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Civics Bee Keynote: More than a Competition

by | May 28, 2024 | Newsroom

Civics Bee Keynote: More than a Competition

How helping others helps you

David Adkins, former Kansas legislator and current executive director and CEO of The Council of State Governments, delivered an inspiring keynote during the first-ever Kansas state finals of the National Civics Bee. He shared his deep love for Kansas while reflecting on its rich history, enduring values, and pressing challenges. Adkins underscored the importance of constructive dialogue and inclusive participation in overcoming division, advocating for a more equitable and prosperous society for all. Held at the Kansas Leadership Center on May 9, 2024, the Civics Bee featured 11 middle school student finalists from four local competitions hosted by participating chambers in Hutchinson, Overland Park, Pittsburg and Wichita. Learn more about the Kansas State Finals of the National Civics Bee

Listen to David’s remarks or read the transcript below.

Civic virtue and public service

This is public service recognition week. And in this particular moment in history, I think it is important that we take just a moment to recognize all of those people who have stepped forward—from the smallest, locally focused elective office, to the highest offices in our land—particularly all of those people whose careers are spent serving the public: the people that run the water treatment plant, the folks that ride on the trash trucks and pick up our waste, the highway patrolman—like my father who patrolled the streets—the local police officers, the members of Congress—whether we agree with them politically or not—and all of the people who each day spend their time and talents lifting up the public good.

And it is particularly challenging in this moment, when we think about local and state elected officials. The Brennan Center just recently issued a report in which they found 43% of state legislators had experienced some kind of threat in the last two years. 18% of local officials, office holders had experienced threats. More than 40% of local office holders said they were less willing to run for reelection or higher office at this time because of this abuse. Approximately 20% of state officeholders and 40% of local officeholders acknowledged that they were less willing to work on controversial topics because of these threats. 53% of state legislators believe that abuse deterred their colleagues from taking on controversial topics, and 23% of state legislators said they were less likely to hold events in public spaces because of this abuse.

This is a troubling sign in a democracy. It’s a cancer growing in a democracy in which our elected officials, often those who serve with no pay or little pay, are being subject to the kinds of threats that make them say, “I don’t want to step into the public square.” And so I hope all of us will recognize that the malign post on a social media page, the phone call to an office that is left anonymously, the threatening letter (in the worst cases) doxing or swatting a public official in which law enforcement is drawn to the officeholder’s home with guns drawn. . . that this is unacceptable. And we have to reject it in its totality.

And to the extent that you can, let your elected officials know—even those that you disagree with—that you appreciate their willingness to serve. Tell those who are willing to be candidates—even if they’re not elected—that you appreciate the sacrifices they’re going to make. It is increasingly difficult in a cost benefit analysis to say, “Yeah, I’ll run for city council. I’ll run for the local water board. I’d like to go to Topeka three months out of the year.” And yet there are still people of good intent willing to serve the common good that are willing to step forward and do just that. I hope one day you will be among those. But for the time being, I hope you will let them know that the voices of hate are not the only voices that deserve to be heard.

Kansas: place, history and culture

You know, it’s such a great pleasure for me to come back to Kansas. And it was one of the reasons, certainly, that drew me to come back and talk with all of you today. This is a place that that I love. And perhaps more than can be rationally justified, I believe in that mythic Kansas, a place where disruption has always resulted in progress.

Going back to the first Kansas of tens of thousands of years ago, crossing a land bridge from Asia because migration patterns were fueled by hunger, climate change. And those first humans that occupied this continent came in search of a better life. They built civilizations that are worthy of our respect and give us a history that informs of this place in a way that we should always be mindful.

Those first Kansans continue to inform what it means to be a Kansan. And I think it’s so important for us to recognize that Coronado, of much fame, wasn’t the first person to discover this place. in fact, those Europeans who came to this place were met by humans who had been here for many generations.

But when you think about this place, Kansas, that state motto, ad astra per aspera, is hard to ignore. It’s kind of a barren piece of prairie. People on the coasts would call it “flyover country.” People on their way to Colorado would say, except for stopping at the Cozy Inn in Salina, there’s not much there. Those are the folks who don’t see the subtlety of the beauty of Kansas.

To see the sunflowers in the field in September, to see those magnificent sunsets, to visit Monument Rocks or Mushroom Rock or some of the canyons, or the gentle hills of eastern Kansas, is to recognize that for generations, people have invested in the communities here and built a resilient state; that, regardless of drought or floods or locust plagues, dust bowls—great reasons to have despair—their eyes were always firmly on that large horizon. And I think a place like Kansas, given its crazy history, is a place where possibilities can be embraced and explored.

