The Public Square Academy (PSA) Forum is an online association for citizens who practice and promote democratic ideals and practices. We champion government by the people and for the people. As power is accumulated in the hands of oligarchs, autocrats, and totalitarian regimes, this is no longer an American imperative, it is a human imperative.
The forum serves individual members, groups, and organizational participants with relevant civic, political, and consumer education topics, issue discussions, and engaging activities. Members cultivate an understanding of divergent points of view, cooperatively negotiate solutions within their discussion groups, and grow into more effective and engaged citizens while developing meaningful relationships with other citizens in their communities and around the world.
Collectively, we are working to develop a virtual contemporary service network called the Public Square Academy (PSA) Forum where people of good faith can work together to increase civic awareness, active participation, and develop understanding and respect for people who hold divergent viewpoints. As the project progresses, we will include collaborators and members to support a broad-based and diverse interactive subscription program and extend the project into an online school for civic and consumer education.
Why this? Why now?
A healthy democracy requires an educated populace committed to defending its basic principles when they weaken or come under attack. The problems we address are a lack of education, individual empowerment, and engagement in a democratic society. With education, communication, and meaningful participation, we replace declining civility, intractable partisanship, ignorance, marginalization, fear, and hostility with a sense of ownership and belonging resulting in increased social cohesion and more vibrant and resilient democracies.
Where social problems are unaddressed with productive public debate and gridlocked legislatures, then democratic cultures decline. The Freedom House Freedom in the World 2019 report cites the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Democracy does not die all at once, it is the result of a “gradual breakdown of mutual toleration and respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition;” we are on the slippery slope of democratic backsliding.
We see growing alienation, distrust, and the degradation of civility among citizens. We believe that by engaging citizens in a real-time small-group educational and entertaining programs focused on critical topics in our democracy we will improve understanding and respect and improve the social contract.
Current options for political engagement are not satisfying and consist of financial contributions and get-out-the-vote initiatives. Service Clubs go back to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto, which produced civic innovations such as lending libraries, sidewalks, and fire departments. Existing service clubs (Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.) use an outdated localized, face-to-face model. These groups also do not practice deliberative discourse models which enable more difficult issues to be addressed. They have become local fundraising service clubs; Democracy lite. Meetings are logistically inaccessible to younger people, and economically or socially disadvantaged, leading to declining membership and participation.
Current online discussion platforms (Facebook, Reddit, etc.) are fraught with disinformation, distracted participation, incomplete communication, futile action, and hostile actors. The primary purpose of social media publishers is to attract advertising value, not to generate constructive relationships and solutions. The value accrues to the platform, not the customer. We seek to flip the equation: people will get what they pay for, and they control the agenda and outcomes.
Public debate and action are dominated by organizations and lobbyists; the voice of the individual citizen is overshadowed by these organizational interests. We seek to raise the power and voice of individuals to reverse this marginalization and adjust this imbalance in democratic societies. We think the answer is to play the “long game” of education:
The PSA Forum addresses these issues by hosting learning groups in private forums focused on respectful relationships, collaborative group projects, joint problem-solving, and constructive dialogue. In doing so, participants learn civic engagement and interpersonal skills critical to personal effectiveness and develop understanding and respect for divergent views.
The PSA forum incentivizes user engagement, empathy, creativity, and self-awareness through a program curriculum featuring interactive games, narrative short stories, and small discussion groups. The Forum grows and sustains membership by offering a community of committed, thoughtful peers where members can establish valuable relationships. The communities themselves are the most valuable elements of the program.
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
–Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278