A Look into Civic Engagement For All - Perspectives from the MAD Winter'13

The following are the Perspective articles from the Winter 2013 Making a Difference magazine.

What It Takes to Be a Citizen in a Community
By John McKnight

The center of community is civic life – our relationships and activities in civil society. Civil society is not the world of government or business. It is the other space where people connect around their own purposes and goals and money is not the driving force. It is the space occupied by family, friends, neighbors, clubs, organizations and associations – often called the voluntary sector.

When we talk about the value of being included in community life, it means participating in civil society that we are talking about. Civil society is not only the center of community life, it is also the location of our freedom in a democracy. We know this because in past dictatorships like Nazi Germany or the communist Soviet Union, the dictator's first target to attack was civil society. They eliminated all forms of free associations, and the only groups allowed to function were those controlled by the dictator. And most importantly, no one was free to speak.

Our nation's founders clearly understood that at its core, our democracy depended on citizens being able to associate and speak freely in their communities. This is the reason why the first article in the US Constitution is our Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of association and freedom of speech. Both of these rights are the vital center of our democracy and our communities.

Moreover, the founders were primarily concerned with protecting the power of citizens to engage in political speech and political associations in their local community because they believed local people holding power was the foundation of democracy.

This leads us to the electoral process and voting. The political purpose of free association and free speech is to provide citizens the opportunity to advocate, debate and discuss issues of personal and common concern. And from this debate, we trust that an informed electorate emerges and expresses their decisions by voting.

In a democracy, the community is the center of civic life. This "life" depends on using our right to free association and speech. These rights give us the power to act as citizens to influence, debate and perfect our community. And from this power, grows connection, communication, deliberation and decision-making, which comes in many forms including voting.

So what does it take to be a citizen in a community? First, a person needs to be involved in local associations, and even be at the forefront of forming new ones.

Second, a person needs to have opportunities and platforms that ensure their voices are freely expressed and heard.

Third, a person needs to be part of the forums, where issues of both self-interest and common concern are discussed and debated.

Fourth, a person needs the opportunity to participate in the electoral process and of course, to vote. However, it is important to understand that in an effective democracy, voting is the end of a process preceded by participation in an associational activity, which allows us as citizens to contribute our voice, join forums and energize the civic engagement process.

When you take advantage of and engage in these four practices, that is what citizenship means.

About John McKnight

John McKnight is co-founder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University and has worked on research on community organizations and neighborhood policy for nearly three decades. Additionally, McKnight has conducted his own research on social service delivery systems, health policy, the inclusion of marginalized people and institutional racism.

Civic Responsibility Begins with Individual Responsibility
By Ross Mason

As a citizen of the United States and the State of Georgia, our civic responsibility begins with protecting and fulfilling our individual responsibilities. This means being responsible for your own needs, the needs of your family and the communities that surround you – from your church to your local public schools and the county and state you vote in – to the best of your abilities. This basic philosophy strengthens you as an individual and stands as an example for your family, friends and community.

This thinking is in stark contrast to those who find it easier to depend on government. As dependence on the government grows in popularity, more people are accepting a "government handout" lifestyle being supported by fewer and fewer workers. Everything is handed to them, from free college educations to cell phones, and little is expected.

The federal government is taking advantage of this new dependency by interjecting itself into the daily lives of more Americans – making them reliant on government through costly give-a-way programs that cannot be adequately funded, sustained or properly managed.

Individual responsibility is being replaced by irresponsible demand and consumption of government services. As Benjamin Franklin once observed, "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."

No conservative wants to deny any person in real need the care they might require. Conservatives support vital government programs that help people facing adverse conditions if the program can be sustained and paid for now and in the future, and is focused on solving the problem by creating a long-term solution.

Conservatives advocate for programs that help people become a participating member of society, getting them on their feet if they are down, giving them job skills if they are unemployable and providing resources that open new opportunities.

If government has a solution for every problem we face, all that will emerge is poorly motivated citizens and more reliance on government solutions. We see this particularly in healthcare and social services, heading towards rationing as the central government tries to manage the growing demand for services and limit already strained government resources.

Conservatives value the potential of every individual and seek a society that protects the rights and opportunities of individual citizens. We firmly believe that it is the federal government's role to protect these rights. However, if we want real communities, real jobs and real education, then as individuals, we have to be willing to work to achieve these objectives.

In Georgia's disability community, there is a constant cry for self-determination, real jobs and access to educational opportunities to improve the individual and collective potential of people with disabilities. This is a core value to conservatives and it should be a shared value of the disability community – we believe individual responsibility is the backbone of America today and America's tomorrow.

About Ross Mason

Ross Mason is the founder of the Healthcare Institution for Neuro-Recovery and Innovation (HIRI) and a venture philanthropist focused on making Georgia a national and global leader in health innovation. Mason also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the former chairman of the Georgia Department of Community Health Board among many other accomplishments.