Relationships take work. That’s true of business relationships, friendships, marriages and so forth. To keep a relationship healthy, it takes active participation in that relationship. And that is as true of a relationship with your community and society at large as it is between two people.
Civic engagement is about actively participating in your relationship with your community. It can be broadly defined as the actions you take to make a difference in your community. This kind of engagement can result in actions that contribute to your community in many different ways.
So how does the youth of today learn about civic engagement? Is it enough to simply state the broad definition and tell young people to go out and engage in stuff?
Of course not. But to see how students can effectively understand civic engagement, we need to first define it more thoroughly, look at some examples and then consider an effective approach to instilling the value of civic engagement in young people.
Civil engagement can include organizing tree-planting or energy conservation events, volunteering in your neighborhood, participating in community sports and activities, and much more. There are so many ways you can engage with your community, that a full definition of civic engagement can actually be a bit complex.
A Robust Definition
Any robust civic engagement definition needs to cover not only the broad strokes of what it is, but where the impulse to engage comes from and how you can develop the skills and tools to engage.
Any sort of civic involvement comes from the awareness that you are a part of a greater community or society. That seems like it would go without saying, but sometimes people can be short-sighted.
As a human, it can be easy sometimes to ignore those around you and think only of how something affects you personally. This can make you complacent and take for granted the community you belong to. Civic engagement can help you become aware that you are a part of a larger community and your actions can enrich that community and make it better for not only you, but everyone around you, too.
So developing a sense of civic awareness is key to engagement. When you understand that you are not only free to benefit from the society in which you live, but have a responsibility to help that society thrive, you are more likely to participate in civic engagement.
There are many ways to act on your civic awareness. Civic engagement is not limited to one or two aspects of a community or society. It can encompass volunteer, social and political activities and even within these broad categories a wide range of different activities exist that can bring both the community and the individual together for mutual benefit.
Take auditioning for a community theater production as an example. As an individual, the benefits include gaining a creative outlet and meeting new people who you may otherwise have never encountered.
For the community, the benefits can be the opportunity to experience a piece of shared culture, the generation of community pride and unity, and the fun of having a unique social event to enjoy with friends and neighbors.
In this example, the simple act of auditioning for and participating in a community play can make a difference in your community. The same can be said for participating in a community softball team, or any number of other activities put on by a Parks and Recreation board or similar organization.
Volunteering is another example of civic engagement. Whether helping out a program run by a church, a school district or a neighborhood association, donating time and effort to help the people around you is a wonderful way to enrich your community.
From picking up litter to volunteering at your local food bank to help those experiencing financial difficulties, and everything in between, volunteering in a community brings many of the same social benefits of taking part in community activities while also helping to beautify or strengthen your community at large.
Volunteering does not need to be confined to working for established organizations either. Students can take the initiative within their schools to help their larger communities. This can look like picking up trash at a local park or helping younger students learn to read or even organizing a book drive or food drive for a local charity. Students can also incorporate some of their lessons into their civic engagement activities.
As students learn about adopting positive behaviors around energy efficiency or water conservation, for example, they can work with their schools to spread those behaviors throughout the school environment.
For example, they could organize a power-down Friday or lights out lunch that helps save energy in the school and further help others adopt energy-wise behaviors. Young people can also work with their communities to start community compost projects or recycling drives and help spread the word to their neighbors about how these activities support water conservation.
When students are taught how to adopt positive behaviors, they can develop civic awareness and are empowered to take actions to improve the community and world around them. When young people learn how their actions help their communities, they are more likely to continue to be civically engaged as they grow into adulthood.
There is no shortage of activities you can do when you realize that civic engagement is something everyone can partake in. Every pathway to that engagement not only brings benefits to the community, but to you as well.
Developing Civic Engagement Tools
While there are many ways in which you can engage with your community, some civic engagement activities may have certain knowledge or skill requirements.
Many volunteer organizations train new participants on how to help out. For example, experienced gardeners working on a community garden will show new volunteers how to best help out and encourage them to develop new gardening skills. This can keep volunteers coming back to learn new ways to help.
Many community sports leagues have tiered skill levels to keep the activity fun for everyone. This ensures that someone new to pickleball, for example, won’t be stuck losing to people with years of experience every time they go out to play, which could encourage them to stop coming.
Many students can gain knowledge about civic engagement through their civics classes, but curriculums can differ as can the style of instruction. There is no guarantee that every student will have the same knowledge base when it comes to engaging to make the world around them a better place.
Many students also can learn a lot of information via the internet, but this channel can also be fraught with difficulties, including misleading sources, which can do more harm than good. So what is the best way to teach students about civic awareness and civic engagement?
Leveraging the Power of Creative Engagement
NTC’s sponsored educational outreach programs cover a wide range of topics that help empower young people in grades K-12 to take an interest in the world around them and become aware of the actions they can take to benefit that world.
NTC’s creative engagement strategies help students understand a variety of issues within their communities. For example, water conservation outreach may include learning about where their local water comes from and how to protect that water by adopting water conservation habits. Or they may learn about electrical safety or energy efficiency or emergency preparedness that encourages them to adopt beneficial behaviors that can affect their families and communities. This form of civic awareness helps students learn how their actions affect the world around them and empowers them to inspire others to adopt positive behaviors too.
Making a Difference
Civic engagement is like a muscle. The longer you go without exercising it, the harder it is to get back in the habit. But the more you exercise that muscle, the stronger and more versatile it becomes.
Teaching students positive behaviors that affect the world and communities around them helps raise their civic awareness and encourages them to find their own ways to participate in civic engagement.
The more you work together to make your community better, the more smoothly society operates. Whether that means strengthening social bonds, beautifying a neighborhood, helping the less fortunate or any number of other positive civic actions, there are many ways that citizens of all ages can affect the world around them.
Civic engagement is a powerful thing. By teaching young people to develop an awareness of the world around them and how to adopt positive behaviors, we help put the power in their hands to make a difference in their communities not only today but tomorrow too. It also sets them up for lives that include civic engagement and creating stronger communities now and into the future.