How can we re-engage our communities?

By Kathleen Joy of Portland, Oregon. Kathleen is the executive director of Oregon Volunteers, the Oregon Commission for Voluntary Action & Service - the agency that manages the AmeriCorps program in Oregon.

We’ve heard a lot about “renewed civic engagement” recently, as signified by dramatic increases in both youth volunteering and voting during the past five years. However, while these are important attributes of an engaged community, they are only two of the many categories by which our civic health is measured.

A number of studies conducted during the past eight years take a closer collective look at civic participation in the U.S. In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal found that America was turning into a “nation of spectators” rather than the active participants our democracy requires. And the 2000 “Better Together” report of the Saguaro Seminar warned that “without strong habits of social and political participation, the world’s longest and most successful experiment in democracy is at risk for losing the very norms, networks, and institutions of civic life that have made us the most emulated and respected nation in history.”

Last September, the National Conference on Citizenship released “America’s Civic Health Index”. The index is based on nationally representative data from 1975 to 2004 and the picture it presents is discouraging at best. According to the report:

…most indicators are on the decline. Trust in one another has steadily declined over the past 30 years; connections to civic and religious groups are consistently down; people are less connected to family and friends and more Americans are living alone; people are less well informed about public affairs; and our trust of and connection to key institutions as been largely on the decline.

To the staff and commissioners of Oregon Volunteers, the Oregon Commission for Voluntary Action and Service, these are discouraging statistics that must be improved if our state and our country are to continue to flourish. Along with our other partners in national and community service, we have chosen to open this dialogue in a forum open to everyone in the state who would like to participate. Our first Oregon Civic Engagement conference will be held in Salem on January 29 and 30, 2007.

We’ve chosen to look at this inaugural event content through the lens of Oregon history; particularly the individuals who were willing to speak up and take unpopular stances to undo many of the unconscionable acts of exclusion carried out by our forebears and to work toward equity for all.

In preparing for the conference, I’ve been reminded time and time again that the voices of individuals can and do make a difference…and I’m not just talking about Tom McCall and environmental reforms of the ‘70’s, or the creators of the nation’s initiative process, or the advocates for our strong and well-recognized land use planning policies. Their voices have impacts for us and will continue to do so for generations. However, they aren’t the only Oregonians who have used their voices to speak up on behalf of changes in which they believed.

There have also been countless Oregonians over the past 150+ years who have shown passion and courage in their efforts to right the wrongs of the racism and ethnicism that are an unfortunate but integral part of our state’s history. Even as a long-time Oregonian who studied our state’s history in school, I’ve learned a lot more about the depth of the intolerance and bigotry that is also part our heritage.

But I’ve also found many wonderful stories of people who were willing to speak up and to make a difference—individuals who took a stand for something in which they believed. My hope is that through this conference we can both honor them and learn from them as we face the issues currently confronting our state.

At the conference, we'll provide opportunities for Oregonians committed to change to participate in dialogue on a variety of issues, to hear from individuals and organizations that are working to promote broad-based involvement on particular issues, and to learn about new methods of communication that we hope will lead to a re-engagement in Oregon communities.

We believe that the dialogue will be of interest to community activists, to young people who want to make a difference, to nonprofit leaders and to every-day folks like you and me who realize that we have much to learn from the past and from each other if we take the time to listen.

We’re excited about this opportunity to meet people who remember what it was like when we were all more actively engaged in our communities and people who want to re-engage in building a stronger state. I hope you’ll join us in Salem on January 29 and 30. For more information, visit

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Part of the problem is the vocabulary.

    I live in a community. So does everyone. I buy food, pay bills, etc. as an adult. Children are in school.

    Exactly who is not "engaged". -- I know well that your rarified vocabulary is selected to specificially articulate and enunciate quantifiable social behavior for the purpose of making impactful change upon our behavioral norms. However, if you talk like that, you paint yourself into a corner. The people you need to reach don't talk like that.

    If you want to talk about voter registration and turnout for 18 to 25 year olds, do so without a more complex vocabulary.

