Civic engagement: Three examples where citizens had the say

Brian Aull
January 20, 2016

This article has been reposted with permission. See the original post here.

Civic engagement

My book The Triad: Three Civic Virtues That Could Save American Democracy is about civic engagement. So what is civic engagement? Simply put, it’s people solving problems and making the country work better. To be effective, it’s built on three civic virtues. I call these virtues service, learning, and community.  Here are three real-world examples of civic engagement, each of which demonstrates one of these three virtues.


Un-gerrymandering the California electorial map

Map of California districts before and after civic engagementThe first virtue is a spirit of service.  OK, I know you may think that means to go volunteer in a soup kitchen.  I mean something much broader than that.  

Service means a sense of personal ownership of one’s role as a citizen in making our society work better.  This motivates many kinds of civic engagement. Sometimes this directly influences electoral and government processes, sometimes not. But the idea is that as a citizen, I am a source of solutions, not just a beneficiary.

Here’s an example of civic engagement that illustrates service. In recent years there have been experiments in direct democracy and participatory governance. Citizens actually make policy.

In California, a binding referendum created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. This was a panel of citizens empowered to redraw the districts for both the state legislature and congressional elections.  The panel members were chosen based on being civic-minded, community-oriented, diverse, and able to work well with others. The panel’s process was inclusive.  They sought public input through numerous public hearings and written comments.  The maps that they drew won praise from electoral reform groups.


Working to improve the education and development of children

The second virtue is learning. No, this does not mean book learning or academics. It means having conversations in which the goal is to learn how to solve a problem.  It’s the opposite of a partisan shouting match. Instead of fighting for preconceived outcomes, the participants listen to one another and gain new insights.  Then they figure out what the outcomes should be. Civic engagement advocates call this deliberative democracy.

Two children playing outside with blocksHere’s an example.  A program called Strong Starts for Children was started in New Mexico in 2010 to address problems of child education and development. Poverty and social isolation in this region often lead to poor educational and social achievement.

The national organization Everyday Democracy teamed up with several local civic organizations to launch the Strong Starts. One of their first actions was to recruit and organize “dialogue circles.” These were small groups of ordinary citizens who resided in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  

Faced with issues that often provoke hostile partisan arguments, they instead took a learning-based approach.  They worked to reach a common understanding of what makes a good environment for children to learn and develop.  They investigated the obstacles to this.  They proposed solutions that would best draw on the resources of citizens, civic organizations, and governments.

These recommendations were a factor in the enactment of the Early Childhood Care and Education Act by the New Mexico legislature.  The citizens didn’t enact this legislation, but it got enacted in part because they arose to solve a problem.


Revitalizing a dilapidated town

The third virtue is community building. This means building networks of relationships that bridge the traditional divides.  Race, class, socioeconomic status, or whatever. The people are different, but they learn to work together. Their work helps to cement strong relationships; these relationships in turn make the work more effective. Diverse resources are tapped to solve problems.

Here’s an example. Uniontown, Alabama is a town of 3,000 that had a lot of problems in the mid 1990s: poverty, poor schools, inadequate health care, a weak economy, and dilapidated and abandoned buildings.  

The whites and blacks lived separately, sent their children to separate schools, and buried their dead in separate places.

In 1999, a group of scholars from Auburn University got involved in trying to help the community solve their problems. They had informal conversations with residents, leading to the formation of a diverse group of residents who ended up giving themselves a name: Uniontown Cares.  The group brainstormed on what was wrong with the community and what they could do to fix it.  They started by cleaning up one of the dilapidated properties. Then they worked on projects to beautify the town, make it safer, and establish a local Alcoholics Anonymous group.

As their work continued, something significant happened to them.  The meetings took on a more informal atmosphere because of the growing personal warmth among the members.  In a community with a long history of racial segregation, blacks and whites in the group were forming interracial friendships, perhaps for the first time in their lives. This happened not by talking about racial barriers but by working on achieving their common goals.  They had a growing understanding that racial division had held the community back. But this was a result of their overcoming that division through collaborative work.

A strong group identity had emerged that transcended race. Over the next few years the group took on projects such as volunteer fire services, a public library, and a community directory.


Why civic engagement makes democracy healthier

A healthy democracy is not just about elections and legislation.  It’s all the other stuff people do to make our society healthy.  One message of The Triad is that people solve problems. But the message is not anti-government. An active citizenry chooses better leaders and incentivizes better leadership.  The message that politicians hear from these citizens is not “tell us what you think we want to hear.”  It’s “tell us the truth, and we’ll help you do your job better.”

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