Report Date
December 2014
Learning Log

My Bush Fellowship is about learning how we as citizens engage one another around big issues and challenging conversations. Part of that work is examining whether we can make civic dialogue something that a broad audience actually enjoys and gets excited about, as opposed to feeling obligated to participate in.

The past six months offered plenty of real life and academic opportunities for me to examine those questions. We had a national midterm election, followed by countless thought-leaders hypothesizing why so few citizens actually turned out to vote. We witnessed the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the heated and sadly sometimes violent conversations on race and prejudice that they inspired. Meanwhile, I started my first term as a student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Yet the most profound and long-lasting pearl of wisdom I gathered in the past six months wasn’t from a political or social movement leader, it wasn’t part of any grad school curriculum, and it wasn’t offered as a balm for the challenges of civic dialogue or change.

It was a bit of advice from a comedian; Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall. On the first Saturday in September I had the opportunity to take a writing workshop with McDonald at Minneapolis’s famed Brave New Workshop theater. After the rest of the class and I had broken into groups, in which we would spend the day writing a single comedy sketch together, McDonald offered this advice for seeing our sketches through to the finish:

“Inspiration will run out. That’s when the work begins.”

McDonald obviously meant this about the craft of sketch writing, but I’ve found it so helpful in thinking about all kinds of big, hard, and important work. How often do we feel like we have a great idea, but some element is not clicking or working? This is the moment when it is easiest to give up, right as the inspiration for that initial idea has waned, and before the momentum has kicked in.

As I noted, the past six months have been tumultuous politically and socially. In my initial application to the Bush Fellowship program, I wrote about what I saw as a nation with a crumbling civic infrastructure. Both the 2014 election and the lenses through which groups have viewed the events of Ferguson betray that decay. We are getting more intellectually segregated in the ways we understand the world and the people with whom we interact.

And being in a graduate program for public policy does little to dissuade one from these nihilistic notions. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ mission statement is “ to inspire leaders to advance the common good.” Yet much of policy school is dedicated to studying the world’s problems and their intractability. It would not be difficult to finish one’s first semester thinking that any possible fixes to the world’s ample problems have already been tried and fallen short. And that now all there is for us to do is do are statistical dissections of how much those past policies failed and write papers analyzing the errors of our predecessors.

Yet despite all the challenges, all the past failures, and all the bleak news on our television sets each night, we cannot hand hopelessness a victory. I am not finishing the first six months of my Bush Fellowship feeling defeated and distraught. Rather, the challenges underscore for me the importance of what I am trying to do and its value in this sector.

We must find or forge pathways to come together around public challenges; not in despair but in inspiration and excitement. We must give people of all backgrounds ways to engage and connect. We must make the work of improving the world a joyous celebration instead of an arduous trial.

After six months, I feel the weight of the challenge for which I have set myself up. Reshaping the ways we engage public policy and social change (even with improv comedy) is not something to be undertaken lightly. So even now, as things seem about as big and hard as they can be, I remember Kevin McDonald’s words and steel myself for the work that lies ahead.