How Can We Recapture the Spirit of Community Engagement That Built America?

Hands holding American flag
Hands holding American flag

" Let each person do his or her part....For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us." -- Barbara Jordan (American political and civil rights leader, 1936-1996)

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -- Margaret Mead (American anthropologist, 1901-1978)

These quotes perfectly capture America's unique brand of civic participation -- a combination of individual commitment and group action. Unfortunately, trends over the past few decades show both are in decline. Individual voter turnout of 36 percent for the 2014 midterm elections was the lowest in any election cycle since World War II. Participation has been falling since 1964 when turnout was 49 percent. Similarly, Robert Putnam's seminal work, Bowling Alone, published in 2000, painstakingly documented how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighborhoods and our democratic structures -- signing fewer petitions, belonging to fewer organizations that meet and knowing fewer of our neighbors, among other disheartening trends.

There is a wide range of opinion about the causes of these declines in civic participation. Some commentators point to a sheer sense of futility caused by cases such as Citizens United, intentional efforts to keep people of color from the polls, outdated methods used by government to gain public comments that give voice only to the few, and the reality that many 1960s-era community based organizations are neither run by nor speak for residents they hope to serve.

The Future of Community Engagement

Encouragingly, the work we are actively engaged in at Living Cities is providing us with evidence of an America that is actively confronting these trends. In the areas of collective impact and municipal innovation, we are seeing a growing demand for revitalizing the participatory process -- what we are calling broadly, "community engagement," both for the individual and for all residents collectively. In fact, both bodies of work have led us to this same place of intentionally seeking a new way forward for working with the communities we serve. In collective impact, whether it be in StriveTogether network cities attacking cradle to career education systems or our nine city Integration Initiative, we are seeing public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders not only coming together towards a shared result, but also asking for help to experiment with new and effective ways to engage the individual and underserved communities in their work. Similarly, when we held our semi-annual survey of participants in our Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI) meeting at Harvard's Kennedy School last fall, the vast majority of the 35+ mayor chiefs of staff present marked "new methods of community engagement" as a top priority for their boss in the coming year.

The fact that this new energy around community engagement is coming from civic leaders across sectors, community organizations, residents and government itself creates a strategic inflection point not seen for decades. We must use this opportunity to make sure that we help all these important actors move away from long held "defaults" in their methods and strategies for community engagement. For government, that often meant focusing only on the need to "inform" residents of changes it was contemplating and checking the box that they provided a forum for "input," largely through public hearings. For non-profits and the foundations that support them, "default" was often advocating "on behalf" of communities. While these strategies will certainly be appropriate in some cases, we cannot be satisfied that they represent the universe of what is possible.

Achieving Dramatically Better Results for Low-Income People, Faster

Today, as we aspire to a new urban practice that can achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster, we have the opportunity to harness the power of community engagement -- the individual and the group -- towards that end. To do so, we will have to make it easier for government, leaders and residents to understand the job that they are hiring community engagement to do and to deploy the right methods to do that job. That means helping to understand how to engage individuals acting individually and collectively along the community engagement continuum of goals -- from informing residents or elected officials about a position to co-creating solutions. We need to use the transformational power of technology, ubiquitous smartphones, social networks and the like to make these efforts a success.

We are already seeing great potential along the continuum -- from 311 platforms that enable citizens to register issues and to track their progress; to a participatory budgeting movement being deployed across individual councilmanic districts. All levels of engagement can be valuable and none are mutually exclusive. For example, in some places, more traditional, face-to-face, low tech approaches of information sharing are successfully building the buy-in necessary for more ambitious, technologically driven co-creation work.

The Time Is Now

There is no better time to bring these approaches to bear, given the fragile state of our democracy. We must realize a shared approach to solving our shared problems that is neither top-down, nor bottom-up. We need to reinvigorate our democracy with actionable, effective, honest partnerships between government, institutions and residents.