Expert Voices | Spring/Summer 2017
July 19, 2017
Civic engagement has always been a cornerstone of American society. In his famous 1830s publication Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans were constantly joining or starting associations for all sorts of purposes. When we talk about civic engagement, broadly speaking, we are talking about work that helps to improve one’s community. As you might guess, this type of work can take many forms, from volunteering in a soup kitchen to learning more about the problems or issues society faces. Political engagement is a specific type of civic duty related to government and decision-making. Voting, writing your state representative, or participating in city council meetings are all types of political engagement.
When we participate in civic engagement, we not only contribute to improving our communities, we can also learn new skills, widen our networks, and improve our health. Whether you would like to become more civically active yourself or would like to encourage your child to do so, identify what interests you, find others with whom to work, and start small while thinking big.
People often get involved because they notice a need in the community, they have a passion that they would like to share with others, or someone asks for their help. Noticing a need may provide the perfect opportunity for you to step up and take charge – we see this often when students create new clubs or organizations on campus. Countless nonprofit organizations have been created to fill gaps that the private sector and government do not fulfill. But finding the energy to lead the charge can be more than most of us are ready to do – this is where working with others is key.
Team Work and Collaboration
Not only are we more likely to participate when we do so with others, we can accomplish more when we work collectively. When I lived in Washington, DC many years ago, I used to go running in a nearby park. The trash in the creek along the path bothered me, but it seemed like too much for me to tackle. I imagined having a trash pick-up day, but I wasn’t sure who I would recruit beyond my circle of friends. One day I looked online and found that an organization already existed that matched volunteers with all sorts of projects – all I had to do was plan it. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we can often tap into existing groups or organizations to help us in our endeavors.
Research I have conducted on student civic participation confirms that working with others makes us more likely to participate. In a study of high school students, I found that the vast majority of students would rather join others to work on a civic problem than try to do so alone. At the same time, many students did not know how to act collectively or politically to address an issue. This is why our campus’ efforts to prepare students for responsible citizenship are so crucial. Through coursework, fraternity and sorority life, and student organizations, our students learn about and practice responsible citizenship.
What are we doing on campus?
Last fall, the Department of Political Science and International Studies, together with the Office of Student Affairs, the Regula Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement, the Department of Communication, the University Library, and others, met to plan engagement activities for the 2016 elections. Rather than numerous independent efforts, we were able to coordinate across entities to provide communication on events including student panels, an election fair, and presidential debate watch events held on campus. We worked hard to get the word out on how to register to vote and request an absentee ballot. Research that we conducted on the presidential debate events indicated that many students who watched debates on campus would not have otherwise watched. Furthermore, the more debate minutes students watched, the more confident they felt about their ability to participate politically. Finally, among students who watched the debates, those who watched at least one debate on campus were more likely to become registered voters and vote. We were pleased to learn that even our small efforts of engagement made a difference.
Oftentimes on campuses, political engagement means putting on such events every four years prior to presidential elections. Yet, as you know, elections happen every year, and in fact twice a year in many states such as Ohio. To build on our efforts, we look forward to unveiling two citizen engagement stations on campus to help inform students about how they can politically engage, to provide permanent access to voter registration and absentee voter information, and to encourage students to contact their government representatives at all levels of government.
Preparing students for responsible citizenship is part of Mount Union’s mission, and political engagement is something that we can all continue long after earning a degree.