Civic Engagement Explained: Definition, Examples, & Models

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civic engagement

Civic engagement can seem like one of those vague terms people use to talk about volunteering or voting, but the term is much more than that. While no single definition exists, one way to understand the term is as follows:

Civic engagement is participation in community dialogue, problem-solving, decision making, and development. Activities can be political or non-political in nature. Examples include local clean-ups, membership in community associations, voting, census participation, protests, and civil disobedience.

The term, then, denotes a wide range of activities. At its core, civic engagement is often concerned with how communities structure themselves and distribute power. It’s also concerned with how individuals engage their neighbors, civil society networks, and community leaders.

Below is a closer look at the term civic engagement, what it looks like in practice, and some interesting models for communities.

Terminology: Civic Engagement vs Community Involvement

Civic engagement can often be synonymous with terms such as civic participation, community involvement, and community engagement. These terms have no official definition and usually mean roughly the same thing – interacting with and contributing to one’s community. 

Certain terms have gained popularity in some regions or with certain professions, however, causing some confusion in translation. For example, the term ‘community involvement’ has been slowly losing favor among the general public in the U.S. over the last 15 years. 

Google Trends shows a decline in usage of “community involvement” from 2004-2020

However, the term is still widely used among urban planners, health care providers, and businesses as these professions are becoming increasingly aware of the need to involve the community in their decision-making processes.

It can be useful to make some distinctions between the terms as we think about how to improve ourselves and our communities. While there is a lot of overlap between the terms “civic engagement” and “community involvement,” one could argue that civic engagement is a type of community involvement. 

Civic engagement is usually focused on how your community organizes itself. Community involvement, on the other hand, can be thought of as concerned with people-to-people relationships. While bringing your neighbor a cup of sugar or joining a local recreational sports team is community involvement, it might not be considered civic engagement as these activities are not concerned with community problem-solving.

If, however, the exchange with your neighbor over a cup of sugar turns to a discussion about how the traffic light at the end of the road is broken and needs fixing, suddenly your community involvement expands to civic engagement.

While the differences between the two terms are not always clear cut, keeping this in mind can help us understand the impacts of our behaviors and what is needed in our community. Simply engaging with your neighbors, though, often leads to stronger communities with better decision-making practices.

When thinking about improving our communities we need to think through what is needed at this moment. Does the community have strong ties among members, but weak influence on government? Perhaps, more civic engagement is needed. 

Or, does the community have weak interpersonal networks? Often, civic engagement is much more difficult if the community does not have strong individual relationships to build upon. Geography, for example, can often be a barrier to community ties – especially in rural areas. So, if local governments seek more civic engagement, they have to start by providing spaces for people to build relationships such as festivals, community gardens or sports leagues.

If you’re looking for more on community involvement, check out our post on the subject which breaks the term down for individuals and businesses.

More Than Volunteering…

Civic engagement is not just about volunteering your time and energy. The term also encompasses paid positions. For example, social workers, nonprofit workers, full-time advocates, civil servants, and elected officials all have careers that are forms of professional civic engagement.

In many cases, groups of individuals with shared interests will start associations or organizations to represent these interests – often called “special interest groups.” 

The members of the organization will pool their money through membership fees and hire full-time staff who are dedicated to public education and advocacy around their issue. Often these organizations employ lobbyists who engage elected officials and civil servants on the issues central to the organization’s mission.

In this way, simply belonging to a membership organization of this sort allows you to be civically engaged by donating your money to help advance a cause you care about.

Civic Engagement Through Time

Civic engagement is not a new phenomenon. While many experts in the U.S. begin with the history of civic engagement in 18th or 19th century New England, civic engagement has been deeply ingrained in human societies around the world likely since the dawn of civilization. 

One famous historical example of mass civic action was the Struggle of the Orders. The episode was a two-hundred-year social reformation in ancient Rome. An excerpt from our post about grassroots activism describes the time period below. 

