The New Civic Engagement

I know I do a lot of criticizing and complaining on this blog. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there are emerging signs of improvement, too.

A lack of civic knowledge and engagement is at the heart of so much that is wrong in America. It often seems that the only people who are engaged are the malcontents and bigots–the people so angry and so threatened by social change I can almost hear them screaming “stop the world, I want to push you off.”

It’s less noticeable (they aren’t organizing armed insurrections, after all) but thoughtful, civic-minded people are also engaging, and in very productive ways. Let me share two uplifting examples.

The first is a book sent to me by a reader from Encinitas, California, titled Potholes, Parks and Politics. Several years ago, Lisa Shaffer moved to Encinitas, which is a mid-sized city near Santa Barbara. She was disturbed by the incivility and “good old boy” ethos of the then city council, and she ran for and won a seat on that body when one became open. She and another Council member, Teresa Arballo Barth, subsequently decided to write a guidebook for citizens who wanted to get something done locally–but didn’t want to have to run for public office to get that something done.

Shaffer and Barth have done a fantastic job. They have anchored their guidebook in the importance of three things: civility, clarity and communication. They explain why and how to properly define the problem–it isn’t always what it seems. They also stress the importance of identifying who actually has the authority to solve a particular problem. (Sometimes, as Indianapolis folks know all too well, local government lacks that authority.)They lay out the process for contacting those authorities, making one’s case, and achieving a result, and they do it with easy to understand examples and definitions. They provide a “toolbox,” explain how local government works, define arcane terminology, provide lists of resources–and do it all in less than 100 pages, in an incredibly readable book.

It can be ordered through Lisa’s webpage, and I enthusiastically endorse it.

The second example is closer to home, and it warms the hearts of all Hoosiers who looked longingly at what Stacey Abrams and her collaborators achieved in Georgia. It is called–appropriately–HOPE. You can access its website here.

HOPE stands for “Hoosiers Organized People Energized.”

The numbers tell the story: Indiana has two million unregistered Hoosiers. That number includes 316,000 Black, Latino, Asian-American and Indigenous citizens. It doesn’t include the 270,000 young people who will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2022.

HOPE is a 501c3 organization formed to find and register them–to expand Indiana’s electorate and increase the state’s embarrassingly low  turnout. HOPE has a partnership with, giving it expanded capabilities to verify and register Hoosiers. The organization will also work to streamline the registration process and create effective ways to ensure that previously ignored Hoosiers have a voice. The organizers have done their homework–they’ve consulted with people in several states–not just Georgia– that have effectively expanded their electorates, and they are ready to apply those measures in Indiana.

The organization has also recruited an impressive list of advisers. (I am honored to be one of them, but there is always room for more–and, of course, always a need for funding.) (Hint, hint.)You can sign up and/or donate at the website.

Expanded turnout will create a more balanced General Assembly, and enable us to send fewer embarrassing Neanderthals to Washington. I have written before that even with the Indiana GOP’s extreme gerrymandering, there would be far fewer “safe” districts if more voters cast ballots. The districts created by our gerrymandering map-makers depend upon information reflecting previous turnout. If we can turn enough non-voters into voters, we can change the results in several of them.

America is clearly at an inflection point. We have multiple problems, many of them seemingly intractable. We can either throw in the towel, give the country over to the crazy Q people and Trumpers and Christian Nationalists–or we can get involved. We can ensure that under-represented people are registered and able to vote, and we can give citizens the information and tools they need to make not just local but also state and national government responsive.

It is enormously comforting to know that these efforts are proliferating. America may be down, but we aren’t out. Yet.


  1. Good news is always a welcome respite from the gloom and doom that is so easy to find. I will be buying the book you mentioned above and joining with HOPE to do my part to help move Indiana forward. Thank you for posting this!

  2. My only question for the GOTV movement is, “Where are the unregistered voters located in Indiana?”

    As we’ve discussed numerous times, if we expand voters in already conceded largely democratic cities, it won’t impact the outcome of a largely rural-dominated political landscape. Our embarrassments in Indy and Washington are loved icons in rural Indiana.

    Also, I’ve noticed the Republicans in Georgia are now passing a large foray of voter suppression measures to prevent the Democrats from “stealing elections.” Apparently, the GA-GOP got caught with their pants down.

    As I look at Indiana’s gerrymandered districts – unless we get a large democratic contingency to move from urban locations to our rural settings, what impact will GOTV make in our backward state?

    I hope HOPE has the solution. Like other Republican-dominated states, what ails this state is the direct result of voter suppression tactics that have worked like a charm.

  3. Sadly; our current “The New Civic Engagement” is evidenced in the U.S. Senate Republicans, namely McConnell, Johnson, Hawley and Cruz. Their actions are aimed at President Biden and Vice President Harris but the victims are American citizens caught in the cross fire. President Biden has wisely stayed out of the Senate to allow them to do their jobs. To interfere as Trump did by making their decisions for them, to be carried out by McConnell, has placed the entire Republican Senate body on the level of the uneducated in third world countries. They are still making Trump’s decisions the status quo.

