Defining Civic Engagement: Michael Gilliland

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.

Next up we have lifelong Chattanooga native, Michael Gilliland, the Board Chair for Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA), a community-organizing nonprofit started in 2010. Through COA, Michael works to engage individuals in matters such as affordable housing and equitable development, issue-based organizing, and grassroots advocacy. COA has an established history of engagement in community struggles from the neighborhood-level to the county-level.

We can all look up the definition of “civic engagement,” but what does it mean to you personally?
Civic engagement is really just a synonym for participation in society, in the sense that society is stuff that affects us together, rather than solely as individuals. Most of us have little power over things like schooling, transportation systems, housing, the economy, violence, etc…but all these issues determine our lives in major ways. The choice to become engaged as a citizen is largely about power to determine the world we live in. Civic engagement is a term for taking a personal responsibility for a social problem. It’s working out democracy in a local setting.

How has your concept of civic engagement been shaped, and how has it informed your work and daily life?
What brings us together in COA, with all the diverse issues we choose to act on, is a fight against marginalization. There are people who make decisions, and then there is a much larger group that have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. We want to see the effect of different groups of participants at the table of decision-making.

Let’s talk about failures. What are we getting wrong about civic engagement as a city? 
Really meaningful participation isn’t a survey. A kindergartener participates in their class, but that doesn’t translate to power. We want self-determination growing in areas of town that haven’t seen it. The way we participate has to offer the opportunity to affect more than ornamentation. I think there is a strong sense of hopelessness among many people in Chattanooga that participation is worthless because all the important decisions have already been made. Changing that perception, and educating people in the complexity of social participation, is a long-term project.

Let’s talk about potential. Tell us about something happening that gives you hope, or that could grow into something good?
A number of churches, labor unions and community groups have recently come together under the name CALEB to engage organizations in power-building for social change. The model has had a dramatic effect in Nashville over the past five years in providing the impetus for large groups of people to work together around issues of housing, a fair economy, and criminal justice reform. I’m excited to be growing the relationships with diverse organizations towards building a more just city for all.

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.

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