Activating Our Power After the Election (Podcast Transcript)

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Sherylynn Sealy:
Welcome to a podcast by Grantmakers in the Arts, a national membership association of public and private arts and culture funders. I'm Sherylynn Sealy, GIA's program manager. The year 2020 has been an eventful and historic year of institutional reckoning, community organizing, and speaking truth to power. Movements around justice for race, gender, and labor have gained significant traction. And most importantly, the 2020 presidential election has achieved the highest voter turnout in the United States since the early 1900s. It is abundantly clear that civic engagement has become more of an interest to the public than ever before.

Today we have Eddie Torres, president and CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts and Kristen Cambell, executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement or PACE, speaking about the responsibility of funders to keep this momentum going. But Eddie, before you get started, if a funder supports civic engagement, the funder is likely supporting one of two things, lobbying or advocacy, but it's such a touchy subject in the philanthropic sector. So can you just add some context for our listeners before you begin the conversation?

Eddie Torres:
Of course. And I'd be really interested in hearing obviously what Kristen has to say about all of this. One thing is not changed. Advocacy can be conducted by any funder. Lobbying can be conducted only by community foundations, which are public charities. Now, foundations can support advocacy and can engage in advocacy. Foundations cannot lobby except for community foundations. Foundations can support lobbying as part of program, project, or general operating support. It can not be a focus of their support, but can be included in their support.

I mentioned in previous podcasts and it still stands, the cultural communities, advocacy, and narrative change efforts have had a positive impact on public sector funding on the federal level throughout history to now, which speaks to its value. So Kristen, thank you so much for being part of this conversation. You are exactly who we wanted to speak to, and particularly now. And I just wanted to start off asking you to tell us a little bit about how you're showing up today, let listeners know who you are and what you do.

Kristen Cambell:
Yeah. Well, Eddie, thank you so much. You're so kind, and I'm so thankful for the opportunity to be with you today. I am joining you from Annapolis, Maryland, which is where I live and where our office is headquartered for the time being. And I think, how I'm showing up today is very introspective and excited, but cautious asking myself a lot of questions around what I thought I knew to be true, what's more true now or perhaps less true now than I thought before, and what all of that means moving forward.

So, I certainly don't have a lot of answers to any of those questions, but definitely, in a headspace and a heart space to fully engage with you and other colleagues as we try to go on this journey of sense-making about who we are right now as a civic and social fabric and what that might mean for civic life and democracy moving forward.

Eddie Torres:
So that's perfect. And that leads me to my next question which is, how can philanthropy invest in information and education that prepares people for active civic participation going forward? And why is it important to do so?

Kristen Cambell:
So first of all, I think it's super important to do so because one of the things that at PACE, we've always believed to be true, but we're seeing more and more people understand more is that civic engagement and democracy are not nice issues that sit on the side of all of our necessary work. They are the necessary work that makes everything else that we care about possible.

And so, for foundations and funders, in particular, even those that see themselves as issue-based funders, there is an opportunity and a responsibility to engage people in that process, not only the process of identifying what they see as the problems around them, but engaging them in the ability to contribute towards addressing those problems and identifying solutions in ways that then feel community-owned because when things feel community-owned, then people are more likely to sustain them over time. They're more likely to feel bought in and invested into them and to commit to their nurturing and their continuous.

So it's really important that we think about democracy, civic engagement, and our social fabric being, not pieces of the pie of what we care about as funders, but the pan that the pie sits in. And so then, when we think about what it then means to help people be engaged in democracy and have the information and the education that equips that, we really think about three things: we think about the knowledge that is necessary in order to help people understand how systems work, how communities work, and how to make sense of that. We need the dispositions, which some people would think about as the values or the beliefs that that actually, that there's a sense of agency and purpose behind that. And then the third thing that we need in addition to knowledge and dispositions is skill.

