A communications professional and former journalist, Sue Robinson is director of community programs at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.
The American Dialect Society names its Word of the Year each January. In the running for 2008 were "shovel-ready," "maverick," "going rogue," "tweet" and "change." No drumroll required: "bailout" won.
For 2009, here's a nomination: "civic engagement."
In academic circles, the term "civic engagement" has been in use at least since scholar Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" came out in an essay in 1996 and a book in 2000. He told us that society's civic foundation was crumbling because people were disconnected from each other and ignoring communal life. Group social activities (like bowling leagues) were shrinking. Television and sprawl were eroding our "social capital" – networks of people who do things with and for each other. We were losing trust in government and in each other. We weren't participating (voting, protesting, meeting, conversing). We were not engaged.
Colleges and universities, responsible for studying these trends and for educating the next generation of citizens, offered and continue to offer classes, projects, scholarships, research, offices, even large centers, tied to understanding how citizens connect with activities and to engaging students in civic life. Students learn firsthand about systemic failures and our deepest social problems through volunteering or researching in community settings. Gown went to town.
Today, 10-plus-years-post-Putnam, the concept of civic engagement has a meme-like quality. (A "meme" is a catchphrase or concept that spreads quickly from person to person via the Internet.) Beyond campuses, in the broader community, on and offline, the concept is taking on all sorts of characteristics.
Civic engagement can be defined as a suite of activities –volunteering, advocating, researching, voting, organizing your neighborhood to solve an issue of common concern. Fundamentally it is about relationships to ideas, to causes, to government, to society, to others and how we relate to each other and talk with each other. Social networking is the foundation for successful problem-solving. Leaders can emerge as facilitators from networks of people. The grandest idea of democracy is that citizens together will find solutions to our problems – through political processes or through civic action.
That citizen today may be sitting alone at Panera. But with free Wi-Fi we're really not sipping coffee alone. We're online, with others.
Communal action is finding new effectiveness with online tools. If you're ever signed up for an action alert on a cause you care about, you know how this works (or irritates). Alerts engage you immediately. You fire off an e-mail to your senator or donate money online. On a smaller scale but just as effective, in March, Connect Richmond ( HYPERLINK "http://www.connectrichmond.org" www.connectrichmond.org) launched a new e-mail group for people opposed to proposed new city fees for nonprofits. In short order, the list had 47 members, all of whom had phone numbers and e-mail addresses for Richmond City Council members.
On a national scale, much has been written about the Obama campaign's deft use of social media. Underline "social." The Web site worked because it spoke to the individual and made it easy for the one to align with others. Join, get access, do your part and hook up with more than 1 million more in an online community. Reportedly, the Obama campaign participated in more than 15 online social networks and gleaned 5 million supporters through these tools. On Twitter, "BarackObama" had 112,000 followers. On Facebook, Obama had 3.3 million friends, 500 groups 33 applications. On YouTube, more than 14 million watched the "Yes I Can" video.
So many Web sites make it easy to join or volunteer. National sites such as servicenation.org, bethechange.org, dosomething.org and connectforgood.org encourage activism and refer to opportunities in your ZIP code.
Social capital development on the Internet via social networking is one of the things people are doing when they are sipping coffee with the laptop or squinting at the Blackberry at Panera. People are joining interest groups on LinkedIn and finding like-minded friends on Facebook. People are tweeting on Twitter –the free micro-blogging platform. Sure, people are following Brad Pitt but they're also following the GIVE Act.
Scholars are just beginning to study what Facebook means to civic life. They are a fact of life in the 21st century, and they may well be the next-generation bowling leagues. Today's online interactions for social change will never substitute for face-to-face interactions any more than online dating will replace the real thing. But eHarmony and Match.com do bring love and marriage to some seekers, and e-networking can lead to real-life work for good.
Twitter became an international sensation in February when an e-roots fund drive started in London grew into meet-ups and events in nearly 200 cities involving thousands of attendees. The Twestival became a group of same-time events in the real world that were streamed online and raised $500,000 for charity.
What is most exciting is that this escalation in engaging activity appears at work in the real world as well. In March in metro Richmond, messages, meetings and information about civic engagement were pervasive.
Leadership Metro Richmond, the region's 29-year-old, 1,600 member community leadership development program, invited its members to a March 31 "Town Hall" to discuss how LMR members can be stronger community assets and connect more closely with one another.
Two meetings based on a Seattle-based model, Conversations Café, were also set for March. The mission: "To promote community, democracy and wisdom world-wide through generating millions of open, respectful public conversations." These conversational salons were to focus on eliciting individual and small group perspectives on the possibilities for our region.
The University of Richmond opened UR Downtown, which in part is envisioned as an open meeting space for civic discourse and as a way to link university resources and the knowledge of the academy to serving community needs.
Sunshine Week, promoting open government, always falls Sunday through Saturday that includes March 16, the birthday of James Madison. The executive director of the Virginia Coalition of Open Government wrote an essay published statewide. Her point was to urge citizens "to ask questions, look at records, attend meetings, inspect budget reports…. Always remind yourselves, each other, your elected officials and government employees [that] democracy demands vigilance. It demands stewardship. It demands that we all stay involved."
The Jepson School of Leadership Studies celebrated the 15th year anniversary of its first graduating class using a social online network and a virtual community service project. Some participants will gather for face-to-face conversations and reflections, all to be Webcast for those who are unable to attend.
The recent big event on this front was The Richmond Times-Dispatch's 23rd Public Square. This community meeting (an exercise in civic engagement) drew 130 people to discuss "How will you help your community in the next 20 years." The words "engage," "engaged" and "civic engagement" came up more than a few times.
Most attendees appeared to be active volunteers or representatives of organizations that depend on volunteers. The big unasked question was: "Is volunteering enough?" Volunteers reduce suffering to be sure. But how can citizens work together to prevent or alleviate the very problems that volunteers address. The most provocative question that was asked that night was this: If 27.1 percent of people in metro Richmond do volunteer work, what's the other 72.9 percent doing? Are they home alone watching American Idol? How can we get them to meetings like this one? How can we engage them?
I have an answer in a word: "E-vite."