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Civic Engagement

Exercising your civic muscle on local issues can expand your base, empower your members and result in some worthwhile change

Putting the community back in the work

   Since the Great Recession, communities have changed dramatically. Mass foreclosure of single family homes and apartments led to single family rentals, "rent to own" scams and to abandonment and demolition. Job loss in the Great Recession force many households away from once stable "neighborhoods" to better opportunities. Cleveland, for example, lost 45559 people between 2009 and 2016 according to the Center for Community Solutions. Over roughly the same period, Columbus added 92,137 people, seeking economic opportunity. The destabilization in both communities has been equally dramatic. Any wonder why individuals in these communities when people knew their neighbors and interacted locally?

    As if demographic and geographic change weren't disruptive enough, a new Pew survey reveals that both urban and rural dwellers don't interact much with their neighbors. "Turns out it’s not true that country folks are more neighborly." According to CityLab: "The Pew survey finds that while it’s true that rural residents are more likely than urban ones to know who their neighbors are, they aren’t really more likely to chat them up." The Pew study failed to offer a good theory about why "community" has changed. Emily Badger, in the New York Times, speculates on the roots of the rural-urban split. Some blame political self segregation. Others say it's the lack of community based institutions, so called "Third Places" where neighbors can meet.

    A new position paper from Right to the City (RTC) identifies investor ownership to be at the center of the problem of communities that don't promote shared responsibilities. In "Communities, over commodities" RTC speaks out against the post-Recession control of the housing market by investors. "Mainstream policy discussion on the question of housing affordability and stability is shaped by the idea that the market should provide housing and that any intervention should not interfere with the ability of owners and investors to profit from ownership of land and housing. Ideas like universal rent control or increasing and improving public housing do not get serious consideration."

    RTC offers five "Just Housing Principles" that could provide a scorecard for evaluating housing policies in the coming decades. The Principles are:

  • COMMUNITY CONTROL: Housing and land should controlled through
  • democratic structures and processes by residents. Investing in civic engagement will be necessary to assure that residents are the producers, not the products.
  • AFFORDABILITY: People should have enough money, after paying housing costs including utilities, to cover all other basic needs
  • INCLUSIVITY: Historically marginalized populations, including people of color, immigrants, those who were formerly incarcerated, and LGBTQ persons have a place in an inclusive community. Housing and community facilities are accessible by its location and design to people with disabilities.
  • PERMANENCE: People's homes (rent or own) are protected from market forces that could cause involuntary displacement? Just cause eviction, land trusts, and shared equity ownership are three strategies for permanence.
  • HEALTH & SUSTAINABILITY. Housing and communities foster healthy lifestyles and sustainable environments. They are designed to be resilient in the face of climate change, and promote clean energy and safe water systems?

    Next time some developer approaches your local government for financial or regulatory assistance for a new housing project, RHINOs need raise these kinds of concerns. Does a project reflect the needs of the community...not just the developer? This isn't easy at a time when elected officials are falling all over themselves to give away public dollars to private investors. In order to become  "players" in a public debate over housing futures, RHINOs need to build a voter base, articulate a vision, and engage residents (renters and homeowners) in public policy debates where they are the beneficiaries of change.

                                Thanks to LynnC for a providing a key idea in this story. Read more and follow the links at

Aren't you tired of giving up your benefits, your rights and your dignity?
Our communities are on the verge of being stripped of benefits and rights. Inequality is moving in the wrong direction. All of this is happening because low income people don't vote. Here's the good news. Voter participation is so low that even a small effort at a high rise, a community center, or a neighborhood meeting can make a huge difference. Canton provides an example of the problem. Voter turn out was less than 10%. Youngstown and Cincinnati primaries may illustrate the impact of electoral participation by your members.

In Youngstown, incumbent mayor John A. McNally lost to challenger Jamael Tito Brown. While race more than turnout seems to have been decisive, one must imagine that enthusiasm made a difference, because every party-endorsed candidate (all white) lost in the primary campaign.

