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Civic Engagement and You

by Susan Patterson

Civic Engagement and You

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Picture by Chris Cureton

February 2, 2012

Imagine if I asked you, “Do you think of yourself as an engaged citizen?” What would you say?

“Of course! I vote. I volunteer. I read the paper. I keep up with what’s going on in my community.”  That’s how I answered over dinner one night with a national expert in civic engagement.

And then, we kept talking.

When was the last time I’d attended a city council meeting? Or called the county manager with a concern? Or attended a neighborhood watch meeting?

Hmmm, not recently, I had to admit.

So, if I consider myself engaged, tend to keep up with the community’s critical issues, know who makes the decisions and can probably find the time to attend decision-making discussions, and I don’t participate, what does that suggest about those with a lot less access – whether access to people with power or even access to the information they need to have an opinion?

Why would we assume that just because a meeting is called that residents will attend? And what’s to ensure that a public meeting will actually produce useful information to elected officials?

Those are critical questions today as we see voter turnout at abysmal levels (16 percent in the most recent school board election!), children struggling who need help with homework and local governments cutting budgets as the demand for services increases.

Whose voices will be heard?

Those thoughts and questions are at the heart of my work as the Charlotte program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. During my 30-year career as a journalist, I didn’t much think about whose voices will be heard and who gets to decide. We provided information – as fair and accurate as we could make it – and expected folks would use that information to make good decisions.

I’ve come to see that as a naïve view, and it’s complicated by sea changes in the media world.  In 2010, the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued a stirring report on why we all should care and how we might respond. I quote from the report here:

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy believes America is at a critical juncture in the history of communications.  Information technology is changing our lives in ways that we cannot easily foresee.  As dramatic as the impacts have been already, they are just beginning.

The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance.  But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities.

America needs “informed communities,” places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs. This means people have the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. They need information to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Driving this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.

To achieve this, the Commission urges that the nation and its local communities pursue three ambitious objectives:

  • Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities;
  • Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
  • Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

A Starting Place for Action

I recommend the Knight report to you.  Its recommendations provide a starting place for action that we as individuals and collectively as a community might take to create more informed and engaged communities. Among them: Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.

Given the recent funding questions around our public libraries, this one is worth exploring a bit.

I grew up in the library in Shelbyville, Tenn. I’d sit among the shelves of books, pulling out one and then another to read to an even younger patron. I think it was my first (albeit unpaid) job.

Libraries are very democratic places, if you think about it. They tend to be in convenient locations in the community. Everyone uses them, so there’s no stigma in going through their doors.

But some of our neighbors NEED them.

For those with limited income, the library is often the one place they can get information – on paper, yes – but more importantly, on-line. As more and more employers require on-line job applications, what happens if you can’t read, and you don’t know how to use a computer? Or don’t have easy access to a computer with an Internet connection?

The digital divide issue spills over into the engagement question as well.

We hear more and more about digital town squares. But, again, if you don’t have a computer, or don’t know how to use one, you can’t get to that town square, much less speak up and voice an opinion.

Experiments in engagement

Organizations and communities across the country are experimenting with how to get more people involved in more ways in community decision-making. Some are very much off-line; some are very much on-line. More and more, we see that to reach across generations, we must think about virtual and in-person engagement.

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium brings together practitioners and researchers promoting deliberative decision-making in communities. Matt Leighninger, that fellow who prodded me a bit about how engaged I am in our community, is a leader in this field. Central to the Consortium’s work is sharing what they learn about integrating online and face-to-face approaches and helping public leaders find examples and resources for better engaging citizens. 

Matt shared his wisdom with folks in city and county government as well as community engagement practitioners when he visited Charlotte last year. He’s passionate about resident participation being meaningful and effective as well as enabling more people to participate in important community decisions. 

A new non-profit is coming at this engagement question from a different direction. Code for America describes its team as web geeks, local government experts and tech industry experts. Their mission: To help local governments work better for everyone with the power of the web. They do this by sending in teams of techies to work with a local government to innovate solutions. Code for America believes that partnering cities will not only solve a critical problem using technology, but also will help cultivate the next generation of tech-savvy, civic leaders.

Another non-profit providing resources for individuals or organizations interested in community problem-solving work is Public Agenda. Pick your topic, pick your approach. Public Agenda probably has useful research or how-to information to move you forward.

Charlotte and you

Charlotte is no late-comer to engagement work. It wasn’t that long ago that we had 1,100 people in a room on a cold December day coming up with goals to support our children, called United Agenda for ChildrenCrossroads Charlotte invites each of us to look to tomorrow but act today.  Souls of our Neighbors, a documentary spotlighting the affordable housing issue, is spreading across the community and the effort will soon include an interactive website to link your desire to help with agencies.

But, we can’t stop now. Yes, we all need to vote. Yes, we all need to volunteer. But, we all need to stay more informed and actively engaged in solving our community’s most pressing problems.

What happens if we don’t? A few people – some well-meaning but some with personal agendas – will decide how our community’s problems are solved. Our public officials deserve to know how each of us feels about an issue. A quick email, a quick phone call, a quick note will be useful to them. Truly. They want to hear from us.

But, don’t stop there. Pick an issue and dig in. If you’re worried about children struggling in school, learn all you can about what affects their academic success. Maybe, they’re homeless and not getting enough food or sleep to concentrate. What can you do personally? What public policies need changing to better support them?

I commit to do that, and I commit to finding new ways to get more people involved in decision-making. I hope you will, too. 

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Tags: critical issues, civic engagement, susan patterson, charlotte, digital divide

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