City Journal contributing editor Howard Husock joins associate editor Seth Barron to discuss the Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Awards, which recognize outstanding nonprofit leaders who develop solutions to social problems in their communities.

History has shown that free markets are the best way to organize economic activity, but a healthy society relies on charitable and philanthropic enterprises to help those in need and prepare citizens to realize their potential. To support these goals, the Manhattan Institute established the Social Entrepreneurship initiative in 2001, now known as the Tocqueville Project.

At its 2019 Civil Society Awards in New York, the Manhattan Institute will honor four outstanding nonprofits with gifts of $25,000 each. Until March 27, you can submit your nominations here.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, our associate editor Seth Barron talks with the Manhattan Institute’s Vice President for Research, Howard Husock, about his new project: The Civil Society Awards. If you’ve listened to some of our recent episodes, you probably heard us talk about them. It’s really a fantastic award: Four nonprofit organizations, anywhere in the country, will receive $25,000 each for their efforts in tackling our most pressing social challenges. To learn more about it the program, you can go to the Manhattan Institute’s website or simply visit That’s it for me. The conversation between Howard and Seth begins after this.

Seth Barron: Hi everyone. Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor for City Journal. The Manhattan Institute is a believer in the power of ordinary people to take initiative and tackle social problems. Howard Husock is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. He directs the Tocqueville Project and its Civil Society Awards program, which is still accepting nominations. Howard, thanks for joining us.

Howard Husock: Thank you very much for having me, Seth.

Seth Barron: So we hear this term a lot, but what is really meant by "civil society?"

Howard Husock: Well, one of the ways to think about the civil society that we have in the United States is to think about other societies that don't have civil society. So for instance, why does China block and censor the Internet? Because the Chinese government is afraid of even little league baseball, anything that organizes independently and can be a source of independent thought, dissent, potentially independent power. And we in the United States are surrounded by that kind of civil society. So much so that it's like saying that the air is filled with oxygen. We have so much of it. In any community, you have the historical societies, you have sports and recreation leagues, all sorts of things and we have larger civil society institutions such as the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross. All of these have bubbled up, not because government created them, but because ordinary citizens got together and formed them and maintained and sustained them. Those are our civil society. It's somewhere between government and the family.

Seth Barron: Okay. And what does Tocqueville have to do with civil society?

Howard Husock: Well, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist who came to the United States in the 1840s under the guise of examining penitentiary conditions and then went around the country doing the best first examination of what American society was like and his insights still redound. He was struck by the extent to which Americans in all places, in all sorts of fields, did what he called "formed associations" and he regarded that as quite different from his native France, which then, and now is far more centralized, so government stems from Paris, decisions are made from Paris. The United States is highly decentralized in our government, somewhat less so than it used to be and even within that structure, there's just a tremendous number of things. Think of local food banks, all sorts of things that are not associated with the government but yet serve public purposes.

Seth Barron: I see. How about religious organizations? Do they count?

Howard Husock: Absolutely. Religious organizations, because under the First Amendment, people think of the First Amendment as a free speech amendment,and of course it is, but it says there should be no establishment of religion. Well that means that you have all sorts of religions bubbling up. There's no state religion the way there is in Europe, obviously the way there is in the Islamic world. And so because you have this freedom to do all sorts of things under the religious umbrella, religious organizations do exactly that and the history of Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, Jewish day schools, you can go on and on. But I think people understand that as being part and parcel of the fabric of American life.

Seth Barron: Now there's a tendency in American politics, particularly from the left to see a lot of these functions, social service functions as really being the domain of the government. So is there a conflict then between government and civil society? From that perspective?

Howard Husock: I definitely think so. I'm about to publish a book whose working title is "Who Killed Civil Sociey?" Civil society in the United States is not dead, but it has been withering somewhat and partly that's because today many of what were once independent charitable organizations now contract with the government to provide services. And there's a real tension there because you provide a different kind of service when you're a contractor with the government. Government exists to respond to problems. Government doesn't exist to set norms, to set standards, to tell people in advance, well this is a good way to live the way churches do, the way the Boy Scouts do and so as government has grown and contracted and created, what some people call the "nonprofit state," it has created a tension. And if you believe that we should be reacting to problems and the government can effectively create problems, well then you do have a critical eye towards civil society. And of course, as again with my China example, if you believe that government is the agent of control of society generally, then you really don't like civil society.

Seth Barron: There's a thesis that Americans are becoming more isolated, even though we're all supposedly so connected now with social media and technology, but that in reality, there's a lot of loneliness, happening. And you know, I've heard this thesis, the "bowling alone" thesis that people go and just do things by themselves that maybe they used to do in groups. Now this isn't really getting to, you know, big social issues like, you know, food banks or you know, helping the poor or anything like that. But it does seem like an important question. How does the decline of civil society impact just how individuals live?

