No big fan of sweeping, abstract terms like civic engagement so much in vogue these days, I stand guilty of using that expression and others equally vague as a kind of lazy shorthand. Anna Núñez, a current Coro Fellow in Los Angeles, threw down a challenge recently. Get specific, she said, about what resonates most strongly with me when I say the words ‘civic engagement.’
So I take up Anna’s challenge here.
I first look to those inalienable rights and core freedoms set down by our forefathers: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” along with freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly. All suggest a welcoming hope for bridging the gaps of daily life that can grow and separate us. Taken alone or in combination, each, any or all can help us as a people move from a state of conflict and competition to that occasional uplifting state of concert and even conviviality.
But possessing rights is no substitute for acting them out in the civic sphere. So civic engagement means participating in political conversation. It means persuading others with argument and incentive to join us on a path that favors all. Or publishing our grievances and pleading for redress. We can steep ourselves in the mechanisms of deliberation, demonstration, organization, affiliation, election, and legalization to give form and substance to our claims and our dreams. Even that woefully under-appreciated mechanism of "over-the-fence" conversation among neighbors and friends hasn’t disappeared entirely; it just looks a lot different via a Twitter feed.
I would argue that democracy's highest expression, disputing so many naysayers, lies in giving her core institutions a real run for their money. If I get pissed off or pissed on, I’ve got courts I can go to with judges on benches and juries in boxes when I need them. I’ve also got the safety valve and soap box of nonprofit organizations and civil society if no one seems to be listening. All of this – legislatures, governments, courts, nonprofits – makes me feel secure and safer more often than not.
Real engagement for me, then, means living fully with and acting honestly from a deep internalized awe and appreciation for the powerful meaning, and practice, and complexity of public life. Take the example of Denny Zane who runs a sponsored project of Community Partners called MoveLA . Before he grew to understand state and national politics, Denny spent 12 years as a member of the Santa Monica City Council, two as mayor. Without understanding how transit and transportation funds flow to a city and fighting for Santa Monica’s budgetary fair share, Denny would never have engaged the fight in more recent years on the remarkable accomplishment of Los Angeles County ballot Measure R (which voters approved overwhelmingly) and, last year, on Measure J (which fell less than a half percent shy of passage).
Denny refused to live gape-mouthed and naïve in the face of civic and political power. Instead, he organized assiduously and spoke out with knowledge and force. In his decades of civic engagement, he has worked from the mechanisms close at hand – an electoral framework enshrined in California’s constitution, a cooperative press that saw the sense of his case, keen insight into how government works and tax dollars flow, and within a legal system that leans more often than not toward distributing power equitably, rather than concentrating it in the hands of a privileged few.
Denny’s a great example of how dedicated involvement in the civic arena continuously challenges us to use, and therefore help make more perfect, democracy’s guardian institutions.
It’s that “continuously perfecting” part – the chip, chip, chipping away to refine ideals – that so many of us find daunting.
And so, Anna, the highest expression of civic engagement I know lies in reminding one another from time to time – as Denny Zane’s life so eloquently attests – of the burdensome loveliness a democratic society can bring to life and light.
Maybe in our choices and our actions we can commit our imperfect selves to leaning just a little more, until we find ourselves tipping fully in its direction, toward that light.