    How can we ensure that under-represented people are registered to vote when Republican states are passing laws to prevent registration and making it virtually impossible for those who are registered to be able to reach their polls on whatever voting days they are allowed? Trump is out of the Oval Office but still controlling Congress to the point of cancelling the scheduled work on March 4th due to threats on lives of the members. Apparently the Capitol Police are requesting SIXTY MORE DAYS OF NATIONAL GUARD PROTECTION FROM TRUMP’S MINIONS. I guess this can be considered “The New Civic Engagement”; but not one that is desired. Power has always been known as an aphrodisiac; Donald Trump is the biggest hard-on this country has ever seen and he doesn’t appear to be wilting anytime soon. He continues raping this country by holding areas of the new administration at a standstill.

    I am not the least bit comforted by “The New Civic Engagement”; it appears to me to simply have a new direction of attack by civic engagement at our highest levels.

  4. First of all, Encinitas is in San Diego County about half-way between Oceanside and the northern reaches of San Diego, e.g., Del Mar. Santa Barbara is another 2 + hour drive north via I-5, I-405 and U.S. 101. It’s a lovely beach community with some of the highest real estate prices in the nation. Other than that…

    So, you’re saying 1.7 million unregistered Hoosiers are white. Hmm. How did the Republicans let that happen? Oh. Right. They don’t need to worry about getting elected in Indiana. Indiana Republicans are a sure thing. Talk about lack of civic knowledge…

    We all should stop calling these evil trolls “conservatives”. What are they conserving beside their own power base and how they control OUR money? The Cottons, McConnells, Johnson’s and all the Texas Republicans are most assuredly NOT conservative. To them, conserving the Constitution’s letter and intent has long been discarded for the single-minded lust for power. CPAC was not a convention of conservatives. It was a gathering of hungry, ignorant and psychologically depraved wolves. So, don’t ever call a Republican a conservative. They aren’t.

    What is Greg Abbott trying to conserve by lifting mask and gathering restrictions? His donors’ income, that’s what. The coming surge of COVID deaths? Who cares? Not “conservatives”. That would mean that they’re conserving life. They’re not interested in any of that.

    Nothing good will happen in this country until Republicans cease being a political entity. Liberals and progressives will never be able to undo a century of pathetic brainwashing and un-social messaging by Republicans. They were given too much corporate money to waste on the truth and facts. History? HA! Republicans only care about what’s in it for them, the nation be damned… as it soon will be.

  5. It’s likely that a lot of those unregistered white people live in rural areas. Just don’t talk values with them. Talk specific programs. Talk about providing jobs for their kids and improving their roads.

  6. Todd – a quick look at 2010 census data shows masses of non-white population 10K + in all these IN places: East Chicago, Gary, Merrillville, Hammond, Elkhart, Lawrence, Michigan City, Goshen, West Lafayette, Portage, Lafayette, Jeffersonville, Anderson, Bloomington, Terra Haute, Fishers, Carmel, Muncie, Kokomo. Are these all DEM areas???

  7. Please do not refer to the Nationalist’s as “Christian”. There is absolutely nothing Christian about their behavior and should be referred to as Fascists posing as Christians or a similar phrase.

  8. If you haven’t listened to or read yesterday’s NY Times interview with Stacy Abrams by Kara Swisher, I highly recommend it. She’s really extraordinary, and has great insights on what was going on in Georgia (she’s no fan of the Secretary of State) and how to move forward. It’s the best thing about her I’ve seen. She’s visionary, practical, clear-headed, and has a firm grip on her ego. Remarkable.

  9. It’s nice when big changes solve big problems but I think that we can’t rely on just them. We have to settle for progress one step at a time. Registering one person not currently registered is one such step. This is the magic of Stacy Abrams.

  10. Speaking of civic engagement, Shiela, I am am intrigued by your bi-partisan history. Once upon a time, you were an active Republican. What were the pillars of Republican ideas then versus now? What pillars of Democrat thinking (at large) attracted you to make a change? What major shifts took place in the Republican Party that define them today? Just thinking about the why of civic engagement. ?

  11. Thank you ,Sheila, for pointing out and adding to resources which help empower many who are quietly working behind the headlines to benefit their neighbors, their community, and all our democratic sustainability.

    Defining the problem, pointing out impediments to resolution, and just talking negativity are not the steps necessary to resolve issues which hinder a more sustainable and peace filled life.

    I have found a pretty steep learning curve over the years in working to bring about small and gradual changes to improve lives of others. The cost to me has been a continual opening of my mind and how I previously saw the world. And lots of virtual exercise in building up my own personnel resources. And it has been an amazing life journey.

    Thanks again, your sharing of ways we can actually take some steps to action means so much more to me than just the verbal “complaints and blames”.

  12. Thank you, Sheila. I did not know about HOPE. I just set up my monthly donations. This organization can make a significant difference!