In Cincinnati, low turnout hurt second place finisher, incumbent John Cranley "Cranley did not address why he thought turnout was an abysmal 11 percent, but he commended Simpson for rallying voters." and enthusiasm characterized the campaign of his opponent Yvette Simpson. "Simpson had about 30 to 40 consistent volunteers and they started making calls back in January."

​ If your organization is sitting on the electoral sidelines, you are missing a great opportunity. Fannie M. Lewis taught many of us "There's only two things that make a difference: people and money...and we don't have money." Wanna make a difference? Mobilize your people.

Posted May 7, 2017
What's News in Civic Engagement

June 9, 2018 Cincinnati Enquirer Civil unrest woven into city's history
     In an era where ordinary citizens are conflicted about social change, the Cincinnati Enquirer offers some insight into past efforts to make a change from street level. 
     "Riots were a way of life in the 1800s. Not just in Cincinnati, but in many urban centers. More than 1,200 riots occurred in the United States during the four decades leading up to the Civil War, according to American Mobbing: 1828-61 by David Grimsted (Oxford University Press; $65). 'Riots were a normal way of getting people's voices heard, because a lot of people couldn't vote — blacks, women and some immigrants,' says historian Dan Hurley, a consultant for the exhibit, co-sponsored by the Museum Center and Cincinnati Arts Consortium."
     A lesson for today's activists: undermining voting rights and discouraging civic engagement has real life consequences. It is an anarchist axiom that "if voting could change anything, it would be illegal." Making civic participation harder makes direct action more likely. You can take that truth to the voting booth!

Social movements arise when masses of people begin to act together to demand change. Think of the social movements of the 60's and 70's: civil rights, women's rights and the environment. A "normal" course of events is that mass actions shift to organizational advocacy and then institutional change. The recent upsurge in political participation by ordinary people seems to confirm that a new wave of mass action is upon us since around 2008. Early signs of this new social movement were the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street. The problem with uprisings is that they don't make change unless they find an organizational "home."

Advocacy networks can be the backbone that connects mass social movements to organizations. Networks can help connect activists to staff who can sustain the energy of the movement.

Here's some real life examples of network operations that illustrate these differences.

Networks bring personal needs and interests around a common interest or theme. Issues that the network addresses depend on personal/shared interests.

Power in a network is based on participation, expertise, and contributions. Networkers who contribute the most and best content have the most influence. In a thriving network, no one's participation is "out of order."

Communications in a network are ideally interactive. Networkers call this sharing. Anyone in a network can share with anyone or everyone else in the network. Often networks use a "community manager" to moderate communication.

Decision making: Consensus decision making is characteristic of networks because attracting networkers to join involves balancing personal and network interests and goals.

Advantages of advocacy networks:
People who are mobilized in a mass movement can be brought into on-going involvement through a network. Participants in the recent Women's March on DC were connected into local networks while still on the buses back from the march.

Networks provide scale. Networking is an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people. No space, staff, or supply costs to cover for normal operations.

Networks promote diversity. Traditional grassroots organizations are based on "face to face" relationships: church, school, neighborhood or housing development. Networks can span a city, county or state.

Drawbacks of networks
Advocacy Networks can be all work and no play. Most networks are problem or issue focused. Social supports are limited to periodic meetings, sometimes called "meet ups." Planning events can help.

Without broad participation, networks can become echo chambers or ego exercises.

Organizations that are accustomed to member-based behind closed doors advocacy will need to loosen up to accommodate the new activists.

For RHINOs, a good place to start with networking is to link people that you know from other community groups and program participants together in an interactive listserv or open Facebook page. Be patient. Many of your networkers will be unfamiliar with sharing on line. Encourage networkers to ask questions, share resources and collaborate on projects. The more value they get, the more incentive to participate.

Subpages (1): Fair representation