What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
Louise: My mother began her career as a lawyer. She specialized in family law, and when the federal Divorce Act was enacted in Canada in 1968, women flocked to divorce. At the time, the rights of women in Quebec were limited. They could not open a bank account nor buy a house without their husband’s consent. Divorce was literally a matter of life and death for some.
My mother’s practice grew enormously, primarily representing women in abusive or other difficult marital situations. She was seen by these women as their savior, their attack dog, and their therapist all at once. The stories were disturbing and sometimes traumatic.
One day after school, I walked into my house and there were nine people around our dinner table. My mother had welcomed into our home her client and her seven children who had no place to stay and who were not safe. As a 10-year-old, I was not at all happy to have all of these folks invading my space. I rolled my eyes when my mother suggested I play with the kids.
I have come back to this moment many times in my life. I came to see the profound dedication that it took for my mother to blur the boundaries of her professional life and welcome strangers to stay with us. I grew to admire her enormous generosity, her commitment to human connection above all, and her devotion to justice and human rights. I also recognized the challenge to me to see the situation from the kids’ perspective and the duty to welcome them. I continue to seek to understand and appreciate that while I cannot live in another person’s shoes, I can stop, listen, and take it in.
Shawn: My grandma ran a streetfront craft store in the inner suburbs of Milwaukee. She and my grandpa lived in the back. It was a small business in every respect: they would travel directly to the wholesaler in the city to purchase supplies, and she would spend her days in the kitchen between customers making craft pieces for display.
I spent winter and summer breaks as her shadow. As customers entered, a bell on the door jingled, and she ran to the front of the store to greet them personally. While some of the customers were new and one-timers, most were regulars. Milwaukee was and remains one of the most racially and ethnically segregated areas in the country, but my grandmother’s customers were incredibly diverse. Over time, based on courteous, reciprocal exchanges, they got to know one another over their mutual love of crafting, but most importantly, care for one another as fellow citizens.
During the holidays, my grandmother would invite her best customers in small groups into her modest but elaborately decorated dining room to break bread. Her customers came from all walks of life, and it was clear that her friendships with them and one another were genuine.
Looking back, it’s remarkable to me now how normal this seemed to me as a young person. Every other space I occupied until adulthood was comprised of homogeneous populations where I fit in seamlessly for the most part. Residential segregation makes this a reality for many of us still, depriving us of the common humanity across differences that can be established through shared interests, interpersonal exchanges, and caring for one another personally.
I carry this lesson from my grandma’s craft store forward in our current work, believing our country would be better off if we engaged in civil discourse, developed civic friendships transcending race, ethnicity, partisanship, and ideology, practiced a reflective form of patriotism, and embraced the strength of our shared destiny as a pluralist constitutional democracy.
What values guide your work?
Louise: I am a lawyer by training raised by a judge, and not surprisingly, I am guided most of all by a deep sense of what is just. I remember many conversations at the dinner table about what is fairness and equality and how the law is a tool to live out our values. She fought for equality, and that same value across a broader range of issues animates me today.
I originally drew on my commitment to justice in the courtroom, but I found the work in criminal defense to be excessively sad and emotionally draining. I decided to join the ranks of the hopeful: young people. The reservoir of hope in young people is what animates me and why I believe young people are the only path toward a more just society.
The divisions in access to education — and civic education in particular — are deeply unjust.
Justice becomes concrete in young people’s lives through the institutions they interact with. But they must also understand what is behind their individual experiences with our systems and institutions, and what values, history, and biases animate them if they join our experiment in self-government. That is the kind of civic knowledge that all students need. It is more than knowing there are three branches of government; it’s about understanding the arc of interplay between them and how power has shifted between them over time and asking questions about what forces created change. It’s knowing where to go if funding for your school is lacking, or lighting isn’t sufficient to ensure safe passage on your street. That is the kind of knowledge that can change lives, and that we need to unlock for each and every student.
Robust self-government requires preparation and engagement. Our job as civic educators is to nurture civic duty and agency in young people. Their hope can be fragile and is a precious civic commodity we should not waste.
Shawn: I started my career as a high school civics teacher and coach of three sports. Going in, I believed that my passion for politics and history would prove infectious among students, and this did indeed prove true for many. What I didn’t appreciate at first was the extent to which I would be seen as a role model. After all, I was only a few years older than my students and athletes at the time – a recent college graduate in a working-class community settling into adult responsibilities.
