(Orlando, FL), I am here for the Florida Civic Advance, a summit of people from across the state who support the civic life of their communities. They are the kinds of people who don’t just attend meetings; they organize and facilitate them. They don’t just vote; they build voter-education programs. They don’t just follow and discuss the news; they report and curate news for their communities.
Overall, the proportions of Americans who say that they have attended community meetings, worked with neighbors to address problems, followed the news, and belonged to organizations have all fallen since the 1970s. Florida scores very low on these indicators, sometimes 49th or 50th out of 50.
To boost these forms of engagement requires investment and support. The Associated Press-GfK recently repeated survey questions they had asked in 1984 about voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, and keeping informed about news and public issues. All of those activities had fallen, with the exception of voting (which fluctuates with the political situation) and volunteering, which has been buoyed by a substantial increase in the youth volunteering rate.
That last trend can be explained by the substantial investment in youth volunteering through high school service-learning programs, AmeriCorps, Campus Compact member colleges, and so on. Proponents of service have won new funding and rewards for volunteering, positive media coverage, intensive research and evaluation, and favorable policies, including mandates in many school districts.
There has been no comparable investment in the other forms of civic engagement.
Who will work to strengthen broader opportunities for civic engagement? Not political elites, who have limited interest in empowering citizens. And not average citizens, who have had too little experience with rewarding civic engagement to understand its value. National polling has found that average Americans are lukewarm about civic engagement, no matter how it is named and described.
Our best allies are the kind of people who are gathering at Florida Civic Advance. They have demonstrated their commitment. They grasp the value of civic engagement. Despite the low average levels of engagement across the state, these leaders are numerous enough to be powerful. But they tend to work on specific projects in specific issues domains within their own geographical communities. They do not coordinate to promote civic renewal. They are not conscious of being part of a movement or nascent movement for democracy.
Gathering such people is the strategy I recommend in the final chapter of We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, so I am very excited to see this summit draw so many committed and creative people and projects.