Citizens Who Care are the Key to Democracy

Exploring acts of citizenship

I do some work occasionally for the Kettering Foundation. The research organization sums up its work in a sentence: what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Or, put another way, what does it take for citizens to govern themselves? The researchers at the Foundation have a pretty good idea of the answer to those questions, and it’s citizens, communities and institutions working together. That’s where things get interesting, because citizens, communities and institutions often do not work together or find it very difficult to work together and then the question becomes why.

Technically, I’m a member of the clinical faculty of the Fanning Fellowship at Kettering, which involves working with journalists from outside the United States who come to Dayton, Ohio, and spend six months “exploring the role of the media in a democratic society and the obligations of journalists to public life.” But there are also interactions with folks in local government, public education, community organizations and skilled professions who are exploring their connections to their publics and to democracy. And it’s all informed by Kettering’s six public practices, coined by its brilliant president and CEO David Mathews. As an important civic issue emerges, that issue is named and framed, it’s deliberated until folks make a commitment one way or another, and there’s public action of some kind and public learning. These six practices are not necessarily linear and they can be messy. But I find the discussions fascinating and stimulating as I consider my work, our work, here at Madison Magazine.

The key is citizens who care. We’re blessed with an abundance of those folks here in Madison. And I believe a lot of them read Madison Magazine. I use this quote a lot but I was really affected by a former New York Times magazine-industry analyst who said he believed people bought city-regional magazines as an “act of citizenship.” And while a lot of what we do here is service journalism, editor Brennan Nardi, associate editors Shayna Miller and Katie Vaughn, and I spend a fair amount of time looking for the unexpected that we might share as well. And more often than not that comes from listening to citizens—our sources, our friends and neighbors, and our readers. Many of you, in other words. So Brennan’s leadership on how we approach topics like the lakes or Governor Walker’s budget proposal, Shayna’s health reporting and local business ties, or Katie’s keen eye for community art and culture offerings, are regularly informed by community ties.

Which brings me to a new project that's been launched, actually re-launched, called the Madison Commons. UW–Madison professor Lew Friedland, himself no stranger to the hallowed Kettering halls, has created a “hyper-local” journalism site that employs (in the volunteer sense of the word) graduate and undergraduate student reporters and editors, but also citizen reporters and bloggers, to find and write about issues on the neighborhood level. It’s all at madisoncommons.org, but there’s also a partnership with WISC-TV3 through channel3000.com. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with the project here at the magazine, but given that the focus of the Commons reporting right now is food, education and transportation—three areas we know are of interest to our readers—there will be opportunities. But at the very least we will be a richer civic community, with smarter citizens who are actively naming and framing issues, deliberating, making decisions, acting and learning. That is, making democracy work within shouting distance of a building demonstrating a display of dysfunctional democracy that is simply breathtaking.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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