Active Civic Engagement: The Power of People to Make Change

In 2008, hundreds of thousands of citizens engaged in the political process, some mobilizing others to vote for the first time. To both describe and recapture that activism, Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium has written Creating Spaces for Change: Working Toward A 'Story of Now' In Civic Engagement.

The publication, the result of a project financed by the WK Kellogg Foundation, focuses on two forms of what it calls "active civic engagement": community organizing and deliberative democracy, both of which mobilize ordinary citizens to influence and inform public decision-making, described as "the power of people to make change." These two strands of civic engagement are often pursued by very different people using a very different vocabulary. Whereas community organizers are focused on advancing social justice and equity, those engaged in "deliberative democracy" are driven by concepts of citizenship and public deliberation and decision-making. Whereas the former group is ethnically and racially diverse, the latter, according to the report, is composed primarily of whites.

Finding a conceptual framework that attracts and motivates both groups is the task of the report.

Furthermore, the report argues for stronger systems for capturing and measuring impact. Despite a wealth of evaluations, reports and academic literature, when challenged on the efficacy of their work, civic engagement practitioners tend to reference their own experiences rather than those of the broader field. Philanthropy can support efforts to assemble and summarize the existing results -- oriented research on civic engagement and develop online tools for tracking, measurement and accountability.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, and very much in line with recent recommendations from Bruce Sievers, philanthropy should help build a stronger infrastructure for civic engagement. "Because this work has proliferated outside the boundaries of any single profession, political philosophy or civic tradition, many local leaders and organizers don't know where to turn for advice and assistance," according to Leighninger.

The goal of civic engagement goes well beyond work with policymakers or involvement in government. Instead, it seeks to "tap all the assets that a community possesses," and to become "a sustained, accepted part of community life." Leighninger is describing a robust and resilient civil society engaged in democratic process. And Kellogg is at the forefront of giving that society renewed vibrancy and cohesion.