Retired Army Colonel finds new way to serve by helping communities find their voice
As the executive director of First Amendment Voice, Steven Miska’s new mission is to educate and advocate for healthy civic discourse.
I served in the Army for 25 years, including three combat tours and three assignments in Washington, D.C. Like many veterans leaving service, I wanted to seek ways to continue to serve after removing the uniform. Having worked in the nonprofit space for my last five years on active duty, I sought nonprofit opportunities and was fortunate to find work helping the Global Peace Foundation assess radicalization. The project was purposeful as I had completed a counterterrorism fellowship and spent time on the ground in Iraq and in the academic and policy communities focused on terror groups.
Upon project completion, Global Peace Foundation asked me to assist with a project called First Amendment Voice. Given the polarized state of the country and challenging trends in the First Amendment space, the FAV project seemed like a logical extension from my time in service, having sworn an oath to the Constitution and not to a political party or any individual in power.
Over the next three years, we grew the project and conducted nonpartisan local programming across the country to inspire people to #FindTheirVoice. We found that many people felt afraid to offer an opinion about sensitive issues in the public square, fearing retribution. They ranged from college students to members of many different faith communities. We also found others who didn’t think their voice mattered, mostly young people, feeling that elected officials and older generations wouldn’t listen to their opinions. FAV views both trends, fear and apathy, as threats to our form of government. The health of the republic rests on the vibrancy of its citizenry.
Each year since 2016, we’ve hosted a National Symposium in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center to celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed on Sept. 17, the day in 1787 that the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution. The day is meant to restore civic education and people’s understanding of our history and the need for civic vitality. Given that civics has withered in many public education programs around the country, young people don’t understand the importance of active citizenship. At the symposium, delegates from around the country travel to learn about trends in the First Amendment space and to share experiences with each other. The event is open to the public.
This year, we will celebrate the National Symposium in Washington, D.C., for the first time on Sept. 21 at the National Union Building. Members who register for the VIP experience will get an after-hours tour of the Capitol Building. All participants get to explore the theme of “Polarization” and what individuals can do to bridge divides in their communities. We hope to inspire members to engage on issues of importance in their civic lives. FAV’s philosophical approach begins with education, progresses to providing tools for engagement, and concludes with calls to action, inspiring participants to engage based on their individual talents and experience. We feature these stories in our monthly newsletter.
FAV also conducts local programming like our coffee talks around the country, ranging from Southern California to Columbus, Georgia. Coffee talks usually convene 10 to 25 people around a specific issue, like media bias or how to think about information consumption. These sessions tend to be highly interactive, and we actively encourage our delegates to meet on a routine basis around relevant issues in their communities. For example, we partner with organizations like the i5 Freedom Network in San Clemente, California, to inspire citizens to support measures like passing a massage parlor ordinance that makes it difficult for illicit establishments to operate while not making the regulations onerous for legitimate businesses. That is one example, but we encourage delegates to customize the approach to the issues that matter most in their community.
As the executive director of FAV, which recently received 501c3 status from the IRS, I have the honor of continuing service to the country by bringing our unique programs to local communities across the U.S. It’s a challenging space to be in, given the divisive state of our current discourse. However, I think many people have grown tired of the partisanship and bickering. They are looking for meaningful conversation, without demonization, about the sensitive issues we have to address as a nation. Founded on a motto of E Pluribus Unum, (out of many, one) we have more in common with each other than we think, if we could only drop the partisan contempt and look for common ground. FAV inspires people to lend their voices to the public square in order to find paths forward for the country as a whole.