Standing for Something Unapologetically

October 10, 2018

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Colin Kaepernick’s recent Nike commercial ends with that phrase.  It’s powerful- thought-provoking. Know what you stand for, and push for that, even if it’s uncomfortable.

I’m not sure we’ve done that as of late at Generation Citizen.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot, especially as Generation Citizen becomes a more mature organization. We have a larger staff, a more developed Board, and are accountable to a myriad of constituents. I do wonder, and worry, that the bigger and more established we become, the more we try to appeal to everyone.

Indeed, the inspirational language we often utilize for the world we ultimately envision is that we want to achieve “civics education for all”, or “Action Civics for all” if we’re feeling like being a little edgy.  Who could disagree with that? Whether you’re on the far left end or far right end of the political spectrum, you can agree that we all need more civics education. It’s as American as apple pie with vanilla ice cream.


Generation Citizen was originally founded and created with a stated purpose far more specific, and with far more conviction than simply “more civics. Prompted by a colleague, I recently looked at GC’s founding strategic plan, written in 2010.  In the very mission statement, we note our fundamental purpose: ”Generation Citizen is determined to help expand democratic participation into populations that have been historically underexposed or actively excluded from the political process.”  That statement is fundamentally about power, about creating a more equitable democracy. It’s not vanilla. It’s strong, and it has conviction behind it. So, what gives? Why’d we water down how we talk about GC? Why’d we soften our actual reason for existing?

One answer might lie in a recent book that has galvanized the non-profit space, Anand Giridharadas’ “Winners Take All.” In his writing, Giridharadas makes the case that the elite have largely usurped and taken over the art of change-making.  In an age of historically unprecedented inequality, the fact that the richest individuals are dictating how change-making occurs, through both their pocketbooks and their overall management philosophies, means that the status quo is usually not touched. Instead, change occurs around the edges.  For example, Giridharadas argues that we invest in charter schools for some young people, proving that the “American Dream” still exists for some, rather than a whole-scale reform of public education, including equitable investment in the system. Or we urge women to lean into leadership, without advocating for the type of comprehensive healthcare and paid family leave that would actually allow them to do so.

The book has resonated far and wide with non-profit folks who often feel constrained in their ability to do the work that needs to be done for wide-scale systemic change to happen, sometimes because of funding constraints.

One chapter, entitled “The Critic and the Thought Leader,” explicitly argues that often times, leaders must make their language more sanitized in order to appeal to a greater number of people. Rather than arguing for  whole-scale change, Giridharadas argues that we often appeal to “the winners (who) want things to be constructive, uplifting and given to hope.” The elite do not want to be told what they are doing wrong. Rather, they want language that means that we can all be better off.  In reality, in order to realize a more equitable society, certain people may need to be worse off. Especially those with a lot.

Giridharadas speaks specifically about Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist who gave a viral TED talk on the power of women using body language to overcome gender bias. In her talks, however, she realizes that her theory resonates more if she does not blame men for creating the bias in the first place. She waters down her thesis to make sure it appeals to all, rather than addressing the real root cause of the problem.

I wonder how much we at Generation Citizen caved to this dynamic. “Civics education for all” versus “ensuring those who have been excluded from the democratic process have more power” are actually fundamentally different missions. One is something that we can all agree with.  Civics equals more civility. A nicer country. People working with each other.

The other might actually change society and the status quo. Once those who have not had traditional political power actually gain it, they might change things. Higher taxes for those with resources. More funding for public institutions. Less power for those who have traditionally wielded it in American society.

But that’s not currently how we talk about our work. Something changed over time.  I’m not exactly sure how or why our language, and strategic shift, occurred, but it’s something that our whole team is thinking a lot about right now.  Our work will look fundamentally different if more civics is our end goal, versus the creation of a more equitable democracy.

I’m not exactly sure what the answer is here – whether we keep our current mission, think about a return to our past, or something in between.  It’s more than a language shift, but a fundamental strategy reorientation.

But what I do know is that we need to define what we actually believe.  We need to have the courage of our convictions, and put a stake in the ground because we, as an organization, believe it, not because others are telling us to.  I look forward to that conversation over the next few months, internally and externally. I look forward to Generation Citizen being unapologetic about what we believe in.

Scott Warren, Generation Citizen CEO

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