I have this t-shirt that says Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, which tends to get friendly nods and smiles when I wear it out in public. That’s a no-brainer, really. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, this is a universal truth: We get out of our democracy what we put into it.
I can’t help but feel like it’s taken me a while, though, to fully practice what my t-shirt preaches. Looking back, much of it has had to do with my original line of work. I spent nearly 20 years as a newspaperman, a role that requires not only a vigilant avoidance of conflicts of interest, but also the appearance of a conflict of interest on the topics your news organization covers, especially many a civic matter. That meant no candidate yard signs or bumper stickers, no testifying on bills and ordinances, no campaign volunteering, no marching or rallying or caucusing, no publicly expressing opinions on government matters. As a professional observer, it just came with the territory.
Journalists obviously have an important role in our democracy, something of which I was very proud. But I could never shake the sensation during my newspaper days that the professional ethics that governed our professional lives, no matter how well-intentioned, were ultimately unfulfilling. Put another way, I had to choose to be a journalist first, and a citizen second.
Inspired by then-Sen. Obama’s call for Americans to serve our country more actively, I left journalism in 2008 and joined the University of Nebraska. Universities, too, are ramparts of democracy – powerful centers of free speech, challengers of traditional thought, upholders of civil discourse, educators of democratic citizens. It was interesting and fulfilling work.
During my time at Nebraska U., I also was chosen as a Leadership Lincoln fellow, which I credit for giving me a much deeper appreciation for servant leadership and civic engagement. During my yearlong fellowship, I witnessed countless stories of Nebraskans whose work in large and small ways helped to ensure as many people as possible enjoyed the benefits of our democracy. As my fellowship came to a close in 2017, I began to picture myself in this role, too.
Enter Civic Nebraska. At a time when many observers publicly worry about the status and future of our democracy, our organization is continually rising to protect and build it in the Cornhusker State. And as director of communications, it’s my job to show the many ways Civic Nebraska is working to create a democracy that works for everyone.
What’s been obvious during my time at Civic Nebraska is that, yes, building such a democracy isn’t a spectator sport. In fact, it’s a contact sport – that is, it requires active and engaged citizens continually connecting with one another to create, construct, and protect our civic society.
Those contacts take shape at our after-school programs in Lincoln and Omaha, where we embed service learning and civic leadership into hundreds of students’ daily curricula. The connections also form in our neighborhoods, where Collective Impact Lincoln is tapping into the potential of six of the city’s oldest communities. The links are created among high-school students from around the state during our Capitol Experience Days, which gives our emerging electorate an immersive, interactive look at the statehouse. And, of course, the connections are solidified in our tireless advocacy for free and open elections in Nebraska.
In short, Civic Nebraska is creating a story about democratically and civically engaged Nebraskans, from ages 6 to 106. It’s a story I’m incredibly proud and honored to help tell. Like the t-shirt implies, we only get out of our democracy what we put into it. Civic Nebraska is here to ensure we all put as much into it as we can.
— Steve Smith