You know, Abraham Lincoln only came to Kansas once, several years before he was elected president. He was here on a tour where his notoriety was basically derived from the famous debates that he had had with Stephen Douglas. Those debates focused on, of course, the original sin of America, slavery. And at that time, Congress was trying to determine whether or not slavery would be able to be extended to the new territories or the new states.

There were some that believed that to prohibit slavery in new states would be to judge slavery a moral failure that would not allow it to be legitimate in the States where it was practiced. And Stephen Douglas, in those debates, believed that popular sovereignty should determine whether or not a state would enter the Union as a free state or as a slave state. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, when he came to Atchison and Leavenworth in 1858, argued that there was a moral imperative to the issue of slavery that could not be left to the whims of popular sovereignty, that the actual act of owning another human being is not the kind of issue upon which the public has a right to check in.

As it was, the compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska act allowed Kansans, at its earliest stage to enter the nation at the at the brink of the Civil War. And, of course, Bloody Kansas—John Brown, the famous mural in the Capitol holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other hand—embodies that moment in history.

The birth of Kansas was not easy, and at its core was an issue like none other that has divided Kansas and the nation. People lost their lives in that conflict, and we are forever subject to hating Missouri because of it.

So, as we think about the origins of this place, whether it be the people that were first here or how our government as we know it today started, I do believe that the reason I always want to come back to Kansas is because of the goodness of its people. The culture in which possibilities are always embraced. And a culture in which neighbor has traditionally been inclined to look after neighbor, not as an act of charity, but as an act of self-interest, makes this place a place where I think we can explore: What does the next chapter of America need?

Grandmother Nellie: looking after our own

I think about my grandmother. Her name was Nellie. My daughter is named Nell after her. Her mother died when she was born. Her twin died when she was born. And she was sent to live with family here in Kansas. And I would guess from the time that she was a young girl, making meals for ranch hands in the Flint Hills, she probably never traveled more than 150 miles from her home.

My fondest memories of her are her cinnamon rolls. And when I was in college, I knew that there was a special moment that I could capture her recipe for cinnamon rolls. And I wanted to write it down. I still have it on a little spiral bound notebook. I must have looked like a little newspaper reporter.

The problem was the way Nellie made cinnamon rolls. I didn’t appreciate she’d been making them for decades and could whip up a batch of cinnamon rolls in her sleep. But she would say, this is how much salt you put in. And she would cut her hand and she’d say, about that much. And I can remember writing on my little pad “about a dime-sized little mound of salt” is what goes into these things.

Anyway, her first husband, my dad’s father, died when he was very young, and she had two boys. Living in the Flint Hills had its own set of challenges. But in that moment, when a woman wouldn’t have been thought to have a job that would provide an income, and the social safety net was largely nonexistent, it was neighbors who came to her, knowing that she had boys to raise, that offered up something that they probably didn’t really have the room to give, and gave her the dignity of knowing that it was something extra that would go to waste if she couldn’t use it. And in that kind of moment, you recognize that there is a certain both pride and dignity to being a Kansan that I think informs what it means to be a citizen.

Kansas: a model of civics?

Now, I know that that mythic sort of embrace of Kansas is something I desperately want to believe. It’s aspirational, perhaps. Kansas, like so many places, has been buttressed by its own political winds of late. And sometimes the best qualities of the character of Kansas are not reflected in election returns. But I firmly believe that Kansans are willing to learn from disruptions and failures in ways that create new imperatives and growth.

I also think that there’s something in the Kansas DNA, that imprinted DNA, that allows us to disagree with each other, but perhaps to recognize that we share more in common than we disagree about. And if you’ve ever been around my dad, who’s passed now, but his friends, they could literally talk for two hours about the moral clarity they had about whether or not they drove a Ford pickup or a Chevy pickup. And it was belief in his mind that people who chose to drive a Silverado were morally flawed individuals, but that didn’t prevent them from having breakfast every morning at the local cafe.

And I think that there is insight to that that gives us hope that, perhaps when it comes to building community, when it comes to thinking about what truly reflects the character of the place we love to call home, there is much more to celebrate than there is to wring our hands about.

And so when Abraham Lincoln was asked years after his trip to Kansas, would you advise anyone to go west? And he said, “if I were to go west, I would go to Kansas.” What he saw here and what he remembered of this place encouraged him.

