Civil Participation, Civic Engagement & Beyond.
DAVID E WATTERS
Gardens, scholars say, are the first sign of commitment to a community. When people plant corn they are saying, let’s stay here. And by their connection to the land, they are connected to one another. – Anne Raver
Over the course of this series of articles, it is my intention to explore the concepts of Leadership and Active Citizenship; how these can be differently defined; the limiting perception of “real” activists as opposed to the supposed “slacktivists” and the unintentional exclusion and devaluing of certain types of people who fail to meet our definitions.
Part One, Reflections on Collective Responsibility, can be found here:
In this second part, Civil Participation, Civic Engagement and Beyond, we will look at various views regarding what it means to be an ‘active citizen’, and explore some of the lessons that we can learn from each other.
In the final part of this series, Collective Cross-Cause Collaboration, we will consider how anti-oppression initiatives can be part of our everyday lives; how we can nurture a broader range of strategies to allow for wider participation and finally how we can learn from each other so that collective cross-cause collaboration can accelerate social progress.
I feel my heart break to see a nation ripped apart by its own greatest strength – its diversity. – Melissa Etheridge
What it means to be an ‘active citizen’, from Civil Participation to Civic Engagement and beyond.
There are various perspectives about what it means to be an ‘active citizen’ and differing views on what active citizenship might actually mean.
If we are agreed that Citizens are members of a state or a nation, with a growing number viewing themselves as World Citizens, and that Citizenship involves playing an active part in society to enhance and improve it for the greater good, then Active Citizenship is when we develop and utilise our knowledge and skills to understand, challenge and engage with the primary structures of society, namely political, economic and legal structures, to enhance society, in its broadest terms, and affect significant social and political change.
The following 3-part typology developed by Westheimer
and Kahne (2004) in relation to citizenship and citizenship education is worthy of reflection and may prompt some contemplation about how your own social and political engagement may be defined.
Are you a ‘personally responsible citizen’, whose awareness of individual rights and responsibilities is heightened and who identifies as both a ‘voter’ and ‘volunteer’ or a ‘participatory citizen’, who additionally possesses knowledge of the rights of individuals, the participatory structures available and an individual within a group or groups, actively participating in existing structures to engage in opportunities for positive participation?
You may well be a ‘justice-orientated citizen’ for whom citizenship is born of a heightened level of social awareness regarding wider collective rights and a deeper sense of collective political and social responsibility, and a desire to actively engage through the participation in a group or groups, with a view to challenging inequality, achieving social justice and fostering social solidarity and community cohesion.
You may differently define your relationship with civic involvement and your level of engagement with your community and wider society but you will be engaged to some extent in Civil Participation and/or Civil Engagement, whether you fully realise this or not.
Civil Participation and Civic Engagement
Two vital forums for active citizens to participate in are Civil Participation and Civic Engagement, where Civil participation is generally seen as when individuals become involved with others to pursue their own specific goals and particular interests; anything from involvement in faith groups, school governance and residents associations to participation in broader political and non-political groups to further the advancement of their objectives and where Civic engagement is when individuals and groups, who see themselves as part of a more substantial social fabric, work towards making a difference in the civic life of their communities through public participation in the process of governance.
Perspectives on Active Citizenship
The European Commission says that Active Citizenship is:
‘Participation in civil society, community and/or political life, characterised by mutual respect and non-violence and in accordance with human rights and democracy’ (Hoskins 2006).
This statement is fairly narrow but nevertheless, as a starting point, we can aim to make this a reality. We can all become more effective citizens and we can all encourage others to do the same.
Active citizenship is concerned with more than learning ‘the rules of the game’, and how to participate within existing models and structures. Active citizenship should be defined more broadly to encompass active learning for political literacy and empowerment, addressing structures and relations of power and working to change these, where necessary, in the pursuit of social inclusion and social justice agendas (Lister 1997).
In order for our initiatives to achieve their intended impact and for social and political structures to shift significantly in favour of all citizens, we must become empowered and educated ourselves before we can nurture and develop proactive and politically empowered young people who understand how things operate and who are confident free-thinkers refusing to accept the status quo.
“To solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time”
It’s about making the connections between individuals’ learning and the potential for collective social goals. We are clear that these outcomes depend on the underpinning values, principles and approach of any learning – whether as part of a programme, part of action research or part of a collective experience. It is about ‘working both sides of the equation’ to build ‘a more active and engaged civil society and a more responsive and effective state that can deliver needed public services’ (Gaventa 2004 27)
There are, arguably, four categories of Active Citizenship. The first two categories, Maintenance and Individualised Self‐Help are consensual forms of community development. As such, Active Citizenship may simply serve to maintain or reproduce existing social circumstances – i.e. conserve without challenging or transforming the structural basis of the status quo.
