Tag Archives: engagement

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 vote.org, 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.


The Best Definition I’ve Heard

I’m still at the Conference on Citizenship at Wayne State University. Today, in one of the panels, I heard something that really struck me: a definition of a good education.

A good education is learning that has the cumulative effect of increasing the capacity of each citizen to control his/her fate.

I like this definition, because self-determination is at the core of the American ideal. But self-determination requires knowledge and skills that equip individuals to control their own lives and pursue their own dreams. We hear a lot about improving education, about test results and teaching methods; we hear a lot less about the content of that education. Other than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), we spend very little time considering the skills and knowledge we should be providing the nation’s schoolchildren.

Controlling one’s fate includes the ability to participate in democratic self-government. There is a lot of research that connects civic engagement with efficacy–confidence in ones ability to navigate the social and political environment. Powerless people don’t engage.

Of course, there are different kinds of powerlessness. There’s the kind we can address through education, by giving students the skills and information they need in order to participate in self-government. There’s also the powerlessness that we all face when the system becomes corrupted; when government and those in positions of power only respond to the privileged and affluent. But that’s a subject for a different blog.