From monarchy to self-government

So, today I want to talk a little bit about American democracy.

I fear that I’ve thought about this too much in coming here. So while you will not get anything out of this, I have so enjoyed thinking about what it is I want to say today. And so to the extent that it makes no sense, please know that all of my thinking about this probably will make sense in about three or four days. So we’re just a little early. but if I had a little more time to think about this, I could probably come up with a more coherent strategy.

But basically, I know some of you are learners who learn in a didactic setting. Others need a visual representation. Basically, this is King George and he represents what for many, many years, thousands of years was the model of government. It was easy to think that one person, often imbued with their authority because God had granted them this authority, when in fact the only reason they had that authority is that they were born to the last person who believed that they had that authority. And think about it across cultures, across countries, across empires. There was this notion that there was a class of people and that you fit into the class that you were given. You could be an aristocrat, or you could be on the lowest rung of the ladder. But there was this belief that what we did as a society could be dictated by one person.

Now, even the king, in the history of our jurisprudence, had some problems when that authority was exercised too strongly. The Magna Carta is a good example. The Barons eventually said you’ve gone too far. Parliament and the House of Commons was created to be a check on the absolute authority. But at the time that America was created, it was this notion that a king or queen or a sovereign would be the one who decided the path of government.

Now, in 1776, that became really messy when this idea –this is Bill; he’s just a bill on Capitol Hill—But Bill goes through hell to become a law. It’s really easy for a king to create a law. He just has to say, this is what we’re doing. This guy, our Bill, has to go through committee hearings, has to go through a conference committee, can be vetoed. What a mess. Who would have ever designed this kind of government to think that separation of powers and checks and balances is necessary?

Well, Bill only exists because the founders of our country realized that the impulses to act on your self-interest had to be moderated in ways in which both minority rights in deliberations would be respected, and that ideas had to be firmly tested before they could become a law. American democracy began with that great leap of faith, and it was the ideals of liberty and freedom and people’s ability to govern themselves that was completely revolutionary at the time.

Two Americas

And although we benefit from that legacy today, it is really easy to take it for granted. And in this moment in history, it feels so much like Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. That first sentence in which in thinking about the American Revolution, the French Revolution, a time of tremendous disruption, he wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.”

When we think about that today, there’s much to recognize. This is the best of times. It is the worst of times. In the last several presidential elections, we’ve had the highest turnout of voters in history. And yet in a recent poll—and I’m guessing you will feel this way too—Americans were asked to think about politics. What’s the one word that they would use? 65% said that they were exhausted. 55% said they were angry. Only a small minority said that they were hopeful or excited about politics today. You think about this: exhaustion with politics, but the highest turnout. You think about the medical miracles that are extending life, creating new treatments and prevention, new devices that treat diseases that killed off, generations of people before. And yet we live in a time in which the belief that vaccines are somehow a threat permeates a large swath of our population. We have more leisure time than ever. And yet a growth in the deaths of despair, suicide, loneliness, alienation. There are more ways to connect than ever before. And yet, America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. We have the most empowered and diverse citizenry ever. And yet there are big cohorts of our population that continue to feel marginalized and who are the victims of generations of systemic alienation and racism.

De Tocqueville: civic associations and the social capital of democracy in America

You know, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to the United States and wrote two volumes about democracy in America in 1835 and 1840. He was a Frenchman who was very interested in how the revolution and government by the people was playing out in America. He actually came as part of a study to look into the penitentiary system in America. To read his words today is still very compelling.

He was taken by several notions of American politics, and his study in records are exhaustive. But he believed that Americans were unique in that they associated with each other to solve problems. And it was this tendency towards association that gave buoyancy to the idea of self-government. The idea that people would come together in their own self-interest, that would be defined by collaborating with others in his observation, was very unique.

Building social capital to accomplish shared goals is a part of the American journey, and I would say is still very much alive. But there are headwinds that in a civic bee you have to acknowledge. 47% of Americans in a recent study could not name all three branches of government. (Of course, we know it’s executive, legislative, judicial.) 17% can’t name any of the branches of government. And let’s face it, we are probably all more familiar with a judge on American Idol than we are of the judges on the Supreme Court. Three quarters of American students lack sufficient understanding of civic concepts to apply them. Two thirds of Americans believe that the general public is insufficiently informed about how government works. Two in 10 Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right. Just 2 in 10 Americans!  The number of Americans who generally think that science has a positive impact on society is declining. 73% believed that science had a positive impact in January of 2019. After the pandemic, and today that has dropped to 57%.

