Obama the discussion leader

There’s a desperate need to re-engage Americans in the work of our communities – the work of our country. The first step is not to launch into yet another new program, but rather to pry open space for people to see and hear themselves again. This is at the heart of our nation’s challenge today. The perfect leader for this discussion is President Obama.Just last week at the Nuclear Summit the president demonstrated once again his keen ability to lead tough conversations. He seems to relish being in such spaces. Such skills were at work during the health care summit, too. Now we need them in a new arena.This Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of the Serve America Act. Many good things have emerged from this initiative, but there’s so much more to do. Our challenge remains how to engage people in the work of communities and to rebuild trust among people. I’ll leave the programmatic side of this task to another time. For now, I want to focus on something even more basic and fundamental to our collective success moving forward: how to authentically re-engage people in a conversation about their role in community and public life.

Simply running a new set of public service announcements, or conducting yet another civic contest to entice people’s engagement, or throwing statistics at people in the hopes of jolting them into action will not do. In fact, so many of these tactics are trotted out so often that they hardly seem to hold meaning any longer.

Instead, people need to see and hear themselves again in community and public life. This is essential, and irreplaceable. They need to know that their realities count, and that their realities have been accounted for. They need to know that if they step forward – back into public life – they will find something beyond more acrimonious and divisive cross-fire. They need to know that their civic-minded actions – however big or small they may be – are valued. The conversation I have in mind can help make this happen. Indeed, without addressing these critical conditions, no program or initiative will work.

To be clear, this wouldn’t be yet another “town hall.” Think instead of the health care summit, with thirty or more people around a single table who have the ability to actually engage one another, listen to each other, and work together. When people in the country see and hear this, they will breathe a sigh of relief that such engagement is still possible.

Of course, these conversations will need to occur across the country and my expectation is that they eventually will tie to civic action. The president can tap into other talented Americans to help lead these conversations, even reach across the aisle to build bi-partisanship, and, ultimately, spur people in their own communities to take a leadership role.

To effectively move forward we must be absolutely clear about the challenge we face. It is not simply a programmatic one; rather, it goes to the heart of the condition of our civic health. An urgent need exists within our country to pry open space so that people can see and hear themselves again and rediscover the possibilities to step forward. In so doing we can actively create a new narrative about what it means to engage, one that combats the current narrative of negativity and polarization. The challenge we confront concerns our faith in one another and in our ability to effect change together.

Now is the time to act.