When’s the last time you walked into a coffee shop and heard a robust conversation about what it means to live in a multicultural democracy? Or when did you last sit on the bus and overhear a discussion about structural racism and how to dismantle it?
These scenarios are of course possible — and it may be too cynical to say this doesn’t happen — but some prefer a more formal setting, something that’s conducive to open and honest discussion.
Enter: Civic Saturday.
Civic Saturday is a national dialogue series, developed by Citizen University, that’s meant to bring people together to reflect on what it means to be an active citizen. That includes discussing issues ranging from America’s racist and brutal history to the role each person should play in a healthy democracy. Developed in Seattle, the series is now in over 20 cities and came to Indianapolis last year.
The next Civic Saturday is 11 a.m.-noon on July 20 at Central Library. The event is hosted by Spirit and Place, part of The Polis Center at IUPUI. The discussion will focus on the role of optimism in a democracy.
Civic Saturdays are organized similar to a religious service. There are readings, songs, even a sermon. Erin Kelley, program director at Spirit and Place, described her sermon just as you would expect an ordained minister to: It’s a “talk with moral purpose.”
“People need ritual,” she said. “They need a sense of coming together with shared purpose.”
Kelley said Americans spend a lot of time “yelling at each other” — an assessment many would agree with — and there isn’t enough effort to figure out and talk about people’s obligations to one another.
“It’s important for us to create spaces where people can come together and wrestle with what it means to be an American and what it means to be an active citizen who lives in a democracy,” she said.
Kelley said she will talk in her sermon about figures including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and how they didn’t give up on “the American promise” when they faced opposition. She’ll also talk about how it’s OK to have optimism in institutions, just not to the point that they’re followed blindly and without scrutiny.
“Being optimistic is an act of rebellion,” Kelley said. “… It’s the goal of tyrants and oppressors to crush spirits. When a spirit is crushed, you’re inactive and don’t do anything.”
Kathi Ridley-Merriweather, an actress who’s read poems at past Civic Saturdays, said she appreciates that the discussions don’t have a partisan motivation.
“There have been rifts with families and relationships and co-workers,” she said of those times when conversations veer into political rivalries. “So it’s nice to come together with people who are there to find out what we should be doing to care for ourselves.”
Ridley-Merriweather said she had a baseline understanding of civics as a Black woman, but Civic Saturdays have helped her go further in understanding her place in democracy. That’s why she’s hoping more minorities will consider attending.
“It’s not something that I would normally think I’m gonna go to,” she said. “It’s one of those things you might have to hear from someone else, ‘Hey, you’ll enjoy this.’”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
This is the final Civic Saturday event of the year. The focus will be on the role of optimism in a democracy.
• When: 11 a.m.-noon July 20
• Where: Central Library, 40 E. St. Clair St.
• Cost: Free