Civic engagement or civic participation is any individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern. Citizens acting alone or together to protect public values or make a change or difference in the community are common types of civic engagement. Civic engagement includes communities working together in both political and non-political actions. Four interrelated constructs have been identified in the research literature as necessary for civic engagement (figure 1).
Most young people do not see a connection between volunteering, political engagement and activism. The majority of young people say that they volunteered to help others and not to address a social or political problem. Only a small percentage of youth believed in their volunteering as a means to address social or political problems.
How does volunteering turn into a political act?
‘’Political actions of civic engagement or political participation can include every action that is related to change in public opinion and has a connection with a message towards a public institution. However according to literature the list of examples of political participation is virtually endless and includes activities such as voting, demonstrating, donating money, contacting a public official and boycotting, but it also includes guerilla gardening, volunteering, attending flash mobs, buying fair-trade products, and even suicide protests” (van Deth, 2016: 1158-1159).
More examples for political actions might include: promoting voting on elections, proposing a policy change or a research paper on proposing a policy change, calling out institutions in the social media to react on a certain problem, etc. In general, acts that are targeting public institutions, and influence the legislation (laws, strategies, action plans, budgets, etc.) are considered to be a political act.
Non-political actions of civic engagement include actions that do not influence a political or legislative result, but the focus is on direct help in the community. Examples of non-political actions are waste cleanup in the park, volunteering in the hospital, volunteering in the retirement home, cooking for the homeless, organizing charity events for the disabled and marginalized, etc.
Another possible form of civic action and civic commitment or duty is service-learning. According to the American Psychological Association, service-learning and civic engagement can be related but are not the same thing. Service-learning does not have to include a civic dimension and all forms of civic engagement are not service-learning. Civic engagement is a broader concept that may encompass but is not limited to, service-learning. Service-learning differs from community service or volunteerism in two distinct ways:
- The service activity is integrated with the academic curriculum and content.
- Students engage in reflection activities after their service experience and apply their learning in real-life activities.
What is the role of the trainer in civic engagement?
In both political and non-political actions, the trainer has an important role to play.
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the role of the trainer starts with him/herself. The political or non-political activism of the trainer is related to his values and beliefs and his views for a democratic and just society. These views consciously or subconsciously influence the learners. This is the starting point for his/her impact when working with other young people in a non-formal education setting. Therefore, the trainer’s continuous work on personal awareness is an important process that needs to be cultivated and will influence the civic engagement of other young people.
Trainer’s work is a civic engagement work because of several reasons:
- It influences values and beliefs, the ideology person feels close to, ultimately influencing the political vote on elections;
- It increases awareness of the youth workers and it challenges their perspectives, thus it creates a desire for change within the learner;
- It motivates learners to take an active role in their society and stimulates creating projects around problems in their community;
- Inspires young people to stand up for their values and beliefs and this motivates them to speak up, promote, campaign and advocate for improvements in society. This also mobilizes other people to join the cause;
- When learners organize activities in their communities, they send messages and statements in the media, traditional or internet, about the areas they feel close to and need to be improved. By acting in the media they suggest ideas for policy change;
- Connect young people with other like-minded people or youth organizations that participate in decision-making processes on a local, national, European level (ex. Local youth councils, National Youth Council, European Youth Forum, etc.);
- Developing a training program is non-formal education. Education is a powerful tool to steer a change in a local or international community;
The role of a trainer in inspiring civic engagement and positive change in society is crucial and it is important that one understands and develops the ways it can make it happen. Understanding and using these tools in this competence area are important for increasing your civic engagement.
Why did I choose this tool?
I chose to write this tool because I believe it is important for a trainer to understand the different aspects of civic engagement, both political and non-political actions. It also gives a perspective of different approaches and views of civic engagement.
Organize one political action for a topic you care about (it can be on-line discussion, tagging an institution calling for change or a physical one) and also a non-political one (such as waste-clean up). Write about the experience in your diary.