Steven Smith’s life journey led him to serving as director of communications for Civic Nebraska where he advocates for civic engagement. “I basically decided that I was going to a different job, so I could put a yard sign in my yard if I wanted to,” Smith said.
From an early age, Steve Smith was interested in American democracy.
Smith, originally from Rosalie, an eastern Nebraska town of around 170 people, was always interested in voting, civics, citizenship and American history. His journey in life led him to his current job where he can educate others about citizenship.
Growing up, Smith devoured anything he could read.
“I used to be late to school in the mornings because I was reading the newspaper,” Smith said.
In 1989, Smith attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he later graduated with a journalism degree. While attending UNL, Smith met his now-wife, Kathy, and after graduation, they moved around the country working together for different newspapers.
Smith returned to UNL in 2008 as the university’s news director and spokesman. He said his eight years of working at UNL were educational. He was able to learn how students develop at this time of their life and how much or little they know about democracy.
After Obama’s presidency in 2017, what Smith said he believes to be the last “normal presidency” where opponents respected each other and where things seemed possible, Smith decided he needed a change in career.
“I basically decided that I was going to a different job, so I could put a yard sign in my yard if I wanted to, or donate to a candidate if I wanted, or donate to a cause,” he said said.
In 2017, Smith moved to director of communications at local nonprofit organization Civic Nebraska.
“I didn’t want to look back on this period — which is an extraordinary period of time for our democracy — and have to say, ‘I didn’t do much,’” Smith said. “I wanted to do something more impactful and so that led me to Civic Nebraska.”
Civic Nebraska focuses on strengthening democracy. It educates the public on topics including common good, civil discourse and voting rights.
Smith created a shirt while at Civic Nebraska that reads, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” His description of this shirt is that you cannot be a part of the change just by scrolling and yelling at the TV. Democracy is a contact sport, he said. People contact one another. Someone contacts someone else and that person contacts someone else, and pretty soon we have a whole network of active, powerful citizens.
“People cannot just sit idly by and expect things to naturally get better. It’s something we have to work for, fight for, and act on behalf every day,” Smith said. “We need to have an understanding of our rights, our roles and most importantly, our responsibilities as citizens.”
Civic Nebraska’s goal is to educate more people and increase the number of people who will be a part of the change.
Most people know their rights and their role in their community, but their responsibility goes beyond just checking a box every two to four years, Smith said. It is a daily thing that people can do in big and little ways that most people are either unaware of or unaware of how to begin.
“We are all co-creators of our shared democratic reality,” Smith said.
Little things that we do or choose not to do matter. Every person has a duty in this world and every job matters.
“If we just do, on a daily basis, what it means to be a good citizen, an active citizen, a powerful citizen, a responsible citizen, the rest kind of takes care of itself, and we’ll get to where we need to be,” Smith said.
While at Civic Nebraska, Smith wrote a book titled “Reclaiming We,” detailing 20 ways to be a better citizen and shifting the narrative from blaming them to blaming we.
It is not about watching the president fix your problems. It is about self-government. We are our own government, institutions and democracy. We are America. We are the ones in charge. Let’s be small “d” democrats.
To anyone wanting to get involved in democracy, Smith suggests taking a look at yourself and finding where you can best spend your time.
“If you want to start to think about being a more powerful, more active citizen, then volunteer your time and recognize that you have one of the three,” Smith said. “Either time, talent or treasure.”
Contributing to democracy should not be a task but something you look forward to. We need to go out. We can’t stay hibernating in our basements, Smith said.