We’re excited to be discovering Atlanta this week on the #CivicInAmerica Road Show. Some scenes from today’s travels. Happy to report that lemonade stands, marching bands, and adopt-a-highway programs are alive and well in Georgia!
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Above: A town hall meeting in Oakland two weeks ago, focused on public safety.
As I wrote about a week ago, I’m traveling the United States to learn what motivates people to get involved in community life, or to take action on issues they care about.
These past weeks found me in the Bay Area of California – and on one particular Saturday morning, at a town hall meeting on public safety in East Oakland, convened by the top city officials (that is Mayor Jean Quan in the red dress by the orange wall, and Oakland’s Police Chief Sean Whent at the far left).
On this Saturday morning, a spirited debate covering high-speed chases, police recruitment, and – very poignantly – murder rates was in full force. Several of the meeting attendees had personally experienced the consequences of gun violence, including one woman who said she had lived in East Oakland for ten years, and in that time had buried both her own son and two of her nephews.
(The city has recently launched a “Ceasefire,” initiative, modeled on programs in Chicago, Boston, and New York that take a public health approach to stopping the spread of gun violence. This is a federally-funded program and only those communities most in need of the resources get this kind of intervention. In other words, the situation in Oakland is serious.)
I have been to a number of community meetings like this – in a previous life, I worked on problem-solving justice projects in New York City – and so the dynamic was familiar: announcements from city officials, questions from the public, answers to those question from city officials, and meeting done.
But this time around, I had my civic researcher hat on. And what struck me for the first time was a fairly simple observation: why aren’t the city officials asking the public any questions?
A typical script would see the Police Chief ask for the next question, an impassioned citizen would state a series of grievances, followed by a question, usually about what the police department was doing or planning to do about these issues. The Chief would then do his best to answer the question – sometimes dispelling myths, sometimes offering condolences or empathy, sometimes defending a city policy – and if the citizen was satisfied, the conversation would end. Some topics had a few rounds of back and forth before we heard “OK, next question.”
Anybody who has been to a community meeting knows that this is standard, in Oakland or anywhere else where government does its best to engage its citizens.
At this meeting, both officials and citizens kept repeating: “we are not going to be able to solve this problem without working together.”
However, the citizen-as-questioner and official-as-responder model sets up exactly the opposite dynamic. What is created is a scenario in which citizens are supposed to interrogate and government is supposed to defend. Instead of engaging in a shared problem-solving stance, this dynamic allows for a pernicious assumption to persist: that the public’s responsibility is to complain, and that government’s responsibility is to fix things.
What I wonder is: how is this “working together?”
There is a simple fix for this problem, and one that could likely go a long way in shifting to a culture of true collaboration: government officials should take every opportunity possible to ask questions.
Sometimes, incorrect information needs to be dispelled or government officials genuinely need to be held to account; yet there is always an opportunity re-set the scenario, focusing back on citizens to ask them “What do you think we could do together to solve this problem? What strategies do you think would be effective? What role can you play?”
Not all citizens are experts on the issues that challenge their neighborhoods, but neither are they completely ignorant. Some good ideas could emerge, and at the very least, the citizen has a true experience of being consulted by officials with the authority to consider their ideas. We also know that people who make public statements about what should happen are more likely to actually follow through on those ideas, which could make them more active and involved collaborators with government.
So, I would be curious to hear from government representatives what it would be like, the next time they are addressing their constituencies, to ask the public at least three questions over the course of the meeting, and perhaps five the next time, and so on. Does the dynamic change over time? Is there a greater sense of collaboration and active engagement from citizens? All questions for future research!
Above: A scene from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir spring musical.
In other news …
I’ve started a few new hashtags for this project: #CivicInAmerica will be a great way for you to post a picture or share an experience that you think particularly represents what “civic” means today.
Next, we’re headed to Atlanta, Georgia and Portland, Oregon. As always, recommendations for local #CivicSnacks will be most welcome! Send ‘em along to @katekrontiris.
What motivates everyday people to take civic actions, and what holds them back?
