- Social Media
- Active Citizenship
- Good Giving
- Corporate Responsibility
- Be Fearless
Citizen service and volunteerism are at incredible levels of publicity and interest. More than 60 million Americans volunteered last year - a record. AmeriCorps is getting more than three times as many applicants as positions available.
Amazing, right? Eh, yes and no if we look below the surface.
Cynthia Gibson, author of the The Case Foundation’s report, Citizens at the Center, writes:
…Americans feel more isolated than ever and powerless to do anything about the problems facing their communities and the nation. As a result, they are turning away from civic and public life to engage in activities - including volunteering and charitable giving - that may be less an impetus for deeper civic engagement than attempts to assuage the inchoate yet palpable sense among increasing numbers of Americans that things are spiraling out of control, that there is little connection between people and their public institutions and leaders…
It’s obviously essential that people work for the common good through service and volunteerism, but we can’t solve our most pressing social challenges if our citizenry only does that. Our challenges require that far more citizens also get involved in addressing the priorities of institutions and their leadership (both private and public) that effect them and the most vulnerable among us.
But actually doing this is where things get more complicated for a lot of us. Direct service is more emotionally fulfilling, it is often easier to get involved, impact is more immediate, and the theory of change is generally more straightforward. On the other hand, working to impact the priorities of institutions and their leadership is the opposite in many ways - results take longer, efforts involve a complicated ecosystem of stakeholders with varying interests, and the processes and systems can be intimidating for individuals to jump in.
The 2009 Civic Health Index from the National Conference on Citizenship says:
In the aftermath of the intense 2008 presidential campaign, only 8% of people have tried to change policies in their local communities and only 12% have contacted public officials about issues that arose in the campaign. But the political conversation continues as 33% said that they had tried to persuade friends about issues that arose in the campaign.
This is an interesting gap between interest and action. Does this further suggest that people want to care about institutional change, but for whatever reason don’t act on it?
What can be done about this gap between interest and action, between inward facing service and outward facing civic engagement, when all are essential to really move the needle on social challenges? How can more people who are passionate about ending inequity and injustice spend more time working “upstream” where policies, systems and priorities are determined – instead of usually working downstream to help those who fall between the cracks?
ServeNext.org (where I work) has recently launched a networked-based approach to address this. Realizing the inherent challenges for individuals jumping into institutional change efforts, we are working to build grassroots networks that will use collective action. Our focus is to build support for service, AmeriCorps, and some facets of social innovation among key leaders. But the means will also empower individuals to realize their abilities to make institutions more responsive to needs of citizens and communities.
In the first year, we will build and support ten networks, and each will be led by a part-time community organizer that ServeNext trains and supports for the six month program. The organizers will lead the development of each network to be comprised of about 75 - 100 constituents and a leadership council. (Self-promotion warning: we’re still accepting applicants for these positions until June 18th. Learn more, apply, or nominate some here.)
In creating these permanent networks, we will unite a very diverse group of community members with the common belief in the power of citizen service. These networks will engage and build relationships with policymakers, business leaders, the media, and fellow citizens to support the service field and to get more involved.
We believe that more people will get involved in efforts like this with personal and local encouragement, leadership to provide information about the processes so they feel more comfortable, the empowering sense of collective action, and because it’s social.
It is going to be an interesting first year of the program and everyone involved will learn a lot. For reasons already noted, this is a challenging type of initiative to build and will take some time, but our social challenges require efforts like this. The volume of those passionate about service and volunteerism is a goldmine of civic capital, so there is no excuse for not trying.
To learn more about ServeNext and its program visit: http://servenext.org/fieldcorps
Zach Maurin is co-founder and Executive Director of ServeNext.org. He served in AmeriCorps with City Year in 2002.