    If you want to talk about volunteer board participation such as Friends of the Library, the Children and Youth Commission, the Planning Commission, etc. - do so in concrete down to earth language.

    As long as you talk about these issues in a manner requiring an advanced education, you will have limited success.

  • Michael M. (unverified)

    Why is it "discouraging" that, among other things, more people are living alone? Isn't that at least in part because more people can live alone, and isn't that option being available, on balance, a good thing? Or are we to revert back to the days when marriage was perceived as the only viable option for a majority of women? Personally, I'm encouraged by findings that people are less connected to religious groups, given the religious underpinnings of so much bigotry and racism, past and present.

    One thing I hope liberals and progressives will consider as a factor in whatever disengagement exists is the disengagement that results from excessive concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. People's habits of political participation have declined as more and more political power has migrated away from local governments and to Washington. Liberals bear the lion's share of responsibility for this migration. It's awfully hard to be engaged when more and more of the decisions that affect your life, your family, and your community rest in the hands of a precious few elected officials and the lobbyists who have access to them. Yet liberals tend to treat "federalism" as a dirty word. When a state like Oregon has to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to validate a legitmate statute like the assisted suicide measure passed by voters, there's a problem with our system of government. It's no wonder "every-day folks" feel largely powerless to affect change and disengage as a result.

  • Phen (unverified)

    I hope the conference also examines the economic influences on "involvement," however defined.

    While there are obviously still many people living in poverty, the vast majority are not. For these folks, the conventional view is that life is too complicated -- too many things to do, too much clutter, too much "stuff." They are not worried about the basics -- food, clothing and shelter. They are overwhelmed with choices of consumer goods and services. They don't think they have room for much more "involvement" in their lives.

    I wonder: is this the inevitable result of a consumer society that's reasonably successful economically? Does capitalism sow the seeds of its own destruction by enabling people to consume far more than they "need" and in the process using up more non-renewable resources than could possibly be sustained by the rest of the world?

    A case could be made that people in general are reasonably satisfied economically and are therefore not motivated to rock the boat. Just a hypothesis.

    It's not too hard for those of us who are engaged to see that some major changes are needed to avoid serious emergencies in environment, raw materials, health care, etc. To speak out risks being labeled as Chicken Little. It's a terrible conundrum, no?

  • (Show?)

    A community is what we make it. Steve's point about accessable language and plain speech is correct. I hope Kathleen Joy got his message. Joining any community organization means taking a risk. For example; will the Friends of the Library welcome me, or Planned Parenthood, or the Washington County Democrats? Will everone be older than me or younger? Maybe I don't view volunteering as a chance to speak up and make a difference, maybe I just want to feed the hungry or work hard as an advocate for children. Volunteers are the glue that stick a community together. The AAUW donates clothes for women going back work, the Rotary and Chamber give schaorships to deserving students. We fight AIDS, Polio and starvation in third world countriesand we live in mud huts for 2 weeks to plant coffee beans in Central America, we help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, we teach non English speakers or canvas voters for the next election cycle. Most of the volunteers I know prefer to be unsung heros, not outspoken activists. Each organization serves it's own purpose and meets different needs in communities. None are mutually exclusive of the other. Here's hoping Kathleen Joy will edit her fine column so it speaks to a wider audience than her first draft. Her intentions are good, execution needs refinement.

  • (Show?)

    The nature of community involvement is changing just as much as the nature of community is changing. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project pointed to these profound changes: More than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites. It further goes on to say: 91% of all social networking teens say they use the sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently, while 82% use the sites to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person.

    The study can be found here

    It is not hard to imagine that the interest of young people (and consider more mature work communities being created on both the MySpace's of the world, as well as LinkedIn) will be soon utilized for other types of common endevours that stretch beyond social and political.

    A good example is the BBC's Action Network, where social some meeting community engagement. On this site the BBC has turned loose their online tools that users can create a campaign that attracts supporters, but also link up with similar campaigns.

