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Civic Engagement: A Guide for Communities

This 17-page 2006 booklet grew out of the authors’ experiences over a number of years in the community of Arlington, Virginia. What is offered here is not a “cookbook” formula but a set of questions and touchstones–civic conversation, “inreach,” and civic governance–to help citizens, in whatever roles and communities they find themselves, grapple with the need for civic engagement. Working through these questions and referring back to the touchstones is, we have found, the essence of vital and vibrant civic engagement.

Authors Melinda Patrician and Palma Strand are affiliated with The Arlington Forum, a local initiative of the Civic Organizing Foundation. Download at https://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/CE_Guide_for_Communities.pdf

The guide is available as a free download from the NCDD site. The guidebook was originally available as a free download on the Arlington Forum’s website (arlingtonforum.org), but as of March 2010, the Arlington Forum site is not functioning.

The following text is a review of the guidebook written by Malka Koppel for the February 2006 e-newsletter of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship.

“This guide to civic engagement recently published by the Arlington Forum is neither an in-depth encyclopedia nor a step-by-step manual … nor is it intended to be. Less of a “how-to” than a “you can do it!” it gently makes the case to communities that civic engagement is a healthy way to solve problems. By using the metaphor of civic engagement as a practice that a community does to improve its health (at points civic engagement can be a “triathlon” or just “consistently deciding to take the stairs instead of riding the elevator”), the guide shows that this practice is good for you and worth the inconvenience or bother that you might come across along the way.

The authors, Palma J. Strand and Melinda D. Patrician, co-founded the Arlington Forum, a local initiative of the Civic Organizing Foundation, in 1999. The Forum takes a “civic organizing” approach to community-building; beginning with one-on-one conversations with people in various groups and institutions across a community, listening for the broad-based community story that emerges from those conversations, and then calling on community members to move from that story to defining problems as well as developing and implementing solutions.

Strand, who teaches law, and Patrician, a media and public relations professional, describe themselves as coming to this work “as ordinary citizens who felt the way people in our community were dealing with each other on community issues wasn’t working as well as it could.” The theme throughout the guide is that civic engagement is not the sole property of government or community members or community institutions – it is everyone’s responsibility. The target audience of the guide, therefore, is broad – basically anyone who wants to make a change in the way his/her community solves problems.

To best serve this broad audience, the guide promises to not serve up a “cookbook formula” for successful civic engagement, but instead offers up three “touchstones” for our attention: (1) civic conversation; (2) inreach; and (3) civic governance. These touchstones form the core of the guide. The first touchstone, civic conversation, is defined as “broad-based discussions among diverse groups and institutions.” Civic conversation is the “space” that is created by dialogues and deliberations between people and institutions in a community – people who may not agree with each other. These conversations helps nurture the “web of relationships” that make up the fabric of civic engagement.

Inreach, the second touchstone, is an interesting and useful concept that often gets left out of discussions of civic engagement. The authors remind us that successful civic engagement is more than just an added-on process; it requires organizations to change their DNA, or their operating systems – to “reach inside to build and strengthen civic relationships among those who are working within.” Inreach can be done within local government, sports leagues, businesses or civic organizations.

The third touchstone, civic governance, focuses on the relationship between the public and their public institutions. It is defined as “initiative and responsibility for community problems, actions and solutions shared by a wide range of citizens.” Inherent in the sharing of responsibility is the sharing of power, and that sharing has to be authentic to work correctly. The authors caution that the shift in communities toward civic governance “doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t easy,” but that, if done right, it ends up supporting both government and its constituents.

The guide takes the reader through the touchstones, providing some questions to ask when taking the community’s “pulse” as well as some advice on how to get started. The guide is peppered with sidebar examples in communities around the country that, while not providing much detail on civic engagement process, gives a taste of how civic engagement can be useful, and provides some quotes from real people.

Those of us who “do” civic engagement for a living should remember – we can’t make it happen all by ourselves. In fact, real civic engagement needs to happen at a deep level in a community, and requires everyone’s authentic participation. This guide is an important step on the road to making that authenticity part of everyday practice.”

Malka Kopell

Malka Kopell is founder and executive director of Community Focus, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that facilitates collaboration between government and community to solve problems.

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