Sometime ago I found myself standing in front of a thousand people giving a speech and saying that I had banned the phrase ‘civic engagement’ from The Harwood Institute’s work. The phrase has become a catch-all, a kind of Good Housekeeping seal that we’re doing honorable work in the name of community and the common good. But what I find is that the phrase gets in the way of our very goals.As soon as the phrase ‘civic engagement’ enters a conversation people become activity happy. Right away, you’ll hear them launch into an animated discussion of how many forums they want to hold, the number of flip charts they need, how many different color magic markers they want (and whether they are scented!), and concern over what to do with all the pages of newsprint they put up on the wall. It’s enough to drive me crazy.Somewhere in the litany of activities we lose sight of our real purpose and the real people that we profess to care about. We push aside what we must actually learn from people; what we’ll do with what we learn; and the kinds of pathways into the community people are seeking to create for themselves. Instead, “people” become props in our process. For me, the point is people – their aspirations, their concerns, their fears, among other things – and the kind of community they seek to create. Our engagement efforts are mere supports in their unfolding narrative.
So, on the one hand the work is about people; on the other, it is about impact. That is to say, our task is to figure out how to help improve, even transform people’s lives and their communities. But too often ‘civic engagement’ is more like a badge we wear to a cocktail party or conference, where we find ourselves boasting about the extraordinary engagement process we cooked up and implemented. People and impact take a back seat. We produce events not impact.
Meantime, we find ourselves in endless, mind-numbing meetings where we examine every element of our civic engagement work. But the real work doesn’t happen in our conference rooms, but in communities. And yet such navel gazing can blind us to the realities of communities, the challenges we must take on, and the true power we must exert to create a new force for change in communities. Endless talk and countless deliberations won’t get us there.
In my own work, the focus is on deeply understanding about people’s lives and the context of communities so people can be more strategic in their efforts to spark and mobilize change. It is about the dynamics of communities and the very conditions that enable or stymie change – such as the leaders, networks, relationships, norms, and boundary spanning organizations that underpin change. It is about how each of us must step forward to root our efforts in community and stay true to ourselves.
This isn’t about civic engagement; it’s about how we see and engage with the world around us.
So you won’t find the term ‘civic engagement’ on our web site, in our literature, throughout our work. I don’t talk about it in speeches anymore. I’ve banned it, plain and simple. For too often our obsession with ‘civic engagement’ causes us to take our eye off what really matters: people and impact.