The last two categories, Defensive Opposition and Visionary, are more ‘conflictual’.
Defensive Opposition, is reactive in nature. It is about reacting defensively to change and opposing that which poses a threat to something valued; education, healthcare, employment, for example or even a way of life, such as gentrification, or social-cleansing if you prefer.
Finally, Active Citizenship can be Visionary; that is to say it can, and often is, proactive in its approach to dreaming up and realising new futures; forging a previously untrodden path.
The global surge towards embracing Marriage Equality was and is about dreaming up new futures, new ways of doing things.
Resistance to this dramatically transformational movement has been universally challenged by the conservative right and dramatically overcome, with the most recent Supreme Court ruling being a pivotal point in human progress.
To an outsider, this ground-breaking social shift superficially appears to have happened in the blink of an eye but for those involved in the movement the progress has been slow and beset by disheartening setbacks.
For this level of Active Citizenship to succeed, those involved have had to be tenacious, tireless and resilient; they have had to unite and harness lessons learned from the past, from previous initiatives in other parts of the world and gather knowledge and strategies to present their case(s) in a framework which defies argument.
Marriage Equality advocates, activists and altruistic allies had begun to frame their cause in terms of being under the Human Rights umbrella, and powerfully labelled as a primary objective within the New Civil Rights Movement.
The considered use of language became a significantly powerful tool in breaking through preconceptions and invalidating the misconceptions of those who were in opposition.
When any group allows a label to persist, especially a label which limits and dehumanises, they are unlikely to succeed in obtaining equal rights.
The Equal Love Campaign in the United Kingdom captured the requirement to highlight and promote the human desire to honour and celebrate the love of couples who share a committed and loving life, regardless of the gender of those within these relationships.
As a Human Rights issue, the campaign received far more media coverage, opened up wider social debate and made headway at a much quicker pace than may have been the case had it merely been a Gay Rights issue.
Evan Wolfson, founder and Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, explains that the demand for marriage equality is a question of civil rights—and it is important for America.
“At its core, the freedom to marry movement is about the same thing every civil rights struggle has been about, taking seriously our country’s promise to be a nation its citizens can make better—its promise to be a place where people don’t have to give up their differences or hide them in order to be treated equally.”
Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry by Evan Wolfson
Above all, if we are to be proactive visionary citizens, dreaming up new futures, creating a transformational alternative path and destination for society, we must not be constrained by the pre‐existing political institutions or mechanisms and should create our own institutions, mechanisms and spaces, from which we can derive considerable strength, and our priority must be firstly to liberate ourselves and others from the shackles of socially, culturally or self-imposed mental slavery and, wherever possible, aim to reach a level of personal growth which enables us to altruistically empower others.
We can all participate in promoting social solidarity and community cohesion.
We can all assist in empowering individuals and in strengthening civil society.
The cost is too great if we don’t.
We are #StrongerTogether.
DAVID E WATTERS
National Diversity Award Winner, David E. Watters, is a teacher, motivational speaker and writer; a passionate equality advocate, committed to enhancing the lives of young people and adults who may feel marginalised or limited by labels.
As a teacher, he is committed to developing the whole person through creatively challenging students to embrace their unique value, and that of others, to encourage them to fulfil their full potential. He was nominated for an Excellence in Diversity Award 2015, for his contribution to enhancing the diversity agenda within education.
Since graduating from The Institute of Education, University of London, David has gone on to train as a mediator, and is a qualified facilitator for The Pacific Institute.
As Director of NBI Associates, David devises and delivers engaging, enjoyable and interactive Diversity and Cultural Enhancement workshops utilizing Cognitive Behavioural and Performing Arts strategies for individual, corporate and academic clients.
Watters is also the founder and coordinator of the inclusive, inspirational and international Give ’em Hope Campaign; an online initiative which utilises all available social networks to encourage and uplift those who doubt their validity, feel isolated or limited by labels, through the sharing of written and video testimonies. The campaign was honoured at the National Diversity Awards 2014 when it won the Community Organisation Award (Multi-Strand).
Watters was a key player in the Equal Love Campaign UK; taking the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 and successfully achieving Marriage Equality for same-sex couples in the United Kingdom.
His passion for equality advocacy and commitment to celebrating diversity has brought many opportunities to write and speak on social change and his book, NEVER BLEND IN, brings together this wealth of experience and the voices of those whom he has met along the way.
MOBILE: 07800813189 SKYPE: never.blend.in WEBSITE: www.nbiassociates.co.uk
BOOK WEBPAGE: http://www.nbiassociates.co.uk/Never-Blend-In.html
GIVE ‘EM HOPE CAMPAIGN: http://www.nbiassociates.co.uk/Give–em-Hope-Campaign.html