We need people to actually know how to take action, again, feel that that matters, but then know what to do when they are convicted and informed, how can they actually act on those things that matter to them? And so those things; the knowledge, skills, and dispositions are achieved in lots of ways, but two ways that we tend to think about it at PACE, one is effective and meaningful civic education, particularly for young people, but we know that education should be a lifelong process. So adults are not absolved from civic education either.

And two, is we need a healthy and robust and free and fair media and information ecosystem that gives people the knowledge and the information to really analyze and unpack and understand what's happening? What can I do about it? And how can I engage others in that as well?

Eddie Torres:
And Kristen, you've spoken before really eloquently about the benefits of higher civic engagement for our communities and for the individuals in those communities. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kristen Cambell:
Yeah, absolutely. So research tells us that communities with high civic health are healthier, safer, and more economically successful places to live. And people who are civically engaged are happier, healthier, and more connected to each other. And so, there is a real fundamental like these and it goes back to the point, of these are not nice fluffy things to do. These are the things that have real, tangible, meaning, and impact for how people live their lives and how communities can be successful based on that.

Eddie Torres:
And let me ask you, when you're talking about some of the key components to consider when developing a civic engagement plan or strategy and an advocacy plan or strategy, can you talk about some of the different things to consider within that?

Kristen Cambell:
Absolutely. I think that it is very important to emphasize that civic engagement and democracy are not just one thing. It is important and valuable to look at them as holistic ecosystems, for lack of a better word, that have multiple component parts that make them up. At PACE, we think about democracy as not only the system of government at the federal state and local level, but also about a system of self-governance that empowers each of us as individual small-c citizens to decide how we want show up in community, how we want to have our voices heard, how we will engage with our community and with our neighbors in service of not only what benefits us, but what benefits the common good as well, self-interest properly understood.

And so, I think it's really important to think holistically about all of the things that can go into democracy and civic engagement when we take that broader framework. So for us, we define civic engagement as the process through which people become active participants and building and strengthening their communities. And it can include policy and advocacy as Sherylynn mentioned to us before, but it can also include engagement in the political process, both electoral and nonelectoral.

Electoral things being, of course, things like voting. Nonelectoral, being like attending public meetings, contacting congressmen, things like that. It can include those political components. And it can also include the more, if I can get a little academic for a second, the Tocquevillian ways of thinking about voluntary association in civil society. Things like volunteering in service, deliberative dialogue, working with neighbors in informal ways to solve or address a community issue.

And so, at PACE, one of the things that we've been trying to do lately, recognizing that these things; democracy and civic engagement can feel like very big academic theoretical concepts. We've done some work to try to understand them both as academic theoretical concepts and as the tangible activities that help those concepts be realized.

And so, if folks are looking for resources around that, I would recommend to you our primers, we have one on democracy, one on civic engagement, and one on civic education. And they're available on our website,

Eddie Torres:
And are there common misconceptions that you hear from the funder community about civic engagement, advocacy, and lobbying?

Kristen Cambell:
How much time do we have? Yes is the answer to that question. I think there are often misconceptions about civic engagement being political. And at PACE, we believe that democracy is larger than politics. It includes politics, but it's also what's upstream and downstream of that. And so, sometimes there's misconceptions that this work has to be political and that's not necessarily true. It can be. I'm not negating the value of that, of course, but it does not have to be tied to politics. It can be tied to these broader questions of who we want to be, how we want to treat each other, and how we to show up in the world.

I think there's another, especially when we talk about policy, and advocacy, and lobbying, I think there's also common misconceptions that usually fall along the lines of conflating what can we do with what should we do?

So, to the point that you made earlier, there are legal boundaries around some types of advocacy and lobbying activities. And the Alliance for Justice has really great and clear resources to help people make sense of where that line is for them based on their organization types. But questions of can we do something are fundamentally different than questions of should we do something.

That goes back to our belief that democracy and civic engagement should be thought about as holistic concepts and then the activities within them are the different tools in the toolbox that we can deploy. They're the levers that help us achieve various types of goals. And so the question of should we do that is more of a question of what are our goals? Who needs to be activated in order to achieve them? And how do we need to activate them?

