Citizens at the Center: A Refocused Approach to Civic Engagement

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If increased buzz is any indication, there has been an upsurge in civic activity during recent years. The number of people who volunteer, especially young people, has risen. Programs to encourage service and civic engagement are growing and helping millions of Americans channel their desire to “do good” into action that benefits communities across the United States and throughout the world. More private sector companies are implementing policies and activities that encourage volunteering among employees. Faith-based institutions, through which most volunteering and charitable giving occurs, are increasingly welcomed in the public square.

To many, such activity suggests a civic renewal in America—one whose seeds were planted before the events of September 11 and that grew thereafter. A recent study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, for example, showed that nearly 29 percent of the population volunteered to help charitable causes during 2005—an increase of 6 million people from before 2002.1 Data culled from the Census Current Population Survey for a new national “Civic Health Index,” published by the National Conference on Citizenship, indicates that there was an increase in volunteering between 2002 and 2003, especially among young people.

On the other hand, the Civic Health Index also found that Americans’ level of community participation, their interest in joining organizations, their levels of social trust, and their willingness to socialize with other people all continued on the downhill slide they had been on before September 11. These data resemble findings from another survey by Duke University researchers, who found that Americans feel far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago. The Washington Post reported that the Duke study “paints a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties—once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits—are shrinking or nonexistent.”2

In short, there remains an inchoate yet palpable sense among most people that what they do matters little when it comes to the civic life and health of their communities, states, or the country overall. As a result, many people have retreated into silence and away from public life, turning instead to things they can control and feel will help make a difference, such as volunteering, giving to charities, and helping their friends. Given these trends, the challenge for those working in the service and civic engagement domain is to find and promote new ways of leveraging Americans’ commitment to service as a foundation for inculcating a deeper, broad-based, less episodic, and more firmly entrenched cultural ethos of civic engagement—an ethos that helps give people a sense of public purpose and a belief that their voice matters in larger issues.

Although this issue of moving people from “service to civics” has been the focus of considerable discussion in the service and civic engagement field, much of it has focused on tactics, namely voting or volunteering. But is voting or volunteering—or any of the other myriad tactics used to promote civic engagement—enough? A small but growing group of scholars and practitioners in the civic engagement field say “no.”

According to Carmen Siranni and Lew Friedland, professors of sociology at Brandeis University, civic renewal will require more than “reforming elections and campaign finance, increasing voting, or making our system more inclusive of the great diversity of Americans. But civic renewal also entails investing in civic skills and organizational capacities for public problem-solving on a wide scale and designing policy at every level of the federal system to enhance the ability of citizens to do the everyday work of the republic.”3

The reality is that politics, including voting (which is often used as a proxy for civic engagement), is not necessarily serving as a venue through which people feel they can make a difference, due to their frustration over political processes and institutions that were founded on a notion of democratic participation becoming nearly closed to ordinary citizens. Volunteering is also seen by some as less a springboard for deeper involvement in civic life and more a temporary panacea to the sense of “not being able to make a difference” that many Americans feel.

Whatever the tactic—voting, volunteering, organizing or service—some believe that a deeper problem with efforts to increase civic engagement is that these reflect a larger trend in American life: the crowding out of ordinary citizens by professionals and other “experts” who diagnose, define, and propose solutions to public problems without providing space for citizens in those communities to weigh in or decide for themselves what those problems are and what actions they will take. Critics charge that this professionalization is spilling over into the service and civic engagement field, leading it to approach “citizenship as something to be found rather than to be created.”4

We need a civic renewal movement—one that works across a wide variety of sectors, populations, initiatives, and fields to revitalize our democracy by linking emerging community-based efforts to engage in what some call “public work,” “collective decision-making through deliberation,” and/or “collaborative problem-solving.”5

These kinds of citizen-centered and citizen-driven approaches move away from defining civic engagement as a set of tactics (voting, volunteering, service, or organizing) or outcomes (planting more trees or increasing the number of people who vote). Instead, they focus on creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to come together, deliberate, and take action collectively to address public problems or issues that citizens themselves define as important and in ways that citizens themselves decide are appropriate and/or needed—whether it is political action, community service, volunteering, or organizing. These approaches view people as proactive citizens, rather than consumers of services or programs; are focused on culture change, rather than on issue-specific campaigns or initiatives; and include a cross-section of entire communities, not just parts of them.

