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Civic Renewal in America? There’s a Map for That - Chad Tragakis

Last week (on October 13 and October 14), I attended the 2016 National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), an annual event that brings together leaders in civic engagement to share information and develop promising practices. I was honored to be representing the Association of Americans for CivicResponsibility (AACR), a small non-profit I’ve volunteered with for the past 10 years. AACR participates in similar conferences and send representatives to attend programs of various non-profit civic organizations.

Quick background on NCoC: The effort was launched in 1946 to harness and perpetuate the spirit of civic-mindedness and community cooperation that the nation witnessed during the war years. In 1953, the Conference became a federally chartered institution when President Eisenhower signed a bill that was subsequently passed by both houses of Congress. In 2006, NCoC launched America’s Civic Health Index, an ambitious effort to gauge America’s civic behaviors and attitudes.Working with the U.S. Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), they measured a range of indicators including voting, volunteering,connectedness to civic organizations and trust in key institutions. In 2009, the index was included in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and it remains the nation’s largest and most definitive measure of American civic engagement.

Today, one of NCoC’s signature initiatives is focused on civic renewal, which they explain this way: “Civic Renewal: A process that leads to better social outcomes and civic health is a mechanism for measuring that process. In the civic renewal frame, stakeholders in a community engage to set a vision and proceed collectively to remove the hindrances to achieving that vision; and build the community infrastructure to achieve the vision and sustain the work.”

Over the course of the conference, which was co-hosted by the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, we heard from some incredible presenters. Among others, they included Keesha Gaskins from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Bread for the City CEO 
George Jones, and Floyd Mori, CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, each speaking on civic renewal through the lens of equity, diversity and inclusion. We also heard from CNCS CEO Wendy Spicer and leaders from Service Year Alliance, Opportunity Nation, Cities of Service and Community Renewal International addressing national service and volunteerism as essential components of civic life in America. And we received an informative update on the latest Civic Health Index, slated to be released later this year.

But the central theme of the conference was NCoC’s Civic Renewal Initiative and a working draft of a map they’ve developed of civic life in America. As Conference organizers framed it, the map is one way to look a tour civic life – it’s not perfect, nor is it the only way but it’s a good starting point:

During the breakout sessions, conference organizers put attendees to work to test, challenge, stretch, enhance and add to the map. What are the true measures of civic health? What are the barriers to civic participation?How do the pieces fit together?

It was a great approach and since the sessions each focused on a different facet of civic life – including economic development, community engagement, the democratic process, public health, public safety, arts and humanities, education and youth development – it was the perfect way to capture the insights, experiences and perspectives of the hundreds of conference participants who represented a wide range of regions, backgrounds and sectors.

As the map suggests, for our democracy to truly work, we need more people to get off the proverbial sidelines and engage in their communities. And we need people to get involved in more and deeper ways. These challenges are exacerbated when considering the realities of life in 21st Century America, when it can be difficult for citizens to find the time to volunteer or attend a community meeting, or even get to know their neighbors.

Many questions remain. What can our institutions do to enable, empower and encourage civic participation? How can institutions remove barriers and incentivize civic engagement? How can institutions educate citizens about how and why to get engaged? And as individuals, what role can we play? For years, the Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility has been exploring these same issues at our annual roundtable conferences.

At a period in our history when partisanship and rancor seem to be reaching ever newer heights, NCoC has started a national discussion that we must all help to continue. They’ve made it clear that all are invited tocontribute their experiences, ideas and networks to the conversation. As Americans, we will always have disagreements, but we must learn to work together to find common ground and common sense solutions to the issues that matter most – national security, public safety, education, healthcare, economic prosperity.

For 70 years, the National Conference on Citizenship has been strengthening and celebrating civic life in America. It’s great to know they are well positioned to continue their work and leadership for the next 70.

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