We know that civic engagement matters. In fact, one study said that average life expectancy is three years shorter in communities where there are barriers to participation in civic life, whether that’s access to libraries and broadband internet, deliberations over policy or voting. Where there are barriers for people to associate and make a difference, life expectancy actually goes down.

Founding ideals of our government

So when we think about the founding of our government, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were manifestations of these revolutionary ideas. And it seems to me that when we think about our birthright as a nation, that second sentence of the Declaration [stands out]:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So instead of a king being the sovereign, the people became sovereign. And so it was in 1776 that these words, penned by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams in a committee of five ultimately adopted by the Continental Congress, set in motion the creation of a nation that would have its share of challenges.

The Articles of Confederation frankly didn’t work out, but in trying to revise them, 55 men gathered in Pennsylvania over the course of the summer of 1787. The document they would approve started with the words, “We, the People of the United States of America, in Order to form a more perfect Union. . .”

And so our birthright, the value upon which our nation was founded, was that we were all created equal. And we know that that statement at that moment was, in fact, aspirational. The idea of what people would think of freedom being was completely different than our concept of what freedom is today. The “We hold these truths to be self-evident” was not as expansive as we would like to think the word means today. And the purpose of our government was not administrative; it was to form a more perfect union. And that is the journey we have been on now for nearly 250 years.

Political democracy is in our hands

In 1937, in The New Republic, they asked a question that reflects, now decades later, the hand-wringing that we tend to do about democracy. They ask, do you think that political democracy is now on the wane? And an Italian philosopher responded to that, questioning the validity of that question. He said he calls this kind of question meteorological. It’s like asking, do you think that it’s going to rain today? Had I better take my umbrella? Political problems are not external forces beyond our control. They are forces within our control.

As he said, we need solely to make up our own minds and to act. And so it is this notion of creating a more perfect union wasn’t the job of others. It was the job of We.

There’s an interesting study that’s been done about lottery tickets.  To one group of people, they gave a lottery ticket with numbers that had already been selected; and with the other group, they asked them to pick the numbers of their lottery ticket. They picked the numbers and they distributed the lottery tickets. Now, keep in mind, whether you pick the numbers or whether you are given a ticket that’s already got the numbers, your odds of winning are about 1 in 50,000,000, infinitesimal. They are exactly the same odds.

But then they said, “We want to buy those tickets back from you.” The people who had not picked their numbers readily agreed to just simply give back the tickets for a dollar. But on average, the people who had picked their own numbers demanded five times more than the people who were just given their numbers.

There’s something about value in a sense of ownership. And it is that that we should recognize enhances the value of our democracy. If we are willing to take ownership of it, even if we look at others that are consuming what a community has to offer, as opposed to creating what a community can be. Those that pick their numbers had a sense of ownership. Those who exist in a community to create community, not to consume community will have a greater sense of ownership.

And it’s in that that I think, our role as a citizen becomes very personal. The we, the sovereign, the citizenry does not need to rely on presidents, governors, state senators, or representatives or mayors. The We is us.

The challenges of today

And there are so many people that want to cover political discourse as, as a choice between two things either or, seldom giving people the chance to appreciate the complexity of the issues that we have to deal with. So I think we have to recognize that, as many have said, leadership is a journey that starts within and that character is destiny, a concept of the ancient Greeks.

Now, today in our political world, there are many charlatans who are willing to foment fear and leverage anger, to create tribalism and an orthodoxy that gives very little room for the kind of consensus and comity that’s necessary to govern in a multifaceted society. They seldom offer-up solutions, and they are willing to replace rational thought, science and facts with emotion and opinion.

They play on those who are not willing to do the work of citizenship. And we must create a counterbalance. And thankfully, many, many people are. For our nation to reach its ultimate aspirations—the We in We the People—has to include all of us, and not because it’s the right thing to do necessarily, although I would argue it is, but because it serves each of our self-interests.

There are new ways in which citizens are engaging with their communities, and I believe that the reinvention of American democracy is going on in the quiet places, not necessarily being covered as it should be. There are too often times when, media sources and social media reinforces this notion that your political opponent isn’t just right or wrong, but they are good or evil, that your political opponent is your enemy.

There was a time in which people of the most diverse political backgrounds could be friends in Washington. Orrin Hatch was a dear friend of Teddy Kennedy in the Senate. Two people who saw very little eye to eye. Today, if you are of one party in Congress and you are seen out with a staffer from another party, it’s likely you’ll be called to task the next morning and asked, why were you out? Why were you spending time with someone from the other party?

