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Civil Conversations and Democracy Start with Listening

AUTHOR: David Hutchinson, President of Constitution Day Centre Inc.


AGENCY: Constitution Day Centre, Inc.


It was 236 years ago this month that our nation's founders signed the U.S. Constitution. It remains the practical framework for how our democracy functions - for which we should be thankful. But the leaders of that era could not have anticipated everything, and they certainly knew that important issues were being left for future generations to resolve.

Constitution Day officially is Sept. 17. Did you know that what we are celebrating is actually "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day?" It was 158 years ago that Abraham Lincoln spoke of a government "by the people." But is it? In the present time, far too many of us feel their voices aren't being heard; even fewer believe they could have an active role in setting the direction for our country.

Join us for this year's Constitution Day celebration, “Making Our Voices Heard,” on Saturday, Sept. 23rd. In our small way, our local event is an attempt to begin to fix that perception of not being heard. As we did last year, we will be holding deliberative roundtables around an issue of importance to our democracy. (Last year's deliberation was on the purpose of public education, a topic probably still worth revisiting!)

This year's deliberation will wrestle with questions that get to the core of the average citizen's lack of a sense of agency. To what extent do voters select their legislators - or do legislators select their voters through gerrymandering? Whose voices are being heard? Those of our citizens - or those of wealthy donors? To what extent does the Electoral College protect democracy? Is there a better idea?

Our conversations will be framed around these three questions, but you are welcome, and encouraged, to bring your own ideas.

This will not be a debate. While debates can serve a useful purpose, the structure of a debate assumes that all the wisdom is in the front of the room. This will be a deliberative conversation, with the assistance of trained moderators who will help us to stay on track, but more importantly, will work to ensure that every voice is heard.

That is why your participation is important.

While the result of our deliberations will be shared with both the community and our elected officials, you might legitimately ask, "what difference will this make?"

My answer: if nothing else, we need the practice of listening and civil conversations. If we are to fulfil Lincoln's vision of a "government by the people," we need to exercise our citizenship skills. While our efforts could, in part, be considered practice, it is serious practice, much the way that the football team has serious practice!

My hope is that some would be willing to invest a few hours of your time in support of practical democracy (and well in advance of the evening's Penn State football game.)

REMINDER: Constitution Day Democracy Roundtables, from 11 am to 1:00 p.m., followed by the Madison Award for Civility in the Community, at the American Legion Post 245, 1950 Pine Hall Road, State College. Email register:


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