Taking Steady Steps towards Civic Engagement

loading Brian MacHarg engaging with fellow participants during one of the workshop's interactive sessions.

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT or civic participation refers to actions taken by individuals or groups to address issues of public concern.

But how does one learn to be civically engaged? How does one inspire others to take responsibility for pressing problems in local communities? To discuss this issue, Penang Institute, together with the US embassy, hosted a workshop called “Learning the Habits of Service: Leading Others in Action” last March.

There are four steps towards solving a communal problem based on the universal civic engagement theory, says speaker Brian MacHarg, director of civic engagement at the Appalachian State University. The first step is to recognise that there is a problem. However, a major obstacle frequently faced in problem resolution is the failure of certain community segments to acknowledge the issue for what it is.

The first step is to recognise that there is a problem. However, a major obstacle frequently faced in problem resolution is the failure of certain community segments to acknowledge the issue for what it is.

MacHarg uses St. Petersburg, Florida to make his case. Identifying the main city street, Central Avenue, as a border, he describes the segregation of the white community residing on the north side and the African American community on the south side. South St. Petersburg is marred by a high crime rate coupled with a general lack of access to basic healthcare facilities, and even food.

“The south side of the city remains largely in poverty and the infant mortality rate is astonishingly high at 16%, while only one in five African Americans residing in south St. Petersburg manages to graduate from high school, indicating a rather low level of education,” he explains. The prison and sewage treatment facilities are also located in south St. Petersburg as designated by the more powerful residents to the north.

The reason the problems still persist is largely due to general ignorance, says MacHarg. “Whenever residents of north St. Petersburg wish to travel to other parts of Florida, they would simply drive up the elevated highway that cuts across south St. Petersburg. The wealthier residents are blind to the problems of the southern neighbourhood.”

As ever, education is important in enabling the active participation of local communities in civic action programmes. MacHarg cites the Allegory of the Cave by Plato. A group of prisoners had spent their entire lives shackled to stationary chairs, without the liberty of turning their heads even. The only thing they were allowed to do is to look at the shadows projected on the cave wall through the illumination of fire. As a result, these prisoners came to believe that what they saw were in fact realities.

MacHarg likens these prisoners to the general public. Advertisements, he says, are one of the best embodiments of the so-called “shadows on the wall”. This is where education comes in. Often, and without us realising, these “shadows on the wall” are inculcated beliefs and perceived realities that influences the way one carries oneself in society. The second step thus encourages the use of critical thinking and breaking free from traditional thought processes. But sudden exposure to stark realities is an uncomfortable affair; and most will be tempted to remain cocooned in familiarity.

The next step requires the community to express willingness to solve the problem identified for the common good of all. “Problems will naturally remain unfixed if we lapse into the mentality of waiting for others to take charge. Think of the solutions we can come up with if the community bands together,” says MacHarg.

MacHarg explains the theory of civic engagement during the workshop.

“Civic engagement is basically identifying problems, big or small, in our society but most importantly, we should see it as our responsibility to solve these issues, rather than assume they are the local authority’s obligation.”

According to MacHarg, there are three forms of civic engagement, namely social relief, social reform and social reconciliation. “Social relief is where we look at the effects or symptoms of a particular underlying issue and try to relieve it, while reform is where we ask ourselves the reasons why these issues exist in the first place and subsequently, address them to permanently stem the source of the problem,” he explains. “Reconciliation is when civic engagement practices amalgamate with our lifestyle, it happens when we take a proactive stance to be part of that solution to the communal problem.”

In Penang we see examples of civic engagement most prominently in students from varying educational levels. Community “gotong-royong” activities, ranging from beach cleaning to spring-cleaning nursing homes and orphanages, are a commendable approach. This offers students the chance to experience first-hand the social benefits and positive changes which can be accrued, and forms an important first step towards shaping a society that is civically engaged. The momentum of such initiatives must then be maintained and gradually increased upon.

Furthermore, not only is civic engagement a means towards shaping an independent-minded civil society; in many instances, it has helped former crime offenders to reintegrate back into society. In the US, Canada and several Scandinavian countries, civic engagement is used as an approach for former inmates to readapt and reintegrate themselves back into civil society. They are assigned social works, e.g. maintaining neighbourhood cleanliness. From these precedents, it is not hard to imagine why the development of civic engagement should be the primary focus of our local communities.

Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.

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