Citizens at the Center
The Case Foundation has just released a new report, "Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement,” that challenges individuals to think beyond volunteering, voting or even charitable giving to become active participants in civil society. This challenge to move from service to civics is “nothing short of a broader civic movement—one that works across a wide variety of sectors, populations, initiatives and fields to revitalize our democracy Rather than ask people to 'plug into' existing pre-determined programs, initiatives or campaigns, citizen-centered approaches help people form and promote their own decisions, build capacities for self-government, and develop open-ended civic processes.”
Wow, talking ‘bout a revolution! For those of us who live and work in the non-profit sector everyday, the idea of citizen-centered efforts presents a major challenge to the institutions that we have ordained to be the fountains of community knowledge, the “deciders” of what is in the best interest of our communities, and certainly the holders of the purse strings. As Carmen Siranni and Lew Friedland of Brandeis University say in the report, “Civic renewal also entails investing in civic skills and organizational capacities for public problem-solving on a wide scale and designing policy at every level of the federal system to enhance the ability of citizens to do the everyday work of the republic.” Can you say, “Power to the people?”
The Case Foundation is putting money where its mouth is. At the end of June, it announced the “Make it Your Own Awards,” an initiative that will “provide funds to individuals, and individuals working with small organizations and groups, who join together to imagine and implement innovative ideas and solutions that lay the groundwork for long-term social change. We want to lift up these efforts to show that they're not happening in isolation, but are part of a growing movement that can, and will, transform our communities.”
I find this focus and push for citizen-centered engagement to be tremendously refreshing and hopeful. For those of us who are not uber-wealthy enough to start our own foundations, but are looking for ways to contribute more deeply than tossing our checks into the collection baskets on Sundays, or serving meals in a soup kitchen once a week, the idea of coming together to build healthy communities through collaborative, grassroots efforts is exciting. Of course, “the challenge now is moving from asking Americans to ‘plug into’ what currently exists, to helping them create their own efforts that will address public concerns, issues or problems in ways they see as most appropriate.”
This is a significant challenge, indeed, as Americans feel increasingly powerless to make a real difference in their communities. Perhaps with more encouragement (and funding) by individuals and institutions like the Case Foundation, citizen-centered approaches to social change can and will start to take hold.