How one vague promise inspired one hundred days of civic action
One hundred days ago, I pledged to commit one civic act per day for the next four years.
I was making good on a promise I made last year “to change my approach to civic engagement.” At the time, I had no idea how I would fulfill that promise. I was going through periods of disbelief, anger and guilt, trying to come to grips with the direction of our country’s and our communities’ future. Our civic fabric seemed irreparably torn. I wanted to help repair it, but how? What can one person meaningfully do? It took two months of introspection to form a plan.
Since January 21, that plan has meant committing a civic act daily. The acts have ranged from marching for science to experiencing an arts exhibition called Public Trust; from joining in a nascent neighborhood association, to donating to an enterprising immigration attorney’s bus tour. I’ve documented all the acts here: OneCivicAct.com. The blog gives background on each act, because writing about it every day forces me to think about it every day. And thinking about civic engagement daily was important to me.
I made my pledge in private, keeping the blog anonymous, because I wasn’t sure how long I could follow through. It was a week before I told my wife about it. It was two weeks before I shared it with friends. As I’ve told more people about One Civic Act, I’ve received a lot of encouragement. Several people have repeated an act after reading about it; others have given me new ideas for civic acts. And many have shared how inspirational my commitment has been. In turn, all that feedback has inspired me.
Still, I’ve committed these civic acts with one important question unanswered: What exactly is a “civic act”?
Today, I defined a civic act. I’m building off a study which noted: “Civic engagement refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future.” With that in mind, I drafted my own definition of a “civic act”:
A civic act is an intentional action, requiring effort or resources, to participate in the life of a community. It aims to make a difference in improving conditions for others or to shape the future of a community. It embraces the fact that all persons are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A civic act doesn’t pit one community against another.
The definition is a work-in-progress, to be sure, which builds on my experience over the past 100 days. My civic acts have all been modest and I’m the first to admit that some acts have felt less meaningful than others. Attending a US national soccer team match, for example, was a stretch. While demonstrating national pride meant participating in the life of a community, rooting for my team at a sporting event didn’t have intentionality. I won’t count that again. There’ll be more mistakes along the way but I’ll try to keep the bar high.
My civic acts are evolving in other ways. I’ve done a little bit of a lot of different things so far, but I expect a more consistent portfolio of acts will emerge. I’ll continue to seek, discover and support civic ideas that I hadn’t heard of before. But I’ll follow through more with some organizations and causes, because having a real impact will depend on more focus.
What will I focus on? My first civic act was to join in the Women’s March in Boston and I thought activism would be a big part of One Civic Act. It hasn’t turned out that way. The same is true of politics. The power plays of partisan politics turn me off. I’d rather spend my time addressing the root causes of breakdowns of civic life.
On the other hand, community — from neighbor to neighborhood to city to region — is of increasing interest to me, as is the continuing need to keep learning about civic engagement. Volunteerism has played a smaller role than I would have liked. I expect that role to rise in the future. My intention is toward action.
I’ve frequently donated to charities and social enterprises that aim to make a difference in improving conditions for others or to shape the future of a community. It’s worth discovering and supporting creative social entrepreneurs. But donations are also a crutch; there are days when I don’t have a lot of time, so I fall back on giving. I know those contributions do have an impact, though I’d prefer civic acts to be more active.
Along the same lines of acting through my wallet, I’ve attempted to be a responsible consumer, intentionally choosing whom I buy from and going out of my way to limit my material footprint. This, to me, is an important part of shaping the future of the community. I’m also a believer that the private sector is an important player in civic life and I work to encourage more companies to act as responsible businesses.
Today, I put my name on my blog. I’m ready to attach myself more formally to this project. It’s becoming part of who I am. It’s something I’m proud of.
When I made my promise last year, it was to my team: my business partner and my colleagues at Kite Global Advisors. They know that civic acts won’t get in the way of my day-to-day commitments to our business, to our clients or to our team. Quite the opposite; indeed, civic acts complement our business. Some acts might even be made in the context of client work.
One hundred days from now, I hope to have heard from others who have made a similar pledge. I’m not the only one who’s trying to be more intentional about civic life. For example, I came across the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School’s “Do One Thing” project. An 8th-grade science teacher got her class of 61 students and two teachers to commit to “do one thing to be more mindful of their use of our natural resources” in a month-long quest to live more sustainably. They’re all blogging about it on Medium.
I didn’t start this project to be an agent of change. But if it inspires others — if it inspires you — to make your own pledge toward civic engagement, all the better. Your civic acts might not look like mine. But if our actions are in the spirit of the definition above, then perhaps we’ll together help to repair our civic fabric, to make our communities more resilient. So I invite you to join me in committing civic acts more regularly. Act monthly or weekly, if daily seems daunting. But act. Make your own promise to our community.