“MyCivicSpace”…you have to admit there’s a nice ring to it. It gives rise to the potential that you, me, and anyone else can create a civic space and own it; we can even customize it to reflect our own personal whims. Makes sense given the times we live in. We have been conditioned to believe that each of us should get what we want, when we want it. But is the idea of MyCivicSpace what we really want – or need? When I talk with people in communities across the country they express a deep urge to create more connectedness and sense of community in our society. Too many of us are fragmented and isolated from one another. So much of what needs to be done to improve our individual and common lives, requires a collective response (e.g., strengthening public schools or improving safety).
But for every time someone raises this point, notions of MySpace, FaceBook, and made-to-order Starbucks drinks are invoked. The underlying belief: our response to current conditions must be personalized and customized – that is, “made just for you & me” – and that most of us may never pay attention, engage in something bigger than ourselves, or even care about others beyond our immediate close-knit circles or community of interest.
Consider this example: at a recent meeting on the future of libraries in the U.S., the argument was made that libraries must transform themselves in ways that enable people to see the library as their personal library – “MyLibrary!” as a number of people put it.
But not so fast: for libraries are one of the last truly public institutions that remain close to people. The focus of libraries is on knowledge and learning. They ought to be what I like to call “boundary-spanning, catalytic organizations” – entities that help us in our communities to transcend dividing lines, bring people together, hold up a mirror to ourselves, and see our own experiences and the possibilities for the future in the context of understanding the past.
There once was a time in my work, maybe 15 or so years ago, when many people I encountered often wanted to erase or expunge any notion of self-interest among individuals, as if each of us could be altruistic angels. Now, we see a move toward the other extreme, where the impulse is to personalize and customize people’s engagement. Every situation is open to becoming branded and fulfilled as MySituation.
Thus the public library turns into MyLibrary; the local United Way is MyUnitedWay; the community foundation becomes MyCommunityFoundation; the public broadcasting station evolves into MyPublicBroadcasting. None of this is that far fetched; just listen to all the promos, ads, and solicitations from various groups. You’ll hear echoes of this point.
Like many of us, I am worried that too many people have retreated into close-knit circles of families and friends; that for many people, public life and politics is not relevant to their lives. I believe that if we want people to engage in community and public life, then we must start wherever they start. But our work doesn’t stop there.
For if our goal is to forge a common response to individual and collective needs, then the measure of our efforts is not simply whether we have built audience, generated buzz, created more name recognition, or even enticed more people to volunteer once-in-a-while. Our task is to foster conditions in which people can create their own pathways back into community and public life – where they can connect, work with others, find meaning, and engender authentic hope. And these pathways need to be sustainable over time.
I was once asked if I believe there is an enemy of engagement. Yes is my emphatic answer. Indeed, one such enemy is the seemingly growing belief that when people retreat from public life and politics our impulse must be to engage them as atomized individuals who hold a single-minded consumer orientation. But that will only lead to one sure outcome: each of us occupying our own individual spaces.