  13. Shiela this is a breath of fresh air. I love it when people discuss ways we can improve civic engagement and get marginalized minorities to vote! We need to propose solutions to the problems and challenges our state and country face.
    Thanks for this one!

  14. Right on, Barbara G! We’re all about as good as we need to be at bitchin’ and moanin’. If we want to fix the ‘potholes’, we need to organize and work for it. Thanks, to Sheila, HOPE will be getting a monthly donation from me going forward. I’ve ordered the Potholes book and will be sharing the ‘Let’s Do Something’ resources Sheila provided today with others who want to work for change. Maybe we should focus on that rather than how someone labels something in a way that ruffles our feathers.

  15. Obama proved that Indiana is not nearly so red as we constantly hear it is. Todd’s reference to “where” these unregistered voters reside is worthy of note, though even with extreme gerrymandering it has little (official) relevance to the election of senators, governors, presidents and vice presidents other than the psychological suppression caused by political despair, i.e., it’s hopeless so why bother to vote and/or why not remain unregistered or stay at home if registered, which effectively puts neanderthals in the senate and state house in an extension of the effects of perennial gerrymandering. HOPE, I hope, can reverse such thinking.

    So how to increase urban participation in voting while also expanding small town and rural voting for Democrats? Can’t be done? Birch Bayh, a liberal Democrat (but with a degree in Agriculture from Purdue and a law degree from Indiana University and on whose 1962 convention committee I served) proved otherwise. He could drive along in the boonies, turn off in a dusty lane to farm houses, engage farmers in their language, and pick up votes that would almost certainly have been Republican. He served three terms, and while I was in Guam as deputy attorney general for a couple of years in charge of taxes in the early 70s I was surprised to see his wife Marvella at my office door one day. She said Birch had to go to Tokyo and they were on their way back to the States and that he was talking to the admirals and generals at the air force base so she said she would run downtown to say hello to me while in the vicinity. That couple kept track of their friends and backers, even thousands of miles from Washington.

    As for Sheila’s point today, there are indeed many who are working to reinstall civil communication and bring substantive results to the fore. My older daughter, for instance, a retired federal worker with expertise in drug and disaster work (Oklahoma City, Katrina, the BP blowup in the Gulf et al) is involved in many efforts akin to her former work in Washington. Just a few days ago she told me that she had to stay up late to participate in a UN meeting being held in Australia, among many other such meetings, and serves locally on the Drainage Board and Planning Commission here in Bloomington, Monroe County, Indiana.

    I am sure there are many other such unreported efforts afoot in our attempt to right our ship of state, so YES! to HOPE and all others involved in governance sans theatrics.

  16. Thank you for sharing this information, Sheila. Peggy Hannon, you make a good point. I agree with Robin R, “proposing solutions to the problems and challenges” is the way to go.

  17. The Republican Party – aka the new American fascist party – understands one thing and only one thing, that is “do whatever is necessary to stay in power.” They are being coached how to use such strategies by fascist “Christian” fundamentalists, who hide in the background. They are coached to use the same strategies and tactics to gain power that were used by Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. As long as the objective is to create the “Christian” world that those fundamentalist fascists want, those strategies and tactics are not only acceptable, they are necessary. They even claim that the Bible condones such practice. If you doubt this, read the book “The Family” or watch the documentary on Netflix.

    The Democrats on the other hand try to appeal to logic, ethics, fairness, and bipartisanship. They are shooting elephants with a BB gun.

    It is no coincidence that we all learn early in life that nice guys finish last.

  18. What we see playing out in the Senate is why we must do our best to turn Red States Blue.

    From the Common Dreams web site:

    Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, are attempting to grind the Senate to a halt to delay passage of a sprawling $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as Democrats race to get the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk before March 14, when millions of jobless Americans will begin losing their unemployment lifelines.

    After the Senate on Thursday afternoon approved a procedural motion to begin consideration of the aid bill—with all 50 Republicans voting no—Johnson objected to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) request for unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the bill in order to start debate, forcing the Senate staff to read aloud all 628 pages (pdf) of legislative text.

    What followed was nearly 11 hours of barely comprehensible speed-reading by alternating Senate staffers to a nearly empty chamber; not even Johnson, who forced the reading, remained on the floor through the whole process, which finally came to an end at around 2:00 am ET Friday.

    On Friday afternoon, the Senate is expected to kick off the notorious and dreaded vote-a-rama, which Republican lawmakers are expected to drag out by putting forth a slew of unrelated and doomed-to-fail amendments to the $1.9 trillion package, potentially delaying a final vote for days.

    Asked how long he wants the amendment process to last, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said earlier this week, “I’m hoping for infinity.”

    Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted on Twitter that Republicans are delaying “a relief package that 76% of Americans support—including 60% of Republicans.”

    My Side Bar: The Democratic Party needs to spend some money and blast the Air Waves in these Red States and let the people know in these these states- starting with Ron Johnson’s state of Wisco – Their Elected Officials are strangling the relief package that will benefit the people. Once for all the Democratic Party must play hardball.

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