To illustrate the notion of citizen-centered engagement, Peter Levine, executive director of CIRCLE, describes a hypothetical community where education is seen as the way in which the whole population transmits values, skills, habits, and knowledge to the next generation. This is an explicitly ethical task, so there is much discussion about values—not only concerning divisive, hot-button issues, but also subtler, day-to-day questions about what books are best to read, how kindergarten boys should behave on the playground, or whether there are too many cliques in the high school.6 Adults take personal responsibility for educating youth and others by serving as teachers, members of school boards, volunteers, and coaches. There are also roles for students themselves, not only as volunteers, but also as board members and activists. This scenario, says Ira Harkavy of the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, underscores important differences between traditional approaches to civic engagement and citizen-centered ones because, “instead of asking what kind of education do we want for our kids, the latter starts by asking what kind of community we want and then how we create the kinds of schools that will help us create that kind of community.”7

From this perspective, the focus is on whether community members have the ability, incentive, and capacity to continue to work collectively to address the day-to-day problems of daily life as they move forward into the future. Ultimately, what results are the creation or renewal of local civic cultures—ongoing practices habits, norms, identities, and relationships—that involve all people, not just those already inclined to participate. It also lays the groundwork for embedding a deeper ethic of civic engagement so that it becomes part of everyday life, rather than episodic activities such as volunteering or voting that are squeezed between work or school and family and less important than either.

There are several ways in which citizen-centered approaches differ from others:

  • They focus primarily on culture change, rather than short-term outcomes, issues, or victories. Often, these approaches start by asking people to envision end results or kinds of communities that a broad representation of its members want to see—the “common good”—and then work with communities to decide how to get to that point.
  • They provide opportunities for people to form and promote their own decisions, build capacities for self-government, and promote open-ended civic processes, rather than ask people to “plug in to” structured or pre-determined programs, initiatives, projects, or campaigns that offer “training” or “education” to “develop” people. They view deliberative processes as being as important to civic engagement as the tactics employed to address identified problems and concerns.
  • They are pluralistic and nonpartisan and open to “learning from a wide array of approaches and to collaborating with elected officials of various political persuasions who are willing to problem solve with citizens.”8
  • They help to transcend ideological silos. No matter what citizens decide, the common thread is that by creating spaces to deliberate with a wide variety of “voices” in their communities and on issues that they rather than outsiders decide are important, they are actively practicing and experiencing the essence of democracy.
  • They are not just about “talking.” Deliberative processes must be linked to outcomes, otherwise, they and the outcomes generated by them will not be sustained.
  • They do not replace politics or other democratic processes. As David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, notes: “Organic, citizen-based democracy is not an alternative form of politics like direct democracy; it is the foundation for democratic institutions and representative government” because democracy “operates through the joint efforts that citizens make to solve common problems.”9

Auspiciously, there are organizations and efforts that are and have been putting citizens at the center, leaving goals and strategies undetermined until citizens deliberate and make their own decisions, and taking concerted action. These include faith-based grassroots organizing networks that convene diverse groups of citizens in local communities to identify issues of concern to them and strategies for addressing them collectively; dialogue initiatives around national and local issues; and various participatory approaches to community planning and decision-making. The challenge now is helping more Americans create their own efforts that will address public concerns, issues, or problems in ways they see as most appropriate.

This kind of citizen-centered and citizen-created cultural approach is a subtle, yet powerful shift from the way in which service and civic engagement tend to be discussed and implemented. It will require changing the way in which service and especially, civic engagement, are defined, assessed, and implemented. It will also require coalescence, interconnections, and momentum coming from many diverse trends and efforts. Finally, it will require letting go and letting citizens themselves take control—perhaps the most difficult challenge of all.


 

1. Corporation for National and Community Service, “Volunteering in America: State Trends and Rankings,” Washington, DC, 2006.

2. S. Vedantam, “Social Isolation Growing in the U.S., Study Finds,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2006, p. A03.

3. Sirianni and Friedland, The Civic Renewal Movement: Community Building and Democracy in the U.S., 2005, p. 1.

4. Bill Schambra, interview, June 12, 2006.

5. Sirianni and Friedland, 2005, p. 1.

6. N. Eliasoph, “What if Good Citizens’ Etiquette Requires Silencing Political Conversation in Everyday Life? Notes from the Field.” Paper presented at conference on “The Transformation of Civic Life,” Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro and Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 12–13, 1999. Available at www.mtsu.edu/~seig/paper_n_eliasoph.html.

7. Ira Harkavy, interview, June 28, 2006.

8. Sirianni and Friedland, 2005, p. 6.

9. D. Mathews, “ . . . afterthoughts,” Kettering Review, 24(1), p. 70.