Defining Civic Engagement: Abby Garrison

As we prepare for our latest Causeway Challenge, we’ve had the pleasure of hearing some very different perspectives on the words “civic engagement.” Every week between now and the end of July, we will be sharing a different person’s thoughts on what it means to be civically engaged.

Jun 18, 2017 · 4 min read

We are kicking off the series with Causeway’s very own Executive Director, Abby Garrison. Abby was born and raised in Chattanooga, and found her way back here after graduate school, taking note of all the growing opportunities here. She has an eclectic combination of experience and areas of study including Political Science, Regional Planning, Brand Development, Business and Community Development, which all make her the perfect fit to be our fearless leader.

How would you define civic engagement in one sentence?
People getting involved in their community to make it what they want it to be.

How has your concept of civic engagement been shaped, and how has it informed your work and daily life?
When I think of civic engagement, I immediately think of my mother Rhea Studer because all of my first memories of civic engagement revolve around her. She was PTA president at my elementary school Bachman, and I vaguely remember her being up on stage running a meeting before some sort of performance we had later that night (I was dressed as a Pilgrim, so it must have been around Thanksgiving). She always took me with her to vote at our polling station. It was in the lobby of Thrasher Elementary, and I distinctly remember stepping inside the little metal booths with curtains, the terrazzo flooring I stared at while she filled out her ballot, and her always telling me you can vote for whomever you want but that you HAD TO VOTE (oh, and that it was rude to ask other people how they voted!) Sometimes she was my Sunday school teacher, and every year she and another mom were our Girl Scout Troop leaders. She would use our dining room table for whatever project she was working on, whether it was getting a stop sign installed across the street from our house so my brother and I “wouldn’t get hit by all the construction trucks,” or helping organize Colassal Fossil in the former bus barns downtown. Bottom line, my mom is who got me interested in what I now know is “civic engagement.” She was, and is, a force.

Let’s talk about failures. What are we getting wrong about civic engagement as a city?
One thing I see over and over again — both professionally and personally — is that we’ve failed to adapt to changing times in the sense that most families don’t have a parent who stays home full-time. In 1970, 41% of kids had a mother who stayed at home. In 2012, that percentage was 20. Stated a different way, in 1970 almost half of mothers with kids younger than 18 stayed at home, while in 2012 that percentage had dropped to only 29%. At the same time, the number of stay-at-home mothers who live in poverty has doubled since 1970, changing the profile of who even stays at home, all of this according to Pew Research. To me, that says we have much fewer people like my mom (who was a stay-at-home mom) taking on traditional civic roles than we did 30 or 40 years ago. Most mothers today simply don’t have the time on their busy calendars to go to PTA meetings, join a civic club, coach a team, put dinner on the table, keep house, be a good partner/ loving parent/ caring child, take care of themselves, AND work 40+ hours a week.

Let’s talk about potential. Tell us about something happening that gives you hope, or that could grow into something good?
As founder of Citizen University Eric Lui says in his book You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, “The old deal is dead. There is no new deal yet.” What he’s essentially saying is that our traditional economic and social arrangements are outdated and are leading to what he calls the “Great Push Back” of the masses from the left, right and everywhere in between. To me, that’s exciting because it means we have an opportunity to re-make the way we engage, organize, and exercise power to get things done. What would an IOT version of civic impact look like? What would the Uberization of civics entail? How might people engage in civics on-demand, when they need it, when they feel like it, in ways they want? The emergence of systems thinking has profound impacts and parallels on civic engagement and how we design mechanisms for people to engage and actually drive change. Overall, I am optimistic about the potential and growing awareness of the need to re-design the system and how it works. More and more people I talk to realize that the days of inefficient neighborhood [insert any other type of traditional civic organization] meetings are gone — they can be done over email or via or over text. We’re getting better and better at meeting people where they are and giving them organizing and communications tools to drive meaningful change on an issue they care about. To me that’s exciting because it means this working mom might be able to get a pothole fixed or have a say in my local school AND still have time to get dinner on the table.

For our sixth Causeway Challenge we are looking for ideas that use creativity to increase civic engagement in Chattanooga. This program is for early-stage ideas led by individuals and groups. The top 10 projects will receive a spot in Causeway’s incubation program, and $3000 to test their idea. Learn more and apply at, and come to our kickoff event, Reclaiming Civic Engagement, on June 28th.