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Civic Leaders: Inspiring Engagement and Empowering Communities

by Christopher DiStasi

Friday, June 21st, 2013

"Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."

Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.

This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.

Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.

"They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."

Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.

These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.

Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.

"[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."


“Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement

In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.

Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.

"[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."

Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.

Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.”

Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.




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