Most people hear the phrase “civic engagement” and immediately equate it with the act of showing up to the polls on Election Day. Various levels of engaged citizens visit their local polling centers on Election Day, cast their vote for a specific candidate, and then check the box on completing their civic duty.
But the term civic engagement is much broader. The New York Times defines civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community through both political and non-political processes.”
For civic life to be engaging, trust in the process is required. Yet many claim that the process is “rigged” or “broken.” This sentiment has increased with the rise of social media and the changing definition of “community”. While highly connected to worldwide events, many social media users have lost touch with issues directly affecting the lives of their neighbors. Furthermore, social media dictates what the important issues are by highlighting and amplifying “trending” stories.
Civic engagement starts with a simple question: what is trending in your own community? The people you see every day – your neighbor, your co-workers, friends, family, strangers you encounter at the grocery store – do you know what their biggest challenges are? What do they fear most? Do you know their goals and aspirations?
Once the issues and trends in the community are identified, the next questions arise: How can I make a difference? How do my elected officials impact the things that I care about? In which areas do the policy positions of the candidates up for election align with the things that I care about?
Often, I hear people say things like “there are so many issues and injustices occurring in the world right now, and it’s so overwhelming that I don’t know where to even begin to make a difference.”
Being a Good Neighbor
The response to this sentiment is simple – start local, be a good neighbor. While it is important to be informed and aware of global events, our day-to-day lives are mostly affected by events transpiring in our local communities. This means we need to engage authentically with our neighbors, whether we “like” them or not. To do this, we may need to be uncomfortable and vulnerable and have conversations with those around us about issues beyond the weather and the latest national trends. We need to be willing to share our hardships, struggles, fears, hopes and ideas. And after those uncomfortable conversations occur, we need to work together to create pragmatic solutions that benefit our communities and improve the lives of all its members.
There Is Power In Organizing At The Neighborhood Level
On a recent trip to Chattanooga, we had the honor of meeting with grass roots community “Block Captains” who are working together to preserve the quality of their neighborhoods. These community leaders volunteer to keep residents informed on important issues, as well as engage in regular and meaningful dialogue with their neighbors to understand new or emerging problems that need to be solved.
Armed with this information, Block Captains and other community leaders can then become advocates for the people co-existing in their neighborhoods and collaborate with various stakeholder groups like local elected officials or non-profit organizations to solve problems. These meetings are not always altogether friendly, but allow communities to uncover and reflect upon important issues. For example, during a previous meeting with a key elected official, we learned that Chattanooga suffers from significant loss of “trust” in their elected officials.
Imagine if every community across the country actively and regularly focused on civic engagement and actively held their elected officials accountable to the community’s needs. Imagine the influence these community groups could have on policy and legislation. Imagine how much more connected you would actually feel to the people around you. And most importantly, imagine the difference you could make in your own community – and the difference that these kinds of communities could make across the great state of Tennessee.
Published on June 27, 2018 5:36pm
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