Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Finding Civic Action Between Concern and Control

What are you hearing? This is a consistent question I am getting. It is a good one because the question in itself tells us a lot about the state many of us are feeling – uncertainty, unpredictability. In 2009, we talked about a “new normal” in reference to the national economy after the downturn in the stock market. Our new normal today is measured more by what we don’t know. We are asking each other “what are you hearing?” I’m asking the same thing from other people. We crave certainty so that we can respond accordingly. Alas, we have a new normal.

That said, one thing I am hearing, which I have been writing about frequently, as have others across the country, is the resurgence of civic engagement.

By sheer numbers, the chances are good that you are engaged in your community. Americans by the thousands are calling, emailing, and writing their elected officials, they are stepping up to volunteer and to donate to the causes that matter the most to them, and they are self-organizing. These are all forms civic engagement – all ways to step in and step up.

What does civic engagement mean?  When I searched the web for the definition of civic engagement, I got 3,740,000 results. This seems appropriate as with most things in civil society, the definition is largely in the eyes of the beholder. However, there are a few things I know to be true about any of these definitions: (1) the nonprofit sector is intricately woven within and through the action of civic engagement, and (2) generally speaking, the act of being engaged is a positive sign of democracy in action. Knowing these two things, I willingly jump into invitations to have conversations about how Alaskans can be more connected to their communities.

Considering a previous newsletter article I wrote earlier this year about finding focus in one word, I was intrigued when a colleague shared her answer, which was inspired by the work of Stephen Covey, to focusing her civic engagement by explaining a simple Venn diagram. The point of engagement is where one has both concern and the locus of control to have an impact on that concern. This seems like an antidote to the myriad number of issues facing us as a state and a nation. It also seems to address the consistent refrain I hear about how to manage the high level of uncertainty we face as a sector while charting a path forward in a productive way. Placing this idea in my list of highly useful tools, I set out to test the concept.

I can describe my latest encounter on this journey as the “meaningful entertainment” at a house party. This is not how I would normally describe my work. However, in this case the event organizers were a group of young professionals who were ready to do something more meaningful in their community but felt like they needed some additional conversations and process to pick their next step. Yea! They gathered about 30 of their friends and acquaintances for a fun and serious evening. During the course of the evening, I walked them through a process we called Getting Engaged in Your Community: Values-based Volunteerism. I am sharing this with all of you because in the process of creating this experience, I developed a complementary framework to the Venn diagram that seemed to resonate above the din of the Google search definitions and got people in a place where meaningful next steps could occur. I have since shared this a few more times and used it for a handful of facilitated discussions. In each instance, like most things at Foraker, it isn’t overly complicated but when pondered it can offer many levels of consideration. Here is the framework:

Civic Engagement – Places and Action

  • Government: vote, serve on boards or commissions, run for public office (community council, school board, local, tribal, state, federal governments)
  • Nonprofits: volunteer as unpaid staff, on boards, at an event – seasonal, skilled, or novice offerings – donate
  • Coalitions: participate in think tanks, advocacy, projects, programs
  • Grassroots groups: volunteer for a phone bank, give public testimony, march, write letters
  • Neighborhood actions: help your neighbor, take part in crime watch, form little libraries, pick up litter, volunteer to tutor, help in your local school
  • Online: sign petitions, share, connect, send, like causes and issues that matter to you

A few thoughts about this list:

  • Government: This option is fairly self explainatory. Vote (if you can), advocate for others to vote. Pay attention and take action in every election. Take a step and serve on a government run board or commission or run for office. The path can be circuitous at times, making the choice to engage all the more difficult. However, the rewards for helping your community can be big. Stand-up and exercise your rights.
  • Nonprofits: The list of options is long and the volunteer roles are endless. Often the hardest choice is finding the right organization to match your skills, interest and time. Jump in and activate the greater good.
  • Coalitions: Generally framed as collective action to support the greater good, coalitions are as much about process as about results. The rewards and challenges are found in each aspect. Group up for a stronger voice.
  • Grassroots groups: Action is the name of the game and that game often has an underlying or obvious political frame of reference. Embrace the energy. Sign-up to stand up.
  • Neighborhood action: From pushing your neighbor out of a snow bank to neighborhood watch or community school particpation, these often smaller acts of kindness add up to big results in creating community, one neighborhood at a time. Step-up and lend a hand.
  • Online: Sometimes framed by the skeptical as “clicktavism” there can be a lot of power harnessed in the petitions, online shopping or boycotting, communicating and networking of the virtual world. For the less cynical this is grassroots work in a technological format. Sign-in and sign-on.

Democracy and our civil society are at their best when we engage our whole self – when we find that place where we can be active and be heard. Throughout this newsetter and through our blogs this month we are highlighting several ways for you to consider finding that connection between concern and control and engaging in a way that works for you. These include using your voice and walking with your feet and taking action. Will you do them all? Join us.

  • Donate through Pick.Click.Give. to Alaska nonprofits when you file for your PFD. To get inspired, read a recent commentary in the Alaska Dispatch News from Diane Kaplan, President/CEO of Rasmuson Foundation, and Nina Kemppel, President/CEO of the Alaska Community Foundation. Give cash to make change in your community today and every day.
  • Take our “mood survey” and let us know how you are feeling about your mission, the economy, and a variety of public policy issues.
  • Amplify your voice with your local Alaska representatives and help them know how cutting the nonprofit sector will hurt not help the economy. You’ll find helpful talking points here.
  • Sign up now for the Foraker Leadership Summit. We have a fantastic line-up of national colleagues who are ready to engage, inspire, and challenge our perspectives so we can all find the balance between stability and resiliency.

There are so many ways to engage. And we can each find our own way to take action in the new normal of uncertainty. The trick is to discover what works for you – what brings you certainty that you are finding the place where your concerns and your control meet. I hope you will take some of the steps I have offered. If not, I hope you will share what action you will take next. Effective civic engagement requires all of us to take part.