Howard Husock: I think it does a lot. So I think that, you know, if you're a member of achurch and you have to think about organizing the family picnic, well you don't organize that by yourself, you organize it with other members of the church and then you socialize with those people. And then if you're sick, maybe they help you or if they're sick, maybe you help them. And so the fact of the institution and your membership in it and in all kinds of institutions, not just religious institutions creates social fabric, meaning connectedness among people. People don't get together for its own sake necessarily. Some do, they're social people, but when you have a reason to get together, then you have a chance to get to know people. And so I think that Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" thesis reflects that isolation and he actually tracked membership in bowling leagues. That's where he got the idea and it seems like it's true.

Seth Barron: Okay. Well the Manhattan Institute is a think tank, Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, and you know, it produces research and things like that. What's at stake in civil society and what are the Civil Society Awards?

Howard Husock: Well civil society is something that organically happens and to the extent that public policy suppresses civil society, we have a public policy take on it. So for instance, when you take foster care, which used to be very much handled by religious groups and, and some secular groups, for instance, the Children's Aid Society, here in New York, which began in the 1850s, in part to oversee, privately, foster care. When the government assumes that responsibility, not only has it done it quite poorly as a matter of fact, but it squeezes out all of that association effect that we were talking about a moment ago. And so to the extent that we at the Manhattan Institute have a public policy view on this, we don't want that kind of thing squeezed out. We don't think government does a lot of these things as effectively. I don't anyhow, as the Manhattan Institute representative on this subject, and we lose some of the connectiveness that comes with organizing things civilly. And so our Civil Society Awards program seeks to recognize groups who are active locally around the United States that are seeing a problem or a need, not necessarily a problem, a need. It could be a vacuum. It could be kids don't have enough to do, but it doesn't have to be a problem. A reason to organize something and they go and do it themselves. And we believe that by recognizing them, we create the conditions that over time it will become clear that, well, maybe government doesn't have to do everything because it doesn't do them as well, so it's worthwhile as a public policy organization to recognize groups who help ex-offenders adjust to post-prison society, to help new immigrants learn English. I could go on in that vein.

Seth Barron: Well, why don't you? What are some, who are some of the groups who have received the award?

Howard Husock: Right. Well, we have a Civil Society Fellows program in which past award winners are now actually working with us as adjunct fellows of the Manhattan Institute and we're promoting their work the way we promote the work of our fellows, generally like your great work, Seth at City Journal. So I'll tell you who the three fellows are. Luma Mufleh runs something called the Fugees Academy. It started in Atlanta, Georgia, Georgia. She has two more schools now in Ohio. Luma is a refugee herself from Jordan. She's a gay woman who found she had no life she could live in the Muslim world and started a school specifically for refugee children because she looked at the refugee population she saw some kids come in even though they were 12 or 13 years old, they were illiterate in their native language and if they were tracked into the public schools into the first grade or the sixth grade, rather than they'd be lost. So she developed a new education model and she's doing this and she wants to spread it across the country. A young woman named Sharpel Welch in Shreveport, Louisiana, she was a single mother herself, a teen mother. She went into the army, she came out, got higher education, went to work for community college, and then she and her husband decided they were going to move into a home called a friendship house in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods, black neighborhoods in the deep south. She's African American herself, and be a model for the neighborhood about how married life should work and she's doing that. She lives everyday that life and kids come in to be tutored after school and to learn welding from her husband. This is the old settlement house tradition, which I've written about in the past, settling in poor neighborhoods to help guide people on the right path. And then there's a young man named Reid Porter who was an Evangelical Christian who took it upon himself to use his legal talents, he's a trained attorney and to move to South and West Dallas, very poor drug riddled neighborhoods and to use the law to shut down drug houses as public nuisances. And he manages to convince, and this is heroic, uh, residents of those neighborhoods to swear out complaints against these hubs of crime that are selling drugs, being centers of prostitution, violence, and to swear out complaints against them in court so that the houses are then shutdown and the owners are put on notice that if you do this again, you could lose the house because you're a public nuisance. So these are people who, they got these ideas out of their own heads. They didn't respond to a request or proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services. This stuff bubbled up. They have large numbers of volunteers. They raised their money privately. That's what civil society is and that's why we want to recognize it through our award.

Seth Barron: So Howard, if one of our listeners knows of a really great organization that's doing this type of work and they want to nominate them for a Civil Society Award, how do they go about doing it? And what is the Civil Society Award, exactly?

Howard Husock: The Civil Society Award is a $25,000 award and there's a banquet here in New York where they get presented in the fall. As they say in public television, "the lines are open," nominations are open. $25,000. Nominate a local organization, you know, especially one with deep ties in the community and you go to That's There's a form, fill it out. If you don't want to fill out every question, that's okay. Just get the name in and we'll take a close look at it and if it's a really good one, we'll come to your town and look at it, look at it closely.

Seth Barron: That sounds great. So you heard, Howard, if you'd like to nominate an organization for the Civil Society Award, please go to Manhattan Institute's website and follow the links or go to Don't forget to check out Howard's work at We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal, #10blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Howard, thanks so much for joining us today.

Howard Husock: Thank you Seth.

Photos Courtesy Manhattan Institute

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