I thus began articulating the values that guide my work and life. First, be kind and decent. Treat one another with the utmost respect. We are family members, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens, and must lean on one another during life’s many challenges. In the end, people remember us not for what we said but for how we made them feel.
Second, do things correctly. There are no shortcuts to success. Little things add up to big things. Life is all about the long game. Hold yourself to high standards and others will come to trust you to deliver daily in an ethical way. A reputation for integrity is earned and priceless.
Third, give great effort. Whatever challenges life presents us, leave it all on the field. Never be outworked. Plug away relentlessly while your opponents are resting. Refuse to look back with remorse and “what ifs.” In the words of former Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, “I firmly believe that any [person’s] finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that [they hold] dear, is that moment when [they have worked their] heart out in a good cause and [lay] exhausted on the field of battle — victorious."
Fourth and finally, inspired by my personal hero the late Senator John McCain, aspire to a cause greater than self. For me, it’s a fundamental belief that our constitutional democracy will be exponentially stronger with widespread, informed, effective, and lifelong engagement by all citizens. But the premise is universal. Besides paying the bills, what gets you out of bed every morning? And when our precious time on earth comes to an end, what will be your legacy beyond riches you can’t take to the grave?
What are you working on right now?
Louise and Shawn: Our biggest priority right now is securing a generational investment in civic education through the passage of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, reintroduced this summer by a bipartisan set of U.S. Senators. This legislation would result in $5 billion over the course of five years for civics and history education, the majority of which would be made available to states and localities to advance civic education. There’s also been a great deal of interest at the state level, so we’re working with coalition partners on legislation in line with our state policy menu to advance high-quality civic education.
We’re also excited to start implementing the Educating for American Democracy initiative in classrooms. We had an amazing group of national teacher fellows develop a generalizable 8th-grade curriculum this spring, which three districts in Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma are working to localize over the course of this school year. We are looking forward to delivering this kind of excellence in civics and history education through greater depth in project- and inquiry-based learning with our community, school, and district partners.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
Louise and Shawn: With our sole focus being on teachers and students, the disruption of schools during the pandemic has been central to our work. I’ve been so proud of our team for the way they turned on a dime to ensure students had the resources and support they needed as they moved to remote and then hybrid learning.
As an organization, while we always had some remote staff, we’re now fully remote with staff from coast to coast. Given the fact that our resources are used in every state of our country, we truly benefit from having that kind of representation and reflection of different communities from across the nation. Recruiting and onboarding 17 new folks in one year in a virtual environment was an enormous challenge, but we had a wonderful in-person staff retreat this summer that will keep us going for a while.
On the policy front, it’s nice to be able to have in-person meetings again and build that sense of community with our partners beyond the boxes on our screen. That being said, the ability to have constituent meetings virtually has meant that teachers – who really are our greatest advocates for civic education – have been able to join us for meetings with their senators and representatives, which has just been invaluable!
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Louise: I know this may sound dissonant in the current political environment, but I'm hopeful about the resilience of our democracy. I came to this country as an immigrant because I believed in the structure of our constitutional democracy: a federalist system, not a central government, with strong institutions, checks and balances, compromise at its core, and I could go on. My hope is that – over time – the messiness of democracy will show its value in its resilience.I’m hopeful that people are taking interest in various aspects of our civic life together and the promise this holds for continuing to strengthen our constitutional democracy. I’m hopeful that young people can play a role in shaping the future in more just ways if we give them the tools to do so.
What gives me joy is seeing teachers developing and implementing excellent civics and history education, and most of all seeing students fully engaging, for they are the hope and future of this great experiment in democracy!
Louise Dubé leads iCivics. As the largest provider in the nation, iCivics champions and re-imagines civic education. Prior to iCivics, Louise had a successful career in educational publishing and instructional technology. Louise won the 2017 People’s Voice award from the DVF - Diller Foundation as well as the 2018 Civvys award from Bridge Alliance. She was selected as 2019 Donaldson Fellow by the Yale School of Management. Louise began her career as an attorney in Canada; she holds a law degree from McGill University and an MBA from Yale University.
Shawn Healy, PhD, leads iCivics’ state and federal policy and advocacy work through the CivXNow Coalition and oversees civic education campaigns in several key states. He plays an active role in recruiting supporters to fund policy, advocacy, and implementation efforts nationwide to ensure impact. Prior to iCivics, Shawn chaired the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education in 2014 and later led separate, successful legislative campaigns for a required civics course in Illinois in middle and high school. He also led the Illinois Social Science Standards Task Force, whose recommendations were adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2015.