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Citizen Toolkit

Why We Need More Active Citizens

Better health, personal and communal, are two vital reasons

By Charles Dobson 25 Nov 2003 |
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First of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action

At the beginning of the new millennium we face a range of large and difficult problems. What we need to address these problems are more active citizens--people motivated by an interest in public issues, and a desire to make a difference beyond their own private lives. Active citizens are a great untapped resource, and citizenship is a quality to be nurtured. Here's why:

A Way of Tackling Large Public Issues

Those who have studied health, social and environmental problems generally conclude that progress will only come with more active citizens. Many problems are too large, complex, and expensive to be addressed by government alone. Most require the consent of the majority of the electorate before government feels it can act. On difficult issues this often means people have to become involved to the point where they can make choices based on an understanding of the different consequences of different courses of action...

A Way of Solving Local Problems

When people become involved in their own neighborhoods they can become a potent force for dealing with local problems. With coordinated planning, research and action, they can accomplish what individuals working alone could not. When they begin to work with other individuals, schools, associations, businesses, and government service providers, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

A Way of Improving Livability

Citizens can make cities work better because they understand their own neighborhoods better than anyone else. Giving them some responsibility for looking after their part of town is a good way to address local preferences and priorities. Understandably, boosting citizen participation improves livability. It is no coincidence that Portland, Oregon -- a city with a tradition of working in partnership with neighborhoods -- regularly receives the highest score for livability of any U.S. city.

A Way of Reducing Conflict

Cities are sources of potential conflict, between government and citizens, between one citizens group and another, and between citizens and business. Recent studies have shown that greater citizen participation in civic affairs can reduce all of these sources of conflict. In particular, it can prevent the firestorms associated with changes brought about by growth and renewal.

A Bridge to Strong Democracy

When citizens get together at the neighborhood level, they generate a number of remarkable side effects. One of these is strengthened democracy. In simple terms, democracy means the people decide. Contrary to popular belief building democracy in the West is an unfinished project. Political scientists describe our system of voting every few years but otherwise leaving everything up to government as weak democracy. In weak democracy, citizens have no role, no real part in decision-making between elections. Experts assume responsibility for deciding how to deal with important public issues.

The great movement of the last decades of the twentieth century has been a drive toward stronger democracy in corporations, institutions and governments. In many cities this has resulted in the formal recognition of neighborhood groups as a link between people and municipal government, and a venue for citizen participation in decision-making between elections.

A Little Recognized Route to Better Health

In the late 1980s, following Canada's lead, the World Health Organization broadened its definition of health to account for the fact that health is much more than the absence of disease. The new definition recognizes that only 25% of our health status comes from health care, the rest comes from the effects of an adequate education and income, a clean environment, secure housing and employment, control over different aspects of their life, and a social support network. Understandably, public health professionals have become some of the strongest advocates for more active citizens.

A Way of Rekindling Community

Active citizens can help to create a sense of community connected to place. We all live somewhere. As such we share a unique collection of problems and prospects in common with our neighbors. Participation in neighborhood affairs builds on a recognition of here-we-are-together, and a yearning to recapture something of the tight-knit communities of the past. Neighborhood groups can act as vehicles for making face-to-face connections between people, forums for resolving local differences, and a means of looking after one another. Most important, they can create a positive social environment that can become one of the best features of a place.

Active citizens are also the key communities of interest that can address issues that transcend place. Communities of interest connect people in different places, promoting a breadth of empathy and understanding that is difficult to achieve in any other way.

A Way of Balancing a Bias for Privacy

Market economies are heavily biased in favor of privacy. When people lead private lives they spend more time consuming market products and less time consuming social products. A marketplace economy prefers to have everyone living alone. When a couple splits up it means twice as many beds, stoves, washing machines, kitchens, microwaves, computers, TV, cars, couches and so forth. A culture that promotes privacy is good for business, but it's not good for people. Studies on happiness show that the most important factor in determining happiness is the number and depth of human relationships.

A Way of Increasing Social Capital

One important aspect of a civil society is the degree to which people rise above narrow self-interest (selfish behavior) and function for the greater good of the community. For civil society to exist its participants must develop trust in one another--so much so that it allows society to function without elaborate sets of rules and laws.

We do favors for one another with the expectation that in due course the "debt" will be repaid. These are not selfish expectations, but rather the behaviors that maintain civil institutions: churches, teams, clubs, and organizations that depend on donors and volunteers. These behaviors rely upon the norms of reciprocity. According to Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community, "… social capital refers to connections among individuals--social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arises from them."

But there are two types of reciprocity. The first is specific reciprocity: "I'll scratch your back; you scratch mine." Participants engage in an exchange which both perceive as equal at the time the transaction takes place. Specific reciprocity produces connections between people that exist largely for the moment.

The second and more valuable type is generalized reciprocity, which creates connections that last over time. According to Putnam, it is more a case of: "I'll scratch your back because sooner or later you, or someone within our social network, will likely scratch mine. . . A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. If we don't have to balance every exchange instantly, we can get a lot more accomplished. Trustworthiness lubricates social life."-

But what are the tangible benefits of higher social capital? Putnam's conservative assessment of research on the subject shows they are profound. Kids are better off; schools work better; government works better; violent crime is less; people are less pugnacious; economic equality is higher; civic equality is higher; and tolerance is higher.

Social capital derives roughly from the amount of political engagement, the density of social networks, the level of participation in religious and civic organizations, and the degree of social trust. Putnam shows that most of the measurable indicators of social trust in the US are declining. This includes:

Next week: The ABCs of organizing your community to win the day.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art & Design in Vancouver and is author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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