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Schnequa N. Diggs, Alexandru V. Roman
Historically, during times of economic adversity, American communities have relied on social connections. As far back as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville in Of Democracy in America suggested that civic engagement is inherently a part of American democracy. Mark Lilla supports this idea in his 2007 book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. However, this special nature and prerogative of who we are seems to be a matter of the past. In the last several decades there has been a shift in the traditional social structure of the American constituency, reducing the level of social responsibility or willingness to help thy neighbor. Robert Putman, author of the 2001 book Bowling Alone, argues that we are witnessing a noticeable decline in social capital which continues to hinder prospects of community building and civic engagement.
Shifts in the traditional family structure, technological advancements and mobility have uprooted social connections in American neighborhoods, isolating community members from one another. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to revitalize this engagement within communities. Without social capital, local level networks or grassroots initiatives have difficulty dealing with/addressing poverty, education or unemployment in a broader context. Civic engagement, as a community building strategy, has been recognized as a prominent mechanism to produce social capital; leading more cities to adopt plans that promote civic engagement efforts in urban revitalization plans. It can be argued that civic engagement has been the common denominator for the success stories within the HOPE VI urban revitalization program, Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and Choice Neighborhood Initiatives programs. It also can be argued that civic engagement is critical to finding a solution to the complex social challenges and for assuring a successful future for United States.
When asked to discuss civic engagement, Tana Ebbole, the CEO of Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, stated: “Although we use the term civic engagement and civic involvement, in its simplest terms we mean people being connected and caring about each other and the betterment of themselves, their neighbors and their community. This social connectedness is crucial to human development and healthy family functioning and cuts across all social and educational levels in our society. A democracy and its public policy are dependent upon having these healthy connections and shared values.”
Over the past 10 to 15 years, community advocacy groups have grown, among others, increasingly concerned with the environmental implications that impact the needs of future generations. In response to these concerns, city officials across the United States have adopted community and city sustainability plans that engage the community and plan for a better quality of life. Political officials across the board (federal, state and local) have acknowledged social capital and civic engagement as key components in community building and urban restructuring efforts. A strong commitment to deal with societal conditions from a holistic or comprehensive perspective lends federal initiatives to place significant emphasis in broadening networks in community building initiatives, i.e. expanded community participation efforts and public private partnerships. Both vertical and horizontal network expansion of civic engagement bridges local initiatives toward more efficient networks by mobilizing the needed resources, information and capital to transform the impoverished neighborhoods of today into sustainable communities of tomorrow.
According to Kent Portney, in his 2005 article “Civic Engagement and Sustainable Cities in the United States” published in Public Administration Review, civically engaging the community in any planning process enables citizens to decide which specific programs and policies are needed to promote sustainability while protecting the shared values and quality of life of community residents. The power of community belonging should not be underestimated. Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist who studied former residents of Chicago public housing was quoted by Judy Keen, in the USA TODAY article, “Stake Claimed on Chicago Housing Project,” stating: “The irony is that public housing is actually more cohesive and more secure for families than non-public housing in big cities, because they offered a sense of community and a set of resources that private landlords just never offer.” Jennifer A. Stollman in her 2010 article from Political Science and Politics, “America’s Financial Future, Civic Engagement” as well Cassia Freedland and Devorah Lieberman in their 2010 article from Liberal Education, “Infusing Civic Engagement across the Curriculum” argue that civic engagement within educational communities is a limitless source of future benefits that has yet to be fully explored. The positives from improved civic engagement are great, and the costs are minimal.
Federal policies have taken a keen interest in such research findings by revamping urban revitalization programs to address the lack of social interactions between citizens, local officials, development personnel and city planners. For more than 17 years, federal grant programs such as HOPE VI, CDBG and Choice Neighborhood Initiatives, have partially funded local level initiatives that actively integrate the unique economic, social, political and cultural values of community members in specific neighborhood revitalization plans. Federal policies have helped foster an atmosphere of competition while encouraging local level initiatives seeking federal funding to provide opportunities of open participatory forums for interested citizens.
In an attempt to explain the “strange disappearance of social capital,” as Robert Putman puts it, behavioral scientists James Youniss and Miranda Yates in “What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity,” published in American Behavioral Scientist, question why some, rather than others, are more inclined to engage civically in community building initiatives. They discovered that individuals who participated socially as adolescence are more likely to belong to some sort of civic group as adults. Expanding on Arnstein’s (1969) “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Hart (1992; 1997) developed a “Ladder of Young People’s Participation” which engages adolescents to participate in community revitalization projects. West Oakland, CA, has largely benefited from engaging high school students and young adults in community initiatives as a means of actively engendering a civic identity. With the help of the fresh perspectives of the city’s youth, the city officials, community residents, union members, and local agencies in West Oakland have successfully completed six community projects between 2000 and 2005.
A California student who participated in the Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now initiative (Y-PLAN) in West Oakland was quoted by Debora Mckoy and Jeffrey Vincent in “Engaging Schools in Urban Revitalization: The Y-PLAN,” published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research: “It’s like these places and things you see around all the time have meaning, and we’re all a part of it, too. That’s cool.” This initiative has provided the unique opportunity to learn in a community of practice, giving meaning to common places and teaching students that they have an active voice in making a difference in their community. The success of this locally driven initiative was the motivating force behind the integration of citizen participation in federal policies as well as the kick start to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s national initiative Youth Leadership by Design program.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 63.4 million peopled volunteered through or for an organization at least once within the period of September 2008 and September 2009. That represents 26.8 percent of the population. Women’s volunteer rates were at 30.1 percent whereas men’s only 23.3 percent. These numbers are high, but they are not high enough; we can always do better. Given the current budgetary pressures, we will have no choice but to do better.
Schnequa N. Diggs is a full-time Ph.D. student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]
Alexandru V. Roman is a full time doctorate student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. He holds a MBA and a M.A. in Economics from SUNY IT and SUNY at Albany, respectively. Email: [email protected]