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Civic Engagement: Is it Optional?

Last week, the United States saw an important rite of civic engagement: the first Democratic Party presidential candidates’ debate.

We have so many options for viewing the debates. I often watch the broadcast feed with one eye and follow Twitter comments for fact-checking.   And in the end, I pat myself on the back for contributing to the democratic process.

That is, if something better doesn’t come along that night. Then I might search for the taped version on YouTube later. And if that gets boring I’ll scroll down to the next video in the YouTube rabbit hole. I start out with being a world citizen, and end up on makeup tutorials.

Why is Civic Engagement So Far Down the List?

Check any and all boxes that apply:

“It takes too much time.”

“One person can’t make a real difference.”

“They don’t care about the things I care about.”

“I don’t want to get in fights about politics with people.”

“All governments are corrupt, so why engage at all?”

I remember once taking a call from a local political volunteer. He was doing a survey on various community hot-button issues. Actually, I didn’t fit the profile of the person they were hoping to survey. I asked, “Even if I don’t meet your profile, don’t you want to know what I think?” And the volunteer replied, “Not really, because people of your age and gender don’t vote.” Ouch, that hurt. Especially since the volunteer probably had data on his desk showing my embarrassingly poor voting record in local elections.

I could have taken that as an insult. Or, I could take it as a challenge. The volunteer’s heart was that I’d see the challenge and step up.

You can’t create change, unless you’re at the table.

Too often I’ve seen civic engagement brushed aside as an optional “activity.” But I’ve learned that in order to change the world, you have to be what the Bible calls “in the world, but not of the world.” Sometimes the people I rub shoulders with are people I wouldn’t normally spend time with. To borrow a concept from Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead, I have to know my core values well in order to go head-to-head effectively with people I find tough to love. It’s about coming to a table where we collectively recognize change is in the air and we all have a stake in it together.

Being at the table means sacrifice. I heard an extraordinary story this week from Food for the Hungry’s (FH) current relief operations in Mozambique. Two back-to-back cyclones devastated a huge swath of the country in March and April. The flooding and wind wiped out crops and destroyed all schools and health posts. Not to mention, many families lost loved ones, their homes, and all of their belongings.

Consito Primary School lost its tin roof in the storm. That meant all the books and furniture in the classrooms were open to the elements. The school council mobilized community members to restore the tin roofing as best they could immediately after the cyclone. Among the roofing crew were community members Armando Mussage, Jacinto Marcelino, Fernando Paulo, and Alfonso Calvo.

“We feel very happy with this rehabilitation project because the children will be able to study in a good environment,” said Armando. FH is not only finishing the roof repair but also building additional classrooms in this community.

Four men in front of red cement school building

From left: Alfonso Calvo, Jacinto Marcelino, Armando Mussage, and Fernando Paulo in front of Consito Primary School, which they helped re-roof after Cyclone Idai.

What’s interesting is, none of these four men have children currently attending the school. And they have their own household problems to deal with. But they decided to sit at the table and improve their community, even though there was no immediate, personal benefit to them. Undoubtedly, this helped cement relationships with families who desperately dreamed of their children getting an education. Not to mention, the community now has stories of how they fought back — and won — against the monstrous cyclone.

Optional civic engagement, yes. But…

The men may not have had children in the school today, but several of them have preschool children who will need a place to study eventually. Self-interest is certainly a motivator for them. But placing a high value on civic engagement means you take the long view on your participation bearing fruit.

I lived for several years in a country where voting was optional, but life would be difficult if you didn’t. You were free to skip the vote, but you wouldn’t be allowed to do things like buying gasoline for your car, stove, or make any banking transactions for a certain amount of time after the election if you failed to vote.

Did this truly encourage engagement? I’d say no, at least not for most people. They got the right to buy gas when they voted, but attitudes didn’t change. People still felt like the government was corrupt or didn’t want to listen to them. Working in the communities there, it took years of breaking down civil engagement barriers to change attitudes. FH trained leaders on how to navigate city hall, how to fill out funding requests, and how to deal with the inevitable conflict between within the leadership groups. It took daily encouragement to erase deep-seated attitudes that their ethnic background and poverty permanently barred them from making a difference.

And on the part of the community members themselves, it took effort to put aside past hurts and feelings of inadequacy. Civic engagement meant daring to have hope it could be better. In my book, that takes bravery. It takes saying, as a community, “Making our world better isn’t optional anymore.”  The fathers in Mozambique moved the needle on community change by declaring that school rebuilding wasn’t optional.

Evaluate, Find a Buddy, ACT

Community engagement means first evaluating where you think change is needed. That’s usually the easy part. We all know places where pain and injustice reign. Your next step, after identifying the issue, should be finding others who feel the same way, and who can help you process through your anger and paralysis. That’s one reason why FH works with community leaders in groups, rather than training up isolated individuals, to engage with the government and other groups that can help them.

Acting can be as simple as writing a letter to a Congressperson, which you can do on FH’s Advocacy page. Your engagement doesn’t have to be loud, or flashy, or have immediate results. You can attend a city council meeting; find a small problem in your neighborhood, and help solve it; change a personal habit (like cutting waste, or your carbon footprint), and put it into practice. Whatever you do, just get in the game. Is civic engagement optional? Certainly. But is that the world you want to live in?

You may be interested in:

5 Days of Teaching VBS Kids About Poverty

God’s Story: History is About Reconciliation

6 Ways You Can Help the Refugee Crisis