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Civic Reflection

Civic reflection is the practice of bringing together a group of people who are engaged in common civic work to read and talk about fundamental questions of civic life. This form of dialogue draws upon the rich resources of the humanities–using readings of literature, philosophy, and history, and the age-old practice of text-based discussion–to help civic leaders think more carefully and talk more comfortably about their values and choices.

Groups that have benefited from civic reflection include Rotary clubs, nonprofit service and cultural organizations, AmeriCorps programs, grantmakers' associations, community foundations, chambers of commerce, and social service and mental health providers.

Active citizens who give and serve in their communities, who associate to promote specific causes, or who lead non-profit organizations rarely have the time, encouragement or resources to reflect on the deeper questions rumbling around underneath their civic activity. The consequence of this lack of reflection is a diminishment of critically important resources-clarity, articulateness, freedom of movement, imagination-despite an abundance of talent and good intentions in our civic life. The practice of reading and conversation offers a powerful way to start asking those deeper questions. It can be built into the life of any group or organization where people already gather to do common civic work. It is inexpensive. It is enjoyable. And it is impactful. Participants tell us it improves their collegial relationships, strengthens their civic commitment, deepens their understanding, emboldens their action, and releases their energy for the work ahead.

The website, www.civicreflection.org, developed by the Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University in cooperation with the Maine Humanities Council, is a resource for people seeking to learn more about civic reflection. It features an electronic library of readings sorted by questions and topics, guidance on organizing programs, and an interactive facilitators' forum.

A few frequently asked questions about civic reflection…

What is civic reflection?
In a nutshell, civic reflection is reading, thinking and talking with each other about our life in community and the fundamental human activities that nourish that life: giving, serving, associating and leading.

What happens in civic reflection?
Groups of people gather in a hospitable way for conversation about a short reading that raises fundamental questions about some aspect of their civic activity. As people read and talk, they draw on their experiences and values to understand the text, and they draw on the ideas, questions and values illuminated by their conversations to think about their real-life civic activities and challenges.

What are some likely results?

  • Improved relationships with participating colleagues, characterized by greater tolerance of differences and a stronger sense of common purpose.
  • Greater conviction about the importance of civic activity.
  • New and richer ways of conceptualizing and talking about the values in civic activity.
  • Heightened commitment to and understanding of a group's mission.

What kinds of groups will this be helpful to?
In our experience, civic reflection can be helpful to any group of civically engaged people, from staff and trustees of a single organization, to philanthropic or nonprofit leaders, to donors, volunteers and community leaders in a common geographical area, to young people exploring the call to service or their relations to their neighbors and neighborhood. The possible audiences for civic reflection are as numerous as the ways in which citizens give . . . serve . . . lead . . . and associate.

What distinguishes civic reflection from other kinds of discussion programs, issues forums and study groups?
First, civic reflection is organized around basic questions about civic activity such as, Whom do we serve? What do we expect of those we serve? To whom are we accountable? Conversations are not focused on a particular book, theory, 'hot' public issue, or group task.

Second, conversations about a group's activities are framed by a reading in literature or nonfiction that is somewhat removed from the direct experience of the members. Nonprofit executives, philanthropic leaders, community organizers and social service providers all have various and specific 'literatures of attention' in their respective fields that are useful and with which people are familiar. In civic reflection, the aim is to provide opportunities for a different kind of attention to familiar work, a kind of attention that imaginative literature or carefully chosen non-fiction from a different era or angle of vision can provide.

What is the role of the text in civic reflection?
The use of readings is vital for two reasons. One reason is substantive, the other practical.

First, good texts deepen understanding and imagination, connecting participants with a larger world of ideas and with people in other times and places who have struggled with similar questions.

Second, readings provide a fresh and neutral common point of reference, allowing conversation to move beyond private experience, professional expertise or settled opinion.

Can real-world issues be examined effectively through works of fiction?
Yes! Imaginative literature can make an important contribution to our understanding of real life, civic and otherwise. The choices and experiences of fictional characters can underscore, illuminate and clarify the choices and experiences of real people or groups. In addition to illustrating countless situations and circumstances, literature also can have a leveling effect: You don't need to be an expert in philosophy or business management to ponder the actions of a character in a short story.

How can we find the right text?
Go to www.civicreflection.org and start your search in the Resource Library. There you will find a wide range of recommended readings sorted by questions and themes. Many readings have links to online versions that can be downloaded for free. Browse through the Facilitators' Forum to see how people have used texts with different groups.

The Resource Library is by no means exhaustive; indeed we encourage people to suggest texts they have used or that they think would be useful for others. Also, the Planning section of the website offers more guidance on choosing good materials for your conversation.

What is the role of the discussion leader in civic reflection?
Discussion leaders are not teachers so much as guides through conversation. They provide guidance in three ways:

  1. They help identify the questions and choose the texts that will anchor the conversation.
  2. They create hospitable space for disciplined reflection.
  3. They guide the conversation itself, moving it forward and making it useful by connecting it to the common tasks and commitments of participants.

Find more guidance on leading civic reflection conversations in the Planning section of the website, www.civicreflection.org.

Explore Civic Reflection Further
For more information about civic reflection, go to www.civicreflection.org. For information about The Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University, contact:

Mary Kennedy
Project on Civic Reflection
1401 Linwood Avenue
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, IN 46383
p: 219.464.6767
f: 219.464-5496
mary.kennedy@valpo.edu
civic.reflection@valpo.edu

This text was submitted by Mary Kennedy of the Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University. For more information about the practice of civic reflection, visit the website, www.civicreflection.org.

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