A group of local students stand outside the Nebraska capitol
Pictured is a group of students from Lincoln's Northeast High School participating in Civic Nebraska's "Capitol Day" - photo courtesy Michael Bandy
This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.

Promoting civic engagement across the state, Civic Nebraska is an organization working to change the game for Nebraska residents, students and community leaders. 

Back in 2008, Adam Morfeld, an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, along with other students at UNL and the University of Nebraska at Kearney, wanted to find a way for young people to be more engaged with their democracy at a community level. 

Fourteen years later, Morfeld of Lincoln is the executive director of Civic Nebraska. He just wrapped up eight years as a Nebraska state senator and is running for Lancaster County Attorney.

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Today, Civic Nebraska employs various staff members to engage with communities across the state. With offices in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island, Civic Nebraska’s grassroots approach has helped motivate residents across the state to be civically engaged. Now, ahead of this year’s Democracy Day, the organization is preparing the next generation of voters to contribute to a healthier democracy. 

“The goal was to make it so that they (young people) realize that their own inherent power,” Morfeld said about Civic Nebraska in 2008. 

First elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 2014, Morfeld has continued handling operations at Civic Nebraska as what he calls his “side gig.” 

The original idea from those undergraduates grew into an array of initiatives that Civic Nebraska’s team places into action at a local level. Michael Bandy, program manager for Civic Nebraska’s six Community Learning Centers, spends most of his time in Nebraska schools helping conduct after-school programming to educate the next generation of residents. 

“What we’re trying to do is kind of enable and give students a voice,” Bandy said. “And to empower students to become those next future leaders of our community.” 

These afterschool programs stretch from an elementary school level up to those getting ready to graduate high school. The programming for each grade level looks different as the organization adapts its curriculum toward the appropriate age audience. 

Typical programs will run from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.  

Whether that be in the form of offering tutoring and academic support or inviting parents and families for a night to celebrating diversity and culture, each day presents new opportunities for Bandy and his team to reach students in different ways.

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Northeast High School students listen to a lecture during Capitol Day – photo courtesy Michael Bandy

These events aren’t tailored toward one specific value of Civic Nebraska but provide well-rounded activities to motivate these students to become more active in their local democracy. 

“Every student has power, every community member has power,” he said. “It’s just making sure that we are giving people a seat at the table so they can use that voice and be able to have a voice in our community.” 

For Bandy, being able to strike motivation into the lives of these young people holds a personal meaning. 

“I grew up in a single mom, low-income household,” he said. “Having a lot of opportunities after school got me through college. So I was always drawn to a lot of social work, like aspects working with students at risk.” 

Community Learning Centers are one of a three-pronged Civic Nebraska strategy to reach Nebraska communities. That includes voting rights initiatives and the civic health team, the latter led by director of civic health Nancy Petitto. 

“The civic health program is honestly this kind of like underlying foundation, across the whole organization,” Petitto said.  

The crux of the state’s civic health programs is creating strong social connections between neighbors, community members and local leaders. The scope of the civic health team stretches all the state boundaries. 

“We want people to understand some of those systems and processes that happen at both the local/municipal and the state level,” she said. “So they know how to share their concerns on certain policies.” 

Petitto added that one of the main difficulties today is building confidence in local Nebraska institutions, whether that be for vote counting or tax dollars that help build the foundation of communities.

Students can get involved in Civic Nebraska in a variety of different roles. Such as a voting rights advocate, working with legislation on advocacy, observing elections and more.

They can apply using the jobs page of the Civic Nebraska website.

Among celebrating large parts of diverse Nebraska Communities, all of Civic Nebraska stresses the inclusivity of their organization. 

“We work really hard to identify common values that we have as community members,” Morfeld said. “Finding ways that we can work together with anybody regardless of what their background is, or their politics or whatever the case may be.” 

Morfeld stressed that there is a wide spectrum of politics and identification among those working in varying capacities for Civic Nebraska. And that differences don’t take away the positive conversations and work that can be done in shared spaces. 

“We’re really just sitting down with folks and talking about what are the assets that you have as an individual in your community,” Petitto said. “What are the assets that you have across your community, your neighborhood, your city, and then how do all those things work together? So we can sit down and do some of that visioning and brainstorming together.” 

Civic Nebraska continues to communicate to Nebraskans that a strong democracy allows every individual a relationship with those who govern, and Bandy said he will continue to work toward that goal. 

“I think the more people we get around the table, the stronger that we are as a democracy, as a community and as a country,” he said. 

Read more Nebraska News Services stories about democracy here and national Democracy Day stories here.
Peyton Thomas is a Junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying Sports Media, Broadcasting, and Journalism with a minor in Political Science. He is passionate about sports, and always attempts to find unique stories about real people in his everyday life.