Over the next few months, I will be traveling to six cities in the United States, with the aim of investigating in very rich and detailed terms some answers to this question.
This is a question that matters if you believe that everyday people can do more to solve the problems they notice around them – and that if they do, our more informed and engage populace can have greater power over the decisions that affect our lives.
I’ll be traveling with my research partner (and fabulous sister!) Charlotte, and although the specific details of our findings won’t be available until the Fall, I do want to use these travels to focus a series of observations around what “civic behavior” looks like in this day and age.
To start with, I think it is useful to flag the fact that “civic” means very different things to very different people. Conceptually, I have found the definition that Eric Gordon offers in a recent literature review of civic engagement to be the most inclusive and specific:
Civic engagement, as it is defined in this literature review, is premised on three individual and collective actions: the ability to (1) acquire and process information relevant to formulating opinions about civic matters, (2) voice and debate opinions and beliefs related to civic life within communities or publics, and to (3) take action in concert and/or tension with social institutions such as political parties, government, corporations, or community groups.
Obviously, technology is increasingly a relevant factor in all aspects of our lives. For those of us who are interested in the emerging field of “civic innovation” (see this Knight Foundation report for a great recent overview of the field), we can think about our realm of focus to include the use of this century’s digital technologies to make progress on shared public problems.
In some interviews I completed last summer, however, people gave examples of their own civic engagement that ranged the spectrum from voting to donating money to a cause to participating in a local restaurant walking tour to helping an attractive foreign tourist hail a New York City taxi. (Suffice it to say, the city’s Board of Tourism didn’t quite hand out a gold star for that one.)
In New York City, where we kicked off the research last week, the parenting lens offers a particularly interesting way of looking at what happens to people’s experience of civic life when they have kids.
Search the terms “Brooklyn Baby Hui” or “Brooklyn Bambino,” or “Park Slope Parents,” and you’ll find an array of parenting blogs focused on every possible detail of child-rearing in the borough from which the newest Mayor hails. Among the threads about cloth diapers, baby strollers, discipline regimes, and sleep training, you will find a bit of 21st century bartering taking place.
For example, “Babysitter Exchange” is a platform that solves that critical shared problem among almost all young parents: child care. On this platform, a circle of families signs up to “bank” babysitting hours for their fellow parents, and receive services in exchange from other parents. This makes possible those extra few hours at work, or a relaxing adults-only outing, all the while cementing new bonds of reciprocal exchange among neighbors. Where in small towns or more traditional societies, this might be called the “it takes a village” approach, in today’s densely-populated cities it’s a way of using tech to connect people who might not otherwise meet, but have shared needs.
I have previously done research about the state of American elections and consider myself a regular voter, so my bias with civic engagement has always been around activities that connect myself as a citizen to the actions and decisions of my representative government. I believe in the value of government – even when it stumbles – and my various investigations have only reinforced that value.
What was so interesting about the (also) civic activities taking place among these parenting circles, however, was the remove from government and greater focus on filling individual needs. Yes, childcare is a shared problem, but Babysitter Exchange was not built expressly to offer civic engagement opportunities to exhausted young parents. Rather, it exists to fill very real and individual needs for sleep, intellectual stimulation, or professional advancement. Its positive externalities, however, are undoubtedly civic. Our society is better when neighbors in big cities know about each other and do things to help each other. Our cities are more productive when parents can work more hours, or spend money to eat out or entertain themselves locally.
So this begs the question: what does “civic” mean in this day in age?
If we only focus on activities that align with traditional notions of democracy, might we be missing out on important undercurrents of civic exchange? And in places where we see persistent social problems wreaking havoc among communities, what can we learn to activate greater local problem-solving among those of us standing on the sidelines?
These are big questions that fortunately many others are working on as well, but I think that six cities over six months should help us at least make a dent. We will be posting pictures from our travels and sharing links about interesting groups or individuals we encounter.
In order to be appropriately fueled for this work, we will need any and all recommendations for local food specialties we can get, so please send ‘em along to @katekrontiris (or, if you’re feeling punchy, use the hashtag #CivicSnacks).
Next stop: the Bay Area of northern California!