What Is Civic Engagement?

Civic Engagement takes many forms, but without it our communities can suffer. Here we take a look at what the term is and how it relates to resilience, as well as briefly touch on some rising challenges it faces.

What Is Civic Engagement?

What do you think of when you hear the term Civic Engagement? Many thoughts go right to voting and political participation, but it's not the only sphere where engagement happens.

The Presidential Precinct, a consortium of The University of Virginia, College of William & Marym, and two historic sites—James Madison’s Montpelier and James Monroe’s Highland put out one of the best summary videos I've seen (below).

To summarize, civic engagement is when citizens act to make a positive difference in their communities because of a feeling of ownership over collective problems. [1]

We can think of plenty of examples with this broad definition. Joining a civic group, helping at a charity, raising awareness of issues in the community. Most of us have been civically engaged without being consciously aware of the term.

Much of civic engagement relies on connectedness to community. We're lucky here in the USA that AmeriCorps tracks civic engagement closely, taking 2-year snapshots. Their most recent reports available were from 2017, 2019, and 2021. [2]. The weighted measurement looks at the following.

  • Formal Volunteering: the share of state residents who formally volunteered through organizations
  • Informal Helping: the share of state residents who informally helped others by exchanging favors with their neighbors
  • Organizational Membership: the share of state residents who belonged to an organization
  • Charitable Giving: the share of state residents who donated $25 or more to charity
  • Talking with Friends and Family: the share of state residents who talked to or spent time with friends or family
  • Talking with Neighbors: the share of state residents who had a conversation or spent time with their neighbors

You can view the trends for your state here, but the top-box messaging of their 2021 report is a bit of a mixed bag.

Although the national rate of volunteering through organizations declined from 2019 to 2021, Americans continued to help each other informally.[3]

In the most recent report, the data showed a 7 percent drop in formal volunteering, presumably a result of the pandemic. Women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than men, with Generation X being the highest formal volunteers out of all generations.

In the informal realm, the news was much better. Baby boomers were the most willing to informally help others, Veterans helped at a rate 8 percentage points higher than non-vets, and parents with kids under the age of 18 were more likely to informally help a neighbor 9 percent more often than those without.

Relating to Resilience

While it is wishful thinking to assume the pandemic was a transient, brief blip in our nation's social fabric, I believe a lot of us are coming to the realization that we were stretched far beyond a healthy limit for functioning society. Political Polarization, such as what the US has experienced over the past decade, can demolish good faith civic engagement efforts. As a recent Atlantic article put it succinctly.

To live in a country where political disagreements turn into personal vendettas is no fun, but a growing body of research reveals more systemic effects. Pernicious polarization makes good-faith efforts to tackle social problems such as public-health crises harder and bad-faith efforts to turn them into political gain easier. At worst, an erosion of trust in democratic norms and political institutions can end up as political violence and civil war.[4]

We've seen the "#DiedSuddenly" hashtag used recklessly to label any sudden cardiac arrest that gains media attention as a result of pandemic-era policies. As religion, race, location, ethnic group, and other prior "identities" get pushed aside in favor of partisanship as the main driver of how someone sees themselves, we risk a disconnectedness that not jeopardizes safety. Worst of all, we're able to live these connections entirely online through social media engagement and forums, instead of meeting at the town hall and working towards practical policies, the past few years have shown how echo-chamber driven legislation can drive people further apart.

In well-connected neighborhoods, gun-violence is lower, disaster preparedness and recovery better, and we just live longer. [5]. If you know your neighbor better, you're more likely to help them versus a stranger. That's why it's troubling to read reports on how we're less likely to look up from our screen and actually get to know our neighbors. (I know I'm just as guilty of this as well!)

In short, we need civic engagement to help our communities address the challenges faced locally every day, but we're finding ourselves more disconnected from our neighbors and social organizations than before. When communities are disconnected, resilience struggles. But there is hope, we do know that people are still willing to help informally, which presents a good starting point for efforts to increase bystander CPR by locally-engaged advocates who can break through the "noise" generated by political polarization.

  1. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_defi.html?pagewanted=print ↩︎

  2. https://americorps.gov/about/our-impact/volunteering-civic-life/state-trends ↩︎

  3. ibid ↩︎

  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/us-democrat-republican-partisan-polarization/629925/ ↩︎

  5. https://www.axios.com/2022/07/28/neighborhood-connections-knowing-neighbors-strong-society-americans ↩︎