Let me tell you about my own journey as a citizen in our democracy. It has been a long and winding road and the journey isn’t over yet.
Each day, it is easy to see things in our society that seem broken, sad, or unjust. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and want to simply close one’s eyes, step aside, hope that someone will take up the causes we care about and create the changes we want to see in the world.
Thankfully, though, there are many of us who want to and try to make this world a better place every day. Many of us may be perfectly happy trying to influence a small group of people on a topic we care about. Perhaps trying to impact the opinions or habits of family or a few friends is enough. Others may dream of having a much broader and deeper impact upon society. There is no right or wrong way to contribute, however, I do think that contributing in some way is important. We all need a greater purpose, something bigger than ourselves to belong to or commit ourselves to when it seems right to do so.
Over my life, I have been involved to varying degrees in my community. For me, my involvement has become deeper, more focused, more serious over time. If I look at my civic imagination and mindset over the past decades, I can see that I have been on a kind of continuum of community involvement.
Within that continuum, I have identified four general phases of my civic journey, so far. And it is still a work in progress. It took me years to reach the point where I was comfortable enough, had the time, and had the confidence and skills to step forward to become more involved. Now, I strive harder to achieve my purpose on this planet, to be more, and to give more to others. This has meant stepping outside of my comfort zone to take a place in the wider world and becoming more open and vulnerable in the process. None of my actions could be called heroic in any way. I don’t see heroics as even needed in most cases.
I would not judge anyone for where they might be on this journey. Each phase requires different levels of commitment, time, and personal development. The earlier phases require less of us, but are still valuable to a larger cause. Some will have the confidence, time, skills or experience to become more involved in the causes they care about through the third and fourth phases. But these later phases are not appealing to everyone and that is OK. This may also change, as it did for me, over time.
Here are the four general phases of civic development that I have experienced as I have tried to take on an increasingly greater role in civic life.
Phase 1. I Can’t Change the World, But I Will Observe as Others Try to Do So
For many years, I had the belief, like many do, that I did not have the power, skills, knowledge or maturity to be a change-agent. I chose to wait, and watch, and hope like “heck” that someone, somewhere, would step forward to do the work I did not want to do or feel I had the qualifications to address. This phase involved a good deal of magical thinking on my part, because it put a lot of the responsibility and expectations on someone else to do the heavy lifting. I like to think of this as an embryonic stage of civic development. Here you are developing your ideas, deciding what you care about, and looking for inspiration from civic leaders that display the kind of authentic leadership skills you admire.
Phase 2. I Can Change the Word by Supporting Others Who Are Trying to Do Good
As time went on, I saw myself as “too busy” to become involved. I was either in school learning how to change the world through an academic lens, or working, or both. But when I had some excess cash to spend, I would often send money to the non-profits that focused on issues I cared most about. This seemed like a significant commitment on my part. However, after many years of giving, I wondered whether even this was enough. The problems that I saw were not going away. I really didn’t know whether the organizations I was supporting were having the kind of successes I had hoped for, or even if they had, whether they could address problems of such magnitude and complexity. Still, their work was something positive I could contribute to and it felt good to help.
Phase 3. I Choose to Volunteer and Advocate for The Issues I Care About
In my younger years, the biggest civic steps I took were to gather signatures for petitions, and to become involved in electoral politics, either as part of a phone bank or by delivering election materials to voters’ doorsteps. It was civic participation, yes. But the truth was, I did not feel terribly useful or empowered. Oftentimes, volunteering felt more like busy work than a meaningful contribution.
Later on, I became involved with a neighborhood association, an environmental nonprofit, and other work in the community. I grew to understand that direct involvement in a cause was important and rewarding, and I believed in what I was doing. The problem was that as an advocate for what I cared about, I did not always see all sides of an issue and was quite certain I was right about a lot of things. However, over time, I began to wonder whether this approach would allow us to achieve important societal goals (like addressing climate change) if we excluded, and perhaps even dismissed, a large percentage of the stakeholders needed to fix pressing and complex public problems. What a quandary!
Phase 4. I Accept My Role and Responsibilities as an Active Citizen and Work to Create Change for the Common Good
Through work with the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative, I began to dabble in the world of civic leadership. For me, this phase has been the most challenging and the hardest because it requires “active citizenship”. This means taking on a leadership or governing role in places where we can model and renew democracy, while working to solve key public issues.
This phase involves creating fair, just, inclusive civic processes which allow all participants to have a voice in defining problems, and which also provides interested citizens with a role and responsibility for developing solution strategies and implementing them.
This phase, I believe, requires moving beyond advocacy alone. Yes-it is very important to have beliefs and concerns about issues one cares about, and to be able to voice them, but collaborative governance requires that we try to imagine a process for solving a problem that will include people that may not have even agreed initially that there is a problem to solve. In this phase, we agree to stay committed to governing together, despite our clear differences, and try to find answers in a way that balances science, our interests and desires, as best we can.
What’s next for me, and where will it lead me? The journey so far has been rich and humbling. What phase are you in on your civic journey? Where do you hope to be? Do you have a complex public problem that you care deeply about, but are skeptical about our ability to solve it while working among diverse interests? If so, contact me, and I can share hopeful stories about people who are finding a new way.
Coming soon: Civic Governance Case Studies – A New Approach to Policy Making