The polarization within Congress, in the sense that anything you say to someone who differs from you will be used against you is palpable.

Inviting everyone into the public square

I think one of the things that we have to invest in is the ability to manage conflict better. In a book Amanda Ripley has written—she’s a New York Times columnist—High Conflict, she talks a lot about this. We have to recognize that in democracy, conflict is essential. We are going to disagree, and we’re going to fight hard to have our position prevail.  But as she defines high conflict, one of the markers of that would be when you are happy that something bad has happened to a political opponent, you take glee in it. And there are conflict entrepreneurs. People who think their position benefits from chaos. People who do not want to offer solutions, but simply believe that their position, their perspective, their cultural norms can be advanced when there is absolute conflict. These are people, again, who are cultivating a culture of distrust, and are a cancer on the public square.

This book, High Conflict, is part of a broadening bibliography of resources in which those who want to act constructively in the public square can learn from the results of social science, but also to look at many situations in which bridge builders came together to solve problems. And there are many out there. There’s great reason for hope.

Far too often in the public square, others want to paint things as a horse race, that choice between either or. But it’s also true that there are many that want to paint our choices in public policy as a zero-sum game. That for me to get something, you have to lose something. And if I get something, you feel like you’ve lost something. Increasingly, there is that belief that transcends all rational thought. Because in fact, when we all do better, we do better together.

A classic case is in this great book by Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us. She talks about the history of structural racism and even how race as a construct was created in the early years before the colonies existed and weren’t even a nation. But she talks about the time in which public parks were seen as a public good and public pools flourished in America. Under Roosevelt, the Public Works Administration built these lavish, resort-like public pools. And yet, when people who were not allowed to swim in those pools brought legal actions to enforce equality, segregated pools were ordered to give way, to integrate swimming pools. And so many cities around America, both in the north and the south, instead of accepting that humans were seen as humans and part of the community, what they did was they closed the public pools. They filled them in with dirt.

The Sum of Us, the title of the book, is to indicate when everyone participates in the public square, it benefits all of us.  Zero-sum thinking made them think that if those people were allowed to use a facility that previously was a privilege only for us, it would somehow negatively impact us, and it sure as hell did! The pools went away.

And so I think that there are so many people working to build bridging social capital, ways in which disparate groups, some traditionally marginalized, disaffected or unheard, are being brought back into the public square. People who are willing to define their citizenry as their capacity to have convening, courageous conversations. And so, again, I think when we think about how to revitalize American democracy, thinking small is the way to achieve big things.

Resources for hope and inspiration

If you think about the ways in which American democracy is capable of reinvention, I wanted to just share a few resources with you and then, wrap things up, because occasionally, talks like this can be a little disheartening. And usually the question is, so what are we going to do about it?

There are a number of resources that I would encourage you to consider. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued last year a report called Our Common Purpose. This is available online, but it’s a cross-section of people that came together to study the American system of government and to think about ways in which, anti-democratic forces within institutions might be adjusted or changed. And some of these are fairly provocative. We get used to what we have, but you have to ask the question, why do we have 435 members in Congress? Why? Seems like a strange number. Why do we vote the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November? Originally, our founders were so distrustful of direct democracy that our U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures.

It took a constitutional amendment to say U.S. senators will be elected by the people. So the ways in which we think about the institutions serving us today should always be evolving. And I think this report is a great way to spur some thought about how we could do that.

The Pew Research Center has studied 24 countries in a report that they issued, What can improve Democracy using case studies from all of these countries. They have a tremendous, treasure trove of insights at a human level. And I’d encourage you to look into that.

There’s so many other kinds of projects: The Volcker Alliance that works on public budgeting matters. And at the community level, neighborhood groups that are coming forward to solve problems together. That notion that we are always evolving towards a more perfect union is as robust today as it has ever been.

And those that despair about the state of democracy have always been folks with good intentions. But those voices echoed through the generations. What we have to know is that today, the work of making the choices that shape our future is firmly in our hands. Character is destiny. That ancient Greek idea.

And so when we think about What is the character of your school? What is the character of your neighborhood? What is the character of your city? Your county, your state, your nation? It is not enough to say that is somebody else’s work. Ultimately, we have to judge the success or failure of our experiment in democracy by the extent to which we are willing to most eloquently articulate our commitment to that aspiration through our own action, and the extent to which we hold our freedoms and liberty important should translate into the level of commitment that we are willing to put forth, whether that be knowledge, whether that be engagement, whether that be something as simple as the acts of serving on a jury, voting in an election. Ultimately, the destiny of our democracy is shaped by the character which is created by the choices we make every day.