    Too often we believe that community engagement and activism should be executed on our schedule, where we believe it should happen and in the form we think is right. New forms of communication technology are proving these methods outmoded and in the dust.

    If Oregon Volunteers wants to make a difference it will take a page out of MySpace rather than the currently archaic models.

    Also - Phen, I am reading in your response that people in poverty have to worry about the basics too much to get involved. I think that many low-income people have a great desire to be involved, but the tools don't exist in the advocacy community to allow them to get involved. Read my arguement above about advocates who want involvement on their terms and not the terms of the community.

  • anonymous (unverified)

    Another issue to consider is clique-ishness within specific groups. I volunteered with quite a few different groups in Oregon in the 8 years I lived there, and with one excellent exception - Albina Head Start - my time was usually wasted. There was invariably a close-knit group of insiders who really used volunteers as windowdressing. When I moved to a mid-West city, I right away plugged into a group starting up a major civic project, one that's been rewarding for me and for the city, and is already expanding. Much as I miss Oregon in many ways, I could never have had this experience there.

  • Hal (unverified)

    To Anonymous in mid-west: thank you for belling the cat.

    I was for yrs a volunteer organizer in Deep South, in no moment conveyed anything but humble gratitude to worker bee volunteers or potential volunteers we kept accumulating year after year after year. If a potential volunteer contacted me, I was damn near ready to write THEM a check, I was so grateful.

    Alabama, Chicago, Michigan, Florida... nowhere -- ever -- have I found self in a locale w/ attitude like Portland's: at present at least, consistently prides itself on grassroots activism while just as consistently throws up disinterested walls vs. potential volunteers.

    After moving here over 2 years ago, I was alert to requests for volunteer help in various venues. Again and again and again I responded to pleas for volunteers precisely as stipulated -- left phone messages, sent e-mails, responded via websites.... I went to publicized fundraisers, where I wrote checks as donations then stood watching my contact information carefully recorded.

    Most of 18 months during which I got not one response -- ever -- to my queries about volunteering?? Never once an acknowledgement of donations I'd made?? Not once added to a mailing list or e-mail list of local chapters or organizations to which I'd donated? While I ongoingly saw in local periodicals stories about worthy up-hill work and dire needs... of the very organizations to which I'd donated????

    I was finally puzzling aloud to acquaintances here about the diss-connect between publicized need vs. actuality of non-response. I learned quickly that it's a cynical dynamic I'm far, far from alone in having noted. I gathered it's just accepted, do-gooder nonsense. I know it's by even most minimal organizing measure patently unacceptable.

    Damnedest thing I've ever observed, so pervasive it still fascinates me. I've of course let it go, happened to benefit from experience and history so didn't for a minute take personally that which I knew as organizational dynamics. (What's not widely known is that recently a dear woman who relocated here a year ago, tried and tried to get callbacks about volunteering, determined to involve herself... she committed suicide.)

    I stopped before I got sour. Why go there? The silence was at first curiously baffling, the accumulation of silences finally fascinating. And the non-response to donations plain STUPID.... Felt as if I'd spent many months tracking and mapping a FEMA model for Portland non-profits.

    Even here I'm embarrassed admitting it took me so long to get the message from Portland. I'm there.

    I have no clue if the problem in Portland is about cliques, volunteers as window dressing... I don't doubt those things are true here and signify. But I suspect those are symptoms, upshots of dysfunction -- ineffectual leadership is most often the prime suspect. Ineffective leaders eventually operate out of fear of being exposed as ineffective, MUST dominate, keep death-grip on what happens, who's allowed and who's not. I doubt cliques and window-dressing volunteers are a matter of anyone's conscious intent. People well-led, people kept busy and focussed seeing selves as what they are: crucial parts in an engine pursuing expressly clear, shared destination and goals... Organizing means organized. Keeping people proud of selves, ongoingly acknowledged for their help and work and donations. That's the only model I've seen work. Frankly, Portland has taught me something important: I have no toleranc for volunteer involvements that don't make at least a lick of sense.

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