Monthly Archives: June 2012

community engagement and economic well-being

I am in Chicago for meetings at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service and then the Spencer Foundation. The last time I was here, it was to speak at the Chicago Donors Forum conference on community engagement. The Forum’s report on the conference is well done. The best parts are quotes from other speakers, such as Agustin Flores, age 19, who stole the show with a great talk about the life-changing experience of challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel over student transportation fares. But I’m quoted, too:

“Community engagement is just as important as education, criminal justice, or urban development, because we cannot tell what to teach, what should be illegal, or how to develop a community without engaging people.” …

“There are no panaceas, no silver bullets; and community engagement doesn’t work for all purposes,” said Peter Levine. “But there are great examples of impact.” Perhaps the most powerful example in these hard economic times is how active community involvement and political engagement lead directly to greater economic success, fending off unemployment and creating conditions for the acquisition of jobs—in the city, the region, and the state.

“We found a correlation between social capital or civic health in states and major metropolitan areas and their resilience against unemployment, once various economic factors were controlled,” Levine said. He outlined the chain of benefits communities derive from active engagement:

“Participation in civil society can develop skills, confidence, and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them to find jobs.”

“Middle school and high school students who participate in service-learning during class or who serve in school government succeed much better academically than peers with similar backgrounds. Many individuals owe their employment to fellow members of social or civic groups or have learned their most marketable skills in national and volunteer service.”

“Trust is a powerful predictor of economic success because people who trust are more likely to enter contracts and business partnerships, and because confidence in others is a precondition for investing and hiring.”

“Communities and political jurisdictions with stronger civil societies are more likely to be governed well. Active and organized citizens can demand and promote good governance and serve as partners to government in addressing public problems.”

“Community engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities, increasing the odds they will invest, spend, and hire there. A related hypothesis holds that the strength of local civic infrastructure, such as the availability of civically committed religious congregations, and the availability of local associations and informal venues such as barber shops, boosts attachment and investment in a community, which in turn increases civic engagement and local economic investment.”

“I am a community engagement guy,” said Levine, expressing confidence that subsequent studies will find that community engagement translates into gains in health and environmental protection as well as economics. “I have studied and practiced that my whole career. I happen to believe that a full and flourishing human life requires community engagement.”

exciting changes at AmericaSPEAKS and the National Institute of Civil Discourse

(On a train, finishing a Boston>Newark>Philadelphia>DC>Philadelphia>Newark>Boston circuit) As a board member of AmericaSPEAKS, I am delighted that our founder and president, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, has a great new opportunity to be Executive Director of the National Institute of Civil Discourse, and the excellent former Chief Operating Officer of AmericaSPEAKS, Steve Brigham, is stepping up to lead the organization. This is a twofer, as far as I am concerned: great new leadership at two important institutions, with Carolyn still playing an important role at AmericaSPEAKS. As she writes,

Today too many of our public meetings, and certainly the images that mass media presents us with of ourselves, are exactly the opposite of [a] respectful exchange and exploration of views.  Americans find themselves in structures and processes that support the angry expression of their opinions, with the intention of drowning out anyone who thinks differently than they do.  This is how we behave when demagoguery is all we hear and our leaders make incivility seem acceptable.

But getting people together to discuss issues is possible and it yields satisfied and empowered people as well as wise solutions. That is the role (in different ways) of both AmericaSPEAKS and the National Institute of Civil Discourse, which was founded in response to the Gabby Gifford’s shooting and now has an ambitious national leadership role. Onward!

texting kids to Do Something

(Washington, DC) Earlier today, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, I heard a presentation about Do Something‘s text-messaging campaign. Apparently, teenagers are about 55 times more likely to respond to a suggestion to volunteer or take another civic action if it comes in a text rather than an email.

To know whether the different medium is really the cause of the difference in outcomes, I would want to know a bit more about the data. It could be that the kids who receive texts are different to start with–after all, they are the ones who shared their phone numbers, instead of (or in addition to) their email addresses. But it rings true that texting is more effective than email at reaching teens, if only because email doesn’t work at all.

The next question is whether that is because of some intrinsic difference in the two media that makes texting better. For instance, maybe shorter is better, or maybe receiving a message on a phone catches your attention. The alternative explanation would go like this: We keep inventing new electronic modes of communication. Each one quickly gets overused by organizations, to the point that anyone who can tune it out, does so. Working adults can’t yet ignore their email because some of the messages they get are important. But teenagers can and do ignore their email. Because text messaging is not yet so heavily overused, it’s still worth reading every message. Soon that will change, at which point we’ll all have to talk about how to reach teens through the new mode.

Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012

I was very sad to read this morning that Elinor Ostrom has died. Lin ran the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, where she was also Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Lin won the 2009, Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and was chosen in 2012 for Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She was a MacArthur “Genius” award winner, former president of the American Political Science Association, and recipient of our own Tisch College research prize, which she is receiving here:

I find I have blogged about her or her work 23 times already. For example:

Lin started as a graduate student of Vincent Ostrom, who survives her. She was a woman, an untenured “trailing spouse” in the one-college town of Bloomington, and she studied unfashionable topics, like local governance. Her perspective ran counter to dominant trends in modernity, especially the idea that centralization brings efficiency. She had profound respect for ordinary people’s wisdom, but that didn’t turn into pious enthusiasm. Instead, she tested hypotheses about collective action with the utmost rigor, using laboratory experiments, data from field work on several continents, and rational-choice models. The result was a glorious achievement that will long outlive her–but we’ll miss the warm and and kind human being.

Arab students’ speech at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This morning, my colleague Vanessa and I participated in a videoconference with Arab students in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They are members of the Watan movement, which, as they presented it to us, exists to celebrate Palestinian culture and identity. “Watan” means “homeland” or “nation,” and clearly to assert Palestinian national/cultural identity within an Israeli university is a political act. But in general, asserting, defining, explaining, defending, debating, and developing a cultural identity is a political act–or at least has political aspects. Not all identities are commendable (think of fascist nationalism), but the act of asserting an identity through culture is both natural and appropriate.

The Watan students reported to us that their requests to hold a “Palestinian Heritage Day” on campus have been denied, even though other cultural days (e.g., for Chinese students) are frequent. They said they were told that the university should not be a political zone; politics belongs outside.

Of course, I do not know the whole story here–we just spoke to three students from thousands of miles away for a few minutes. And I make no comment about the local laws and policies regarding student events on campus. But I do think that universities exist to be places of creativity, contestation, and nonviolent politics–politics by word, not act. Those are central goods in a university, not optional. Thus a university should welcome a student-organized cultural day even if it offends other students. In fact, the majority (in this case, Jewish Israeli students) are potentially the prime beneficiaries, since they would have the most to learn from Palestinian Heritage Day even if it left them just as hostile to the Watan Movement as they had begun.

The Hebrew University is a world-famous institution, known for its liberal values of free expression. I think blocking a Palestinian Heritage Day should be an embarrassment.