In looking at some of the essays for the Civic Bee, I was so encouraged by this notion that small choices—being kind to one another—could matter. That’s an act of citizenship. It is because it says, “I see you. I recognize you as a human.” And the highest qualities of leadership reflected in a pluralistic society that require compromise in order to govern, should always have a healthy dose of empathy embedded in in our orientation towards the public square.

So to all of you, let’s face it, you are chronic, civic nerds. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. So you have given me the privilege of telling you things you already know. But I hope that by populating this room today, you are expressing your enduring commitment to continue to give back and to make your contributions to ultimately judge your success not by the actions of presidents or governors or senators, but by the extent to which you’ve used your unique gifts to enrich the lives of those you are sharing this journey with.

Acknowledgements

I appreciate this opportunity to be here. I want to give a quick shout out to Fidelity Bank. They put their money where their mouth is. They’re good corporate citizens. And when corporate citizens come forward and make things like this possible, we need to recognize that. Because there are so many, commercial enterprises that define their bottom line in different ways. But for a corporate citizen to come forward and say, “our bottom line includes convenings like this,” it impresses me a lot.

And finally, just to say a great thank you to the Kansas Leadership Center. The impetus for what this is started with people in this community who decided they wanted to improve the health and health care of the citizens here. They created a charitable hospital that for many, many years serve the needs of this community, giving care, healing, and compassion. When that hospital was sold, the charitable corpus of the proceeds from that sale created one of the first conversion foundations in America, the Kansas Health Foundation.

The Kansas Health Foundation defined its bottom line as broadening out the lens by which we think about the health of Kansas to include things like public parks, civic engagement and leadership. And because of that, they invested in the Kansas Leadership Center, which has now for many years sought to inculcate Kansans in this leadership framework, building leadership capacity that makes it possible for ideas to take root, for people to have the skills necessary to navigate the complexities of civic life.

And so I’m incredibly honored just to be a part of that legacy in just some small way. That the people who had the idea to start the hospital many, many years ago probably never thought that harvested from that intention would be this center, which serves as a catalyst for the common good.

And so, I think it’s worth reflecting on the people whose choices, many generations ago continues to serve the common good. There’s no reason for us not to take inspiration from that and think, how can we today or in the future, accomplish the same thing?

Caleb Bonnema, Rishaan Panchal and Pranjal Adhikari, left to right, were the top three finishers. First prize-winner Rishaan will represent Kansas at the National Civics Bee in November. Credit: Julian Montes

Last word: civics is more than a competition

And let me just say—finally, I promise—I was one of those kids that did a lot of these things.

I can remember coming to Wichita as part of the Optimists Oratorical contest. I drove by the hotel where the contest was held. I still have a little PTSD when I drive by there. This would have been 45 years ago, maybe more. The topic for that oratorical contest was a three-minute speech on the on the subject, “Yes, we can.” My speech was so compelling that Barack Obama stole the line from that.

But I didn’t win. It didn’t mean that I didn’t set out to ruin the life of the young person that did win. But what I want to tell you is that a civic speech is kind of a strange construct. Yes, here’s going to be a winner. It seems a little strange that we create that kind of competition.  Because I think competitions are fun. But it also means that some people aren’t going to win. The fact of the matter is that defining “winning” in a civic speech should not be about who happened to answer the most questions correctly.

Winning in any kind of civic endeavor should always be determined by the extent to which you brought other people to the table, encouraged them to be part of the conversation. So to the moms, the dads, the mentors who encouraged and supported the young people who are participating today, thank you. You gave them space in which to act on their most nerdish tendencies.

And the other thing I would tell you is, while it may not seem very practical to apply the knowledge that you fought so hard to gain to win a Civics Bee, that knowledge will come back echoed in different situations in which, because you knew and know what you learned in this situation, you will be better prepared to succeed in the future.

And there’s always the temptation that people will say, “You are the future. You’re the best and the brightest.” And I’m going to say, you’re not the future. You are the now. In your schools, in your family, in your neighborhood, in your faith communities. You have the power to positively impact people’s lives.

And ultimately, that is the best expression of civic engagement. You believe that helping others helps you. And that’s why we don’t have a king. Because this nation believes that we the people were the ones entitled to chart our destiny.

Thank you all very much.

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