• Palma Joy Strand

Civity and Civic Engagement

The civity work of building relationships in communities doesn’t fit into standard categories . . . People sometimes ask us: Is civity about inclusion, diversity, and equity? (Yes.) Is it connected to democracy? (Yes.) Is it like community organizing? (Yes.)

And what about civic engagement? How does civity relate to that?

Both Malka and I have spent a lot of time in the civic engagement world – supporting connections between people and the public sphere.

For me, it started early. My first job out of college in the late 1970’s was as an environmental engineer for the San Francisco regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency . . . In that role, I was assigned to be the program officer for a small (relatively speaking) federal grant on water planning for the Las Virgenes Water District in Southern California . . . Part of the job included being the (sole) government representative at public hearings on the grant held on location in Malibu. (I was 22 years old.)

I dressed up in my best (only) professional skirt and jacket and showed up.

Those meetings left me with two impressions.

The first was that the meetings were structured so that I was essentially a designated lightning rod, and lightning bolts from the citizens (who were not happy with various aspects of the plan that had been formulated and communicated to the public) were directed at me . . . My job was to stand up and take it – and, I suppose, to listen . . .

The second was that, contrary to my impression going in of Malibu residents as exclusive and reclusive celebrities, the people who showed up were not celebrities, had lived in the community for a long time, and seemed to all know each other . . . (Many years later, thank you, Giles, for your kindness after the hearing in trying to explain exactly what was going on to a fledgling government employee!)

This was my introduction to the world of civic engagement . . . Apart from the discomfort of being a lightning rod, it felt as though the government’s formal public hearing process and the informal relationships and conversations within the community were operating on different wavelengths and never really intersected.

Public hearings were, at the time, the civic engagement norm . . . As civic engagement has unfolded since then, the lightning rod model has been joined by a wide range of processes that enable actual communication and discussion and sometimes allow and actually facilitate collaborative decision-making.

And yet civic engagement processes and initiatives are still often oriented around the essential electromagnetic field of the lightning rod model, which aligns to the relationship between government and citizens.

Clay Shirky, in his 2009 TED Talk “How social media can make history,” describes how the internet has revolutionized public communication . . . In the 20th century, public communication was centralized, with a broadcaster in the middle and consumers receiving standardized messages – and occasionally providing feedback to the hub.

But in the 21st century, consumers of information are also producers, most content is produced via social media, and conversation and information flow are heavily decentralized.

The engagement of people in media now forms a networked web of dyadic and group conversations.

Similarly, the engagement of people in civic life forms a networked web of dyadic and group conversations . . . This networked civic web has always existed (witness Malibu!), but we may be more aware of it now that we see the more concrete electronic social network the internet has created.

“Civic engagement” includes engagement of people in the civic sphere by government. This civic engagement, which is akin to Shirky’s centralized communication, focuses on conversations and relationships between government and people.

But “civic engagement” also encompasses another dimension: conversations and relationships among people who seek to participate in and contribute to public life. This civic engagement mirrors Shirky’s decentralized communication.

Building a culture of relationships, respect, and empathy with people who are different goes directly to how people engage with other members of their communities.

That’s civic engagement.

That’s civity.

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