Viewership for the first Democratic primary debates in June was the highest ever recorded. Could this be a sign of greater citizen engagement in the voting process? Could it translate to greater voter turn-out? One can only hope. But I’m most interested in the kind of civic engagement that happens on a daily basis, on the local level, right here in our own communities and led by our friends, neighbors and colleagues. They are those who year-round keep a sharp citizen eye out for the chance to address new challenges with innovative ideas or insights and, in the process, address long-time challenges of achieving justice, preservation, economic opportunity, health and well-being.
We greet active citizens every day. They walk through the doors at Community Partners on a regular basis, seeking the services and support we offer as a nonprofit fiscal sponsor to help launch and grow the most promising of these change-making ideas. But we wanted a better understanding of the state and scope of civic engagement in LA. So we found a way to dig a bit deeper: we asked.
Each year for the last five years, a UCLA poll seeks to capture Angelenos’ feelings about their quality of life in the region (learn more about Quality of Life Index or QLI results here and here). For the last two survey cycles, alongside expected questions about the economy, healthcare, housing, public safety and race relations, among others, is a query regarding community engagement:
"Thinking about the issues that contribute to your quality of life, in the last year, have you participated in any activities or taken any actions to express your opinions on issues in your community?
What does community, or civic engagement have to do with an individual’s quality of life, some might ask? From my vantage point, quite a bit. Which is why we thought it worthwhile to fund the inclusion of this question.
Actual data reveals the degree and intensity of crucial degrees of civic engagement. About half (49%) of residents in Los Angeles County, according to the survey results, actually step up and into action when they see a challenge in their community. This includes everything from attending a community meeting, organizing others, contacting an elected official or public agency, posting about an issue via social media or, of particular interest to me, those who organize others or start a new organization.
This last group -- a mere 7% of our friends and neighbors -- may seem a small, inconsequential sliver. But extrapolated from the sample to the population as a whole, I see legions. It’s what I think of as The Mighty Slice. This is the group that indicated they have “organized others or started an organization” in their community. Though a small part of the entire population, they represent an organizing army. How large are their ranks? Assuming a base of a bit more than seven million people countywide who are 18 years old and above, that means more than a half million people comprise The Mighty Slice. That’s a vast, varied and energetic legion of our friends and neighbors – some vocal and visible, many others low-key and laboring quietly in their particular niche – who’ve taken on the heavy lifting of social-changemaking.
Working for decades with start-up social venturers, I’ve acquired a profound awe for the capabilities and resources this special bunch brings to any table. It takes enormous will, plenty of charisma, energy, persistence, and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work to take on seemingly intractable problems and sweep the rest of us along with them. I also can’t imagine our city, or our world, without these individuals committed to something beyond themselves.
Citizen engagement suffuses the soul of civil society with the oxygen of pure democracy. These activities can amplify and widen the aperture on undervalued, neglected or entirely dismissed voices and human experiences. All of this rinses the crudeness and hard edges of a transactional, consumer-driven, often self-aggrandizing culture in the balm of mutuality: me caring about you, you having my back too, and together we lift one another as a way of firming up the greater good.
As we continue to poll Angelenos in the years to come about their levels of citizen engagement, I’ll be interested to see whether that Mighty Slice will grow or shrink or remain the same? I have no doubt that out of all the disparate efforts comes a vital contribution to the quality of life, knitting people closer together and improving communities. We should all invest – with our attention, our time, our support and our treasure – in its growth.
"Columbia City Council Tables Marijuana Decriminalization Vote" by KOMUnews (CC BY 2.0)