Massachusetts’ First Civic Engagement Summit, held in Worcester on Friday, November 16, was a resounding success. Well over 700 people attended from the business, government and the non-profit sectors.
I gave a keynote address and pointed out that Massachusetts’ civic engagement is disappointing, given its level of high levels of average education. [Since education generally drives higher levels of civic engagement.] Massachusetts is 26th in the nation (slightly below average) of states in the Civic Life Index that the Corporation for National Service has developed, and we are below the national average for volunteering of college-age students (an alarming fact given our high number of colleges) and 34th in the nation for volunteering (which Lt. Gov. Tim Murray later in that day asserted “we’re going to change that”).
I pointed out that while there were not formal Civic Summits, that during the Progressive Era, the exchange of ideas of what was working and what wasn’t among social entrepreneurs in cities like Galveston or Toledo or Chicago or Rochester formed the backbone of that period’s amazingly productive civic re-invention.
I also pointed out that those at the Summit should broaden their lenses somewhat and focus not only on issues like civic engagement (things like voting or volunteering or philanthropy) but on the larger lens of social capital, the social networks along which trust and reciprocity evolve. To many, “civic engagement” seems like drinking castor oil, something that they know they should do, but which has no appeal. If we can succeed in the larger task of increasing social connectedness through things like picnics and block parties, soccer leagues, book clubs, church social networks, etc., than lots of communities will have the substrate that they can use to mobilize for political problems when issues arise. For example, Women’s Suffrage (getting women the right to vote) was formed on the backs of women’s book clubs that formed in the late 1800s, and the Civil Rights Movement was scaffolded through church networks. In neither case, the women’s book groups or the churches did people come together originally around political purposes and effecting change. Moreover, we may succeed in involving many more people around these activities that are designed to be fun and social without asking them initially to drink their castor oil, understanding that they may be more dutiful patients once they are more connected and learn about community problems through these social networks.
Over lunch, Greg McHale previewed Good2Gether.com, a site that on hundreds of media sites across the country (like Boston.com) users will have an easy way of connecting to non-profits to learn more about an issue that they have just read about, find out how they can volunteer or donate, or take local action. [The site will launch formally in March.]
And Governor Patrick gave a wonderful heart-felt speech [link takes a while to load] about his commitment to civic engagement, drawing from his experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago when his mom was on welfare and every third night he had to sleep on the floor since there were 3 of them with only one bunk bed in their apartment. But he pointed out that as poor as the community was in financial capital, it was rich in social capital: every adult felt that they needed to be an adult to every kid in that neighborhood, so if you did anything wrong you were set right once by the closest adult, and then they in turn told your parents and you got a second lesson when you got home. He said that the adults in the community made this commitment because the kids were their common investment in the future and the message that they sent through their involvement was that the youth was important enough to mentor with care.
He later suggested that Massachusetts residents need to cultivate their metaphoric community gardens with the zeal and tenderness that his grandmother did in toiling a small plot of dirt (and cleaning away all the rubbish and “things that God definitely did not put there”). “It was a magnificent thing, and it was improbable, especially in that place, but she tended her garden,” and enabled a tiny rose clipping to grow from this hardened soil to the second story window of the tenament and produce lovely roses in a desolate spot. Gov. Patrick suggested that the audience at the Massachusetts Civic Engagement Summit could achieve similar monumental achievements through their own cultivation.
Patrick noted that we rarely know the ways in which little things we do for others can make a huge difference. He recounted an incident growing up where he was late and running for a bus to take him to another part of Chicago. When he got on the bus he realized that he had left his bus money at home. The bus driver quickly sized him up, originally skeptical that Deval Patrick was trying to pull a fast one on him, and Deval expected to be put off at the next stop. Bus the bus driver instead told Deval, ‘pass it on’ and Deval said that he couldn’t count how many times that incident had replayed itself in his mind over the course of his life, influencing countless decisions that Deval later made.
Patrick suggested that the problem of disengagement partly rested with government ignoring this issue. “A whole lot of politicians have tried to trivialize the idea of connectedness, of community, and have glorified personal responsibility, as important as that is, as if it’s all we need,” Patrick noted. “What we are facing didn’t just happen to us, it’s a persistent pattern of neglect, a willingness to look the other way and an unwillingness by a lot of people in power, frankly, to ask you and me to see our state in each other again and in our common human infrastructure.”
Patrick commented: “I wish you would take a look at yourselves. Your presence confirms what I’ve suspected for a long time … people are hungry to reconnect.”
Much of the Civc Summit day was focused on hearing from social entrepreneurs in the community about what was working or not and holding discussions on areas like: policy and policymaking; working with diverse communities; volunteerism; business partnerships; and lifetime citizenship through education.
The organizers of the Summit plan to hold these Summits annually and hope that this Summit serves as a model to other states. They have created a web page MassCivicAction where Massachusetts citizens and attendees can learn about what is happening, inform others of their civic projects, and keep this dialogue alive.