During the last round of class meetings, Associate Director for Student Life Jimmy Manyuru and I invited Waynflete juniors and seniors to apply for an opportunity to take on perhaps the most pressing challenge of our time—civic dysfunction.
While our nation faces many urgent challenges right now—including promoting economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, and social justice while avoiding nuclear war—none arguably is as urgent as the need to strengthen our democratic institutions so that we can as a society meet those pressing challenges thoughtfully, effectively, and fairly for the benefit of all.
For the past eight months, a planning team that includes Jimmy, Assistant Head for Student Life Lydia Maier, and me has been developing a cross-community response to this challenge. At the root of the dysfunction are the deep divisions among US citizens along lines of identity and viewpoint, paralyzing divisions that have raised an essential question on which our future as a society depends:
Can we harness the wisdom and power inherent in the great diversity of the American people to revitalize our democracy, mend the social fabric, and live out the true meaning of our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all?
Drawing its name from this essential question, the “Can We?” Project is an experiment in revitalizing American democracy by tapping into the power of its youth. Over the next few weeks, juniors and seniors from seven area schools including Waynflete are being invited to apply to participate in the project. Drawing from the pool of applicants, our intent is to assemble a highly diverse cohort of young people along the lines of background, life experience, and political viewpoint.
Once assembled, the students will work with each together and experienced facilitators at an intensive three day retreat to develop a shared vision for the kind of state and nation in which they want to live. They will also design an interactive forum to be held in the spring with aspirants for public office in which the students will present their vision. The project will encourage participants to speak authentically about their own ideas and experiences, to listen deeply to each other, and to dare to be changed by the conversations. They will be asked to question ideas, challenge each other, and collaborate.
In short, participants in the “Can We?” Project will practice the basic skills of democracy: engaging in dialogue, mediating differences, visioning, holding elected officials accountable, and working collectively for a higher purpose.
Beyond the immediate scope of the project, we hope that the “Can We?” experience will nurture in its participants the lifelong habits of skilled and active civic engagement. Furthermore, by demonstrating what can happen when differences are valued rather than feared, we hope that the project will model for other communities how the power of the most diverse generation in American history can be harnessed in the service of revitalizing democracy.
And perhaps a little of that mindset might just rub off on their elders as well.