Not every problem that our communities face has a policy solution. And policy solutions tend to be what leads to lobbying and advocacy work. Sometimes there might be policy solutions and sometimes the solutions might be better addressed by other sectors of society or with other levers of civic and social change that can be mechanized through our toolbox.

Eddie Torres:
So thank you for that, Kristen. So, you've made the point in the past about how civic engagement for persuasion is different from civic engagement for bridging. And I bring this up in part because between the point you just made and that point where it takes me in my head is to arts and culture. And I wanted to ask you, what are the unique opportunities for artists and cultural communities to set, to expand, to shift the civic narratives that shape our lives from our neighborhoods to public policies?

Kristen Cambell:
I love this question because you're absolutely right. There are different ways to think about the role of civic engagement. It can be civic engagement for the purpose of getting people on board with something which is a persuasion strategy. And there can be civic engagement for the purpose of bridging, which is expanding our circle of concern, expanding the way that we understand who we are and who our neighbors are in communities. And in both of those ways, I think there's a really valuable role for arts and culture communities to play.

And I think if you think about civic engagement as a form of expression, it's really easy to see the intersections between civic life and arts and culture. And so, like we were talking about before, when it comes to research in healthier communities, research shows us that places with high civic health and high connection to community are also places that are more likely to have robust social and cultural offerings.

They're more likely to be tolerant places that people know and feel connected to each other. And so these are the things that we know that arts and culture communities are also so great at fostering. And so, to your question, I think that there's huge opportunities to think about art and artistic expression and creativity as a conduit for civic engagement and civic discourse.

And one way that that becomes really clear to me is when we think about some of the biggest debates that are playing out in our public discourse right now. How might those debates look and sound different if artists were facilitating them or we were facilitating them through more of a creative lens? So here's an example. And it's an example that I cannot stop thinking about ever since I heard the revolutionary artist Titus Kaphar suggest it at a conference a few years ago.

And he talked about the public debate that we're having around statues and the debate pretty… You can't see me, but I'm using debate in air quotes right now because the air quotes debate pretty much goes like this. It goes, take the statues down. No, leave the statues up. End of debate. And A, that's not a debate. And B, the thing that Titus challenged us to think about is that statues aren't even a great art sometimes. And even if they are good art, they might not be good representations about what we think that that art is intending to honor.

And so, what if we put artists at the center of facilitating those processes? Processes that then allow for creative expression of voices to be heard in a more productive and constructive and thoughtful way, and then empower those artists who facilitated those conversations to commission pieces that then do celebrate and honor what we intend to celebrate and honor about our path, but also acknowledging where it is that we want to go with our future because that's what good art does.

Eddie Torres:
That's fantastic. Kristen, thank you for that. It's really a pleasure to get your perspective on this podcast because so much of what you've said resonates with so much of what we believe at Grantmakers in the Arts and in the cultural community in general, that these processes can be just that processes, processes of openness and inclusion and engagement. And they don't all have to be oriented around some preordained discreet output that they're actually the way that we live. And that is also by its nature, culture.

So I'm really appreciative of getting your point of view IN all of this. So I just want to say thank you very much.

Kristen Cambell:
Thank you. It's been so fun to be with you. And thanks for all that you and your colleagues at GIA do as well.

Eddie Torres:
Thanks. Sherylynn.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Thank you, Eddie. And thank you both for sharing your time and your expertise in this conversation. You leave us all with a lot to think about as we move past the election and prepare for 2021. And to our listeners, we look forward to continuing these conversations. So be sure to tune in to the other episodes of the GIA podcast and be sure to follow us on Facebook at GI Arts, Twitter at GI Arts, and Instagram at Grantmakers in the Arts.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me, Sherylynn Sealy at And as the late Congressman John Lewis says, "Democracy is not a state; it is an act." And we at GIA look forward to partnering with you and supporting you and becoming more actively engaged using your voice and participating in a re-imagined present and future. Thanks so much for listening.