The Civic Engagement Field is a House
When I applied for my role at PACE in January, the opening words of my cover letter read: “Dear Kristen, It’s a heck of a time to be working in civic engagement.” Things were changing — that much was clear. And I think most of us knew the path to a future we all wanted was paved with civic engagement. What that looked like remained to be seen.
PACE — Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement — is a network of foundations and funders that invest in civic engagement and democracy work across the country. Kristen is PACE’s Executive Director, and now my boss. Since I submitted that cover letter, she and I, along with our staff, members, and broader network, have had many a conversation about the unique-ness of this moment, and what it means to doing civic engagement within it.
This shift in momentum is not lost on the funding community. During the past few months in particular, we have been fielding questions from across the country — some from experienced civic engagement funders who have been inspired by recent events to expand their work. Others have been focused on other causes, but have realized that without a stronger focus on civic engagement, their success in those programmatic endeavors is inherently limited. And finally, there were folks who had never done this work before, and who are suddenly feeling the urgency to contribute to the challenges we’re seeing unfold around us. And from each group of folks, the questions we received all seem to come from the same place: “What does civic engagement look like?” And, “where do I start?”
The reality is, civic engagement doesn’t come with a stocked toolbox — it doesn’t even come with a uniform definition! That’s why we developed the Civic Engagement Primer (#PACEPrimer for short). It’s a tool aimed at supporting funders on their exploration of civic engagement funding — and it starts at the beginning, with a definition. For us, civic engagement is: the process of helping people be active participants in building and strengthening their communities, whether that community is defined as a physical place, or a shared identity/interest. In other words, civic engagement is a spectrum of ways people can participate in self governance, from interactions with government to voluntary associations, and everything in between.
We often describe civic engagement less as a piece of the pie; rather, it’s 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.
I have to give credit to Kristen: when your life’s work revolves around nebulous ideas like civic engagement, you get really good at metaphors. And this year, in our work supporting funders in their civic engagement journeys, we’ve moved our metaphors from the culinary world, into real estate.
If you think of the civic engagement field as a big house, it’s easy to visualize the way funders and practitioners interact with one another to create the larger whole we all represent, and how each piece interacts with and supports the others. In civic engagement:
- Some folks come in through the front door, with the kinds of activities we traditionally associate with civic engagement like voting, community organizing, volunteering, etc.
- Others come in through a side door or a window. These folks might focus on issues like the alleviation of poverty, environmental work, or health, and they use civic engagement as a strategy to achieve those ends.
- Others serve as the floor or foundation of house. These are folks who focus on issues like structural inequality or personal freedom, and see civic engagement as a mechanism for building individual social and political power and shifting systems toward a more inclusive and representative frame. Without a strong foundation, the other elements of the house are fundamentally weakened.
- Finally, there is the roof, or the enabling conditions of democracy, encompassing things like journalism, media, and social entrepreneurship. The roof protects the house — if there’s a leak, that negatively influences the way the rest of the elements can operate.
This vision is a way of illustrating the spectrum of activities that civic engagement encompasses. (For a visual representation of that spectrum, check out this handy chart from the #PACEprimer.) Whether in the funding world or in communities, civic engagement work is far broader than traditional associations make room for. Community organizing and voter registration is civic engagement — as much as helping your neighbor with their groceries, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or mentoring a young person in your community.
For us, civic engagement is about helping Americans be part of America.
That’s the cross-partisan sentiment that inspires our work. At PACE, we’re considering what civic engagement could look like if we really strive for cross-partisan dialogue and collaboration, liberty alongside equity, and diversity coupled with justice and inclusion.
It’s easy to be disheartened by everything going on in our country today, but shifting our framing can allow for the possibility to see our current reality not as a quagmire, but as a point of departure, and a place for opportunity. The reality that our civic fabric is frayed, and the foundations of our democracy have been shaken is not one to take lightly, but the dissonance we’re feeling is a sign that a greater constellation of issues need to be reconsidered and examined. It’s a heck of a time to be working in civic engagement — and it will be imperative for each of us in the house to work together.