Organizer School program. It’s open to students, recent graduates, or anyone looking for experience in organizing as it relates to civic engagement, community connectedness, advocacy, public policy and nonprofit leadership. It is the first of its kind in the country; the courses our staff has put together, the methods we use, and the structure of the program have all been praised and sought after by other states. I don’t say this to brag on our team (OK, maybe I do, a little) but to advocate for a new mindset.

When it comes to business – but also certainly when it comes to civics – innovation is what we need to strive for. Rather than going back over and over again to what we have done in the past, let’s cut it all up and paste it back together in a way that makes sense for us now. Or even better, let’s take what we’ve learned from our failures and come up with new ways to move forward together.

People can be afraid to share ideas. You may be afraid of rejection, that someone has already had your idea, that you’ll be laughed at or told your idea isn’t helpful. But I would encourage you to go out into your communities and share your ideas, anyway. Share them with friends, family, neighbors, the mayor; share them with anyone who will listen. Neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses, city councils, boards, and planning commissions need them. We may have always done some things a certain way, but it doesn’t have to stay like that.

J Petersen grew up in Valentine before moving to Kearney and then Lincoln to attend university. He graduated in May 2019 and is an administrative assistant for the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table and deputy director of policy and advocacy for Black & Pink. J believes that democracy works better when people engage with it fully and that communication is the most crucial root of every issue. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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