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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

A New Year's Resolution--Exercise your civic muscles

Part of the sense of helplessness that many feel this New Year's Day arises because too many of us have become dependent on national politics to deliver tangible benefits. In the RHINO Priorities Survey last month, half of the members who responded said that they lobbied elected officials. But only one quarter confessed to tenant and community organizing. And less than 20% admitted to conducting voter registration/education/mobilization, creating advocacy media, or engaging in direct action. One conclusion could be that RHINOs are responding to calls to action from advocacy organizations like COHHIO and National Low Income Housing Coalition, but not actively promoting "democracy" in their daily practice.

2017 Civic Engagement Question



contact elected officials



research and reporting



provide comments on regulations



tenant & community organizing



voter registration, education, mobilization



create advocacy media (Op/ED, other)



direct action: demonstrations/protests/press conferences/other "earned" media

This next four years, the pathways to Federal and State support are going to be longer and more narrow. Rebuilding your organization's civic muscle may be required. Civic muscle has two meanings. 
  • Increasing the capacity of your members, neighbors, and program participants to become "BIG I's" and not just "little yous."
  • Your organization's sponsorship of their voices gives you credibility where decisions are made.
Hollie Russon-Gilman offers some advice in her two articles: "Rebuilding our Civic Muscles" and "Tech and Innovation to Re-engage Civic Life." She suggests:
  • Volunteer and Talk With Another Human Being I.R.L. [In Real Life]. Reports are great, but relationships make change. Talking with folks, not at them, makes all the difference.
  • Organize and Mobilize for Policy Change (Not Just Every Four Years). Local issues are often closest to the hearts of people  with whom you work and live
  • Focus on Governance. Bringing more voices to the table can democratize the process of governing. Pry open up the sausage factory so that legislators are afraid to make back room deals. One example is the recent passage of the "un fair housing amendments" in the Ohio General Assembly.
Microdemocracy was originally a strategy for activists in 3rd world dictatorships that are in transition towards democracy. According to The Right Question website, microdemocracy is the idea that "...ordinary encounters with public agencies are opportunities for individual citizens to 'act democratically' and participate effectively in decisions that affect them."  Old timers may remember this concept from the 1960/s when it was used by groups like Mobilization for Youth and the Welfare Rights Organization.  In a recent article in Ars Technica, novelist Malka Older makes the case for microdemocracy in the US of the future. Ms. Older says: "...the solution to low voter turnout and political apathy is to get people to make their voices heard where public policy meets their direct interest and work their way up from there." David Wiegel writing in yesterday's Washington Post makes the same observation about today's Democrats: "Their debate about winning a new majority is not about a savior from red America, or even a change in policy. It is about better organizing...." 

Tenant and community based organizing are ideal ways to build civic muscles. The four principles of tenant organizing are: meet regularly, operate democratically, be inclusive of all the tenants at the property, and be completely independent of management. The same principles can apply to any citizen organization from a street club, to a consumer advisory group, to an issue oriented campaign. Ordinary folks get experience with participatory civics. 

    Housing organizers and advocates can help members or program participants overcome barriers to civic action by:

  • Breaking through the false news and fear mongering of mass media, overcoming the psychology of "learned helplessness."

  • Educating the expectations of ordinary folks who have been trained by TV to expect that every problem can be solved in a half hour (minus commercials).

  • Challenging the notion that other victims are to blame for structural inequality

  • Overcoming the feeling of being "an outsider" which causes many to give up on civic action.

The labor-oriented journal "In These Times" reminds us that there are structural barriers to working local issues. The article "Rigged: How Our Legal System Prevents Communities from Governing Themselves" uses Ohio's war on home rule to illustrate the challenges of local civic action. Challenging pre-emption is another way to "focus on governance."

Here's a postscript to the wannabe advocates who say, "But my organization doesn't do advocacy," Start a new organization. Keep it simple, voluntary, networked, and unincorporated. Meet regularly, operate democratically, be inclusive of the community and independent of "management."  posted January 1, 2017


Converting social action into social change.

    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.