It Was Quite A Year for Civic Engagement. Here Are 5 Thing We Learned.

A snapshot of headlines in early 2017.

PACE leads a community of foundations and funders committed to civic engagement and democratic practice. As you might imagine, we had a lot to talk about last year. We didn’t have all the answers when we started — and we still don’t — but we learned a lot along the way. In the next few days, our Annual Reflection will highlight more about our work in 2017 and what’s on the horizon for this year. Right now — amid everything we learned in the whirlwind of 2017 — here are 5 things that stood out to us:

1. We need a new way to talk about civic engagement.

Our field tends to be comfortable with elite, academic language and jargon that doesn’t often resonate beyond the scope of our field. And lack of resonance is challenging when our work centers around connecting with, inspiring, and energizing people, and identifying common goals and shared values. The truth is, very few people wake up and say “I seek to restore the social cohesion of my community,” or “I am ready to be civically engaged today!” They are saying, “I want to help out” or “I feel a responsibility to give back.”

This disconnect pervades the funding community as well: we often hear foundations say “I didn’t set out to fund civic engagement — and I definitely don’t use those words to talk about it — but I’ve come to realize that is exactly what we’re doing.” Building a narrative with clear relevance to the people and institutions we hope to engage, is key. Our Civic Engagement Primer was a first step in what we hope will be a continuing dialogue around ways to advance accessible civic engagement terms and narratives.

photo credit: Tom Parsons

2. There is promise in leading across divides.

As institutions committed to civic engagement, acknowledging and understanding the social and political divisions we face is key, as is creating space for people to engage their full selves in their communities. It is also important to be thoughtful about where and how our work can either exacerbate or bridge divides and lines of difference.

This year, we’ve come to feel that at its core, civic engagement isn’t about telling people how to think, feel, or act — it’s about building a sense of agency and purpose. It’s about generating in people a sense of belonging and commitment to something larger than themselves, and providing the tools, support, and space to fully engage as citizens in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Civic engagement is often as much about the process as it is about the outcome, and as institutions, we may need to engage in both with equal intentionality, knowing that often, maintaining the integrity of the democratic process means putting people at the center.

3. Civic engagement isn’t “nice” — it’s necessary.

One powerful and positive shift we’ve witnessed this year is an apparent paradigm shift among people and organizations who’ve realized that civics isn’t the nice, cute, optional thing we do alongside all our necessary work… it is the necessary work. Some of our members have become civic engagement funders with the realization that the success of their other programmatic work was inherently limited without a strong foundation in civic engagement. For any issue that we care about to be sustainable, it must engage people in being part of naming the problem and identifying and leading the solution to it.

Click for a previous piece on another civic engagement metaphor: “The Civic Engagement Field is a House

Often, people think of civic engagement as a piece of the pie that represents communities — something that sits alongside the issues they care about. We’ve think of civic engagement not as a piece of the pie — but as the pan that the pie sits in. In other words, without inclusive and effective engagement and a strong foundation for democracy in the process of creating change in our communities and our country, our efforts will falter.

4. We’ve got questions — a lot of them.

The complexity of the issues we’re facing and ever-evolving dynamics around them may require us to lead with questions and resist forced binary answers. Democracy is a process, and it’s a necessarily messy, imperfect, and dynamic one — that’s a feature, not a bug. So part of moving forward means getting comfortable being uncomfortable — sitting in gray areas and leaning into challenging conversations that make room for contrasting perspectives and experiences, and allow our own to expand in the process. None of the challenges we face today have their roots in a single source, nor will they be resolved with magic-button solutions. When we aim for progress, we do so with an appreciation for the nuance and complexity in the challenges we face, and an acknowledgement that meaningful change takes time, commitment, and a lot of questions.

5. The moment is different, but it’s not new.

With the urgency and frequency of the issues we face today, it’s easy to slip into a belief that we’re up against a spectrum of new and unprecedented problems, but most are probably not new. Many of our current challenges are manifestations of ongoing issues with deep social and historical roots; understanding this context and weaving it into solutions is critical. When it comes to what this means for an apparent rise in civic engagement in the last year, we’ve often been asked, “So then why now?” and what we’ve come to wonder is if we could be experiencing an inherent tension between a representative democracy and a direct democracy.

Click for a recording of PACE’s Webinar: “Is this What Democracy Looks Like?”

People on all sides of the proverbial aisle feel that representation isn’t representing them, and through their actions, are demanding a more direct, immediate, and accountable outlet for their concerns. Our democratic system relies on the office of citizen hold elected official accountable as representatives of the people — without an engaged citizenry, tension within the system builds. That tension — the disconnect people are feeling — has intensified in a way that has compelled people to act. Since this time last year, we’ve had many discussions about whether the momentum we’re experiencing is a “moment” or a “movement” for civic engagement.

What we know is, if it’s a movement, it is up all of to us to support and sustain it. I find optimism in the opportunity to ensure we’re promoting civic engagement that goes beyond the voting booth to ensure our voices are heard in a timely, active, and regular basis. At PACE, we believe there is a role for philanthropy to create avenues and pathways for people to participate in the right and responsibility that is self-governance — to harness a sense of purpose and belonging to our community and country, and we’re committed to the journey, every step of the way.

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