Over the course of two hundred years…Rome’s social structure was so fragmented that the marginalized workers (or “Plebeians”) waged a non-violent struggle to gain the same rights and opportunities that the aristocracy (or “Patricians”) enjoyed.

The “Struggle of the Orders” (as it’s known today) started in 494 B.C. and lasted until 287 B.C. Throughout this period, the Plebians found creative ways of leveraging collective action to improve their situation. 

In two instances, for example, the Plebians refused to serve in the army and left their positions in society. The workers moved outside of Rome, elected their own leaders, and threatened to leave the Republic. Eventually, the actions worked and the Plebians gained a better position in society.

This is not an isolated historical example. On the contrary, social movements such as the Struggle of the Orders have profound effects today and can reverberate around the world. Moments of mass civic engagement shape our social structure and values which can be passed from generation to generation.

A recent study out of Bard College, for example, concluded that children learn civic engagement from their parents. Researchers examined data from the British Household Panel Survey between 1991 – 2008. They found that children of parents who volunteered and engaged in politics were significantly more likely to engage in similar activities when they reached adulthood. 

Researchers even noted that peer influence did not seem to have an impact – either positively or negatively on the children’s involvement. That means that parents have a strong influence on their child when it comes to community participation. So, even small amounts of participation in civic life could impact your family and community for generations! 

Examples and Models of Civic Engagement

This post began with a few quick examples of civic engagement which can be a broad spectrum of actions. The term could encompass activities as diverse as reading a newspaper, cleaning up litter, paying taxes, lobbying congress, volunteering at a homeless shelter, attending a town hall meeting or parent-teacher conference, organizing demonstrations, civil disobedience, and much more. 

The above examples, though, can seem a bit unsatisfying if our communities need deeper changes, but not necessarily a “revolution.” To think about how to create structural changes to institutions and communities, it can be useful to look at a few models of citizen engagement on the part of community leaders and officials.

Love Your Block

Love Your Block is an effective and simple citizen engagement model. The program offers grants to people in the community to take on neighborhood revitalization efforts.

This simple initiative has had remarkable impacts on dozens of cities. Love Your Block is run by Cities of Service and has operated since 2009. The website claims that the program has revitalized over 2,200 blocks since its inception. 

In 2013, for example, the program began in Birmingham, Alabama and the city saw dramatic results. Cities of Service worked with the local government to award a series of grants throughout the community ranging from $500 to $2,000. Throughout the process, the program administrators, officials, and residents worked together to identify priorities for the community.

By January of 2015, the program had reportedly:

  • Removed 26,000 square feet of graffiti,
  • Removed 167,000 pounds of trash and litter
  • Planted more than 500 trees, and
  • Restored 117 blocks.

The program still operates in many cities and it has become so successful that other entities are adopting the model without funding from Cities of Service. In fact, the organization offers the blueprint for the program free to anyone who’s curious.

Citizen Academies

Citizen academies have been used by cities to help educate residents about how local government functions and how citizens can engage. The programs are usually about 6 to 8 weeks long and offer the opportunity for a group of citizens to meet with elected officials and government staff. Participants come away with an understanding of the daily operations of their local government.  

The programs were popular throughout the state of North Carolina for decades. Though, some saw mixed results and required fine-tuning to be effective. In the urban centers, though, the programs were largely successful and sparked interest in public service among many of the participants; many of which went on to run for elected office. 

Some cities have found them to be useful for particular circumstances such as changing demographics or an influx of newcomers. For example, Lexington, Massachuesstes used the program to help educate new arrivals to their town after the city saw a dramatic increase in their Asian population.

Montgomery, Ohio began using the model after city workers were tired of residents only participating “when they were angry.” The program has been extremely successful and, like the examples in North Carolina, some of the participants now serve in government positions.

Urban Planning

New Models

Looking for more on the importance of civic engagement? Check out our post that looks at why civic engagement will determine the fate of the world here.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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