Panel Discusses Fierce Civility, Democratic Philanthropy & Citizen Assemblies

On Thursday, September 21, Learning Life and the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College co-hosted a panel discussion on the theme “Democratize America,” with panelists speaking on fierce civility, democratic philanthropy and citizen assemblies.

The event featured three speakers:

Joe Weston, author of the book, Fierce Civility, and founder of The Weston Network, which provides “training, consulting and coaching for individuals, groups, leaders and organizations….with the goal of fostering cultures of respect, civility and mutual empowerment.”

Ben Wrobel, co-author of the book, Letting Go, and co-founder of Proximate, a nonprofit media platform that produces “solutions journalism about innovative participatory models that shift decision-making power to people with lived experience – those proximate to the problem at hand.”

Pam Bailey, Communications Director at People Powered, a nonprofit that supports “organizations and leaders around the world who are building a more participatory democracy, through programs such as participatory budgeting, participatory policy-making, participatory planning, and citizen assemblies.”

In this politically polarized period in the United States and other democracies, Joe argued, drawing from his book, for “fierce civility” against “chronic niceness” that avoids hard conversations across lines of difference.  Joe speaks of four ailments: breakdowns in civil discourse, civic engagement, personal agency, and critical thinking.  Fierce civility aims to address these ailments by developing skills to move beyond polarities of chronic niceness and aggression.

Drawing on his own book, Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control, co-authored with Meg Massey, Ben Wrobel made the case for “participatory grant-making” whereby grant decisions are made by those communities most affected rather than by wealthy donors whose privilege often distances them from the problems they seek to address.

Pam Bailey spoke of People Powered’s work to advance participatory budgeting, planning and policy-making, legislative theater, and citizen juries and assemblies.  Pam focused on citizen assemblies, which have been organized in Europe especially, and which bring together statistically random samples of citizens to hear from experts and those affected by the issue at hand (e.g., from abortion to environmental policy), deliberate, then make policy recommendations that governments take into consideration or implement.

The Eisenhower Institute’s Executive Director, Tracie Potts, moderated the panel, including a rich, participatory audience discussion following the speakers.

Readers can view the speakers’ full presentations here via the Eisenhower Institute’s Youtube Channel.

This event followed on Learning Life and the Eisenhower Institute‘s first co-sponsored panel discussion in September 2020 on American polarization.  The panels are part of Learning Life’s Democracy Dinners series, and the Eisenhower Institute’s Democracy Week every September.  The Dinners are, in turn, part of a broader Democracy Learning Community (DLC) Learning Life is developing in the Washington DC area.   The DLC is devoted to making democracy more fun by developing events, products, services and spaces that entertain as well as nurture learning, networking, collaboration and wider, deeper citizen participation.  Learn more and contribute to building the DLC here.