One day last winter, two civic-minded fellows named Mark Ritchie and Nate Garvis were doing lunch. An idea was born, or, more correctly, activated.
It had been incubating within Garvis, the chief governmental and public affairs executive at Target Corp., for a while. It grew legs as Minnesota Secretary of State Ritchie told Garvis of a national convention on his plate, the National Association of Secretaries of State, or NASS.
Ritchie wanted to turn the group’s shindig — which is usually accompanied by a mini-trade show of nonprofit voter-rights and voter-education groups — into something special. Garvis obliged.
Brainstorm led to Civic Summit
From that brainstorm, a thunderclap called the National Civic Summit developed. It is set to begin tonight with a party hosted by — you guessed it — the big red circle-and-dot guys, Garvis’ Target. By the looks of the attendees, presenters and agenda for the Summit — to be held Thursday and Friday at the Hilton Minneapolis ahead of the NASS gathering — the Civic Summit has turned into a voting-education, civic-advocacy and democracy-building Chautauqua meeting … on steroids.
Among the more than 50 workshop titles: “Civic Engagement via Civic Agriculture,” “Developing Students to Be Public Servants,” “Civic Ethics and the Better Business Bureau” and “Money in State Politics.”
For the full agenda, go here. (PDF)
The Summit will also include a robust technology training component, complete with a massive “Tweet-Up” set for tonight, so that people who can’t get to Minneapolis can participate and those in town can help market the Summit, which begins at 9 a.m. Thursday, also at the Hilton.
This entire civic festival is free and open to the public. The NASS convention is expected to attract about 200 people. The Summit is expected to bring in as many as 1,500 people.
A main attraction at 1 p.m. Friday is Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.
Add to all its content and bells and whistles these two activists: Sean Kershaw, who has been responsible for the revival of Minnesota’s Citizens League, and Wendy Meadley, an energetic social networking and marketing whiz. The Citizens League has helped to organize the event, and Meadley is wiring it, transforming the staid NASS convention into a sort of State Fair for Informed Democracy.
The fundamental questions being asked at the Summit are:
• “How can we increase civic imagination and capacity to solve today’s challenges in ways that serve the public interest?”
• “How do we use technology to move from isolation and overload to effective collaboration and solutions?”
“Last November, people said, ‘I want the world to change,’ and they voted,” said Meadley. “But they’re saying, ‘Now, what do I do?’ We think the ‘what do I do’ is the National Civic Summit.”
For Kershaw, whose organization strives to bring Minnesotans together to help make public policy, the Summit idea is a national platform to do the same. Indeed, secretaries of state from across the nation were asked by Ritchie to invite their own local organizations to attend the Summit; speakers and groups from North Carolina, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are set to attend.
Training sessions will be conducted — live and online — on how citizen and educational organizations can better use the web, Twitter and social networking and marketing. Then, throw in some Blog Talk Radio sessions.
It reflects the new engagement landscape, said Kershaw. It’s a landscape that some nonprofits, civic education and citizen advocacy groups are resisting, he said.
“The old ways of getting people involved don’t work anymore,” Kerhsaw said. “We need new tools.”
Said Garvis of the techie piece of the Summit: “It’s about creating new kinds of conversations that will produce new kinds of ideas. And social media is just another vehicle for a conversation.”
The Summit will encourage participation far and wide.
Said Garvis: “It used to be that you’d gather in a physical space and you’d hope people would talk about it afterwards. Now, people can talk about it as it’s happening and be part of it without being physically there.”
Still, Ritchie pointed out, the good, old-fashioned, face-to-face meeting and exchanging of ideas and opinions also will ensue. One session Ritchie is looking forward to will come at 8 a.m. Friday when Bob Richardson of Rochester — with no laptop, no PowerPoint and no remote control — will present “An Exciting Look at American History Through State Flags.”
“Bob would be on the non-Internet, no Tweet, non-Twitter wing” of the participants, said Ritchie who just last week obtained his own very first BlackBerry smart phone.
Citizens Jury to report on Senate election
Another piece of the NASS convention and Civic Summit is the conclusion of the “Citizens Jury on Election Recounts.”
Recommendations by the 24-person panel to the secretaries of state are set to be delivered Saturday on Minnesota’s Senate election and recount aftermath.
Of course, anything this participatory, imaginative and democratic — even if it’s with a little “d” — is a leftist plot to raise activism among the masses. Right?
Wrong, say Ritchie and Garvis. Ritchie points out that among the main speakers and participants is the “Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.” Its co-chair is retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no left-winger she. The Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans will sponsor a workshop on civic engagement. Then there’s the League of Women Voters and the Better Business Bureau, to name a few nonpartisan groups.
Said DFL-er Ritchie: “It is absolutely not left-leaning.”
Besides Target, the Summit’s corporate sponsors are General Mills and Best Buy.
Said Garvis: “If anything, I’m interested in creating spaces that aren’t defined by left or right but are really only defined by forward. Civic conversations are not the purview of one side or the other … This has never been an exclusive invitation. Anybody from every side of the spectrum is invited.”
Let the Tweeting, engagement, imaginations and voter education begin.
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.