The key to civic engagement: to thine own self be true

If you need a reason to get involved in your community, there are dozens. 

Studies show that people who are civically engaged tend to be healthier and happier and feel a greater sense of purpose and connection to their community.

Communities where people are engaged tend to be more resilient, prosperous, and safe – not to mention democratic. 

So why do so few people get involved?

There is good news:  a recent article in Miller-McCune notes that some local governments have recently seen strong results from programs designed to foster civic engagement. Even so, levels of participation in civic organizations and community groups … let alone just doing good for one’s neighbors … appears to be at an all time low.  Can this trend be turned around?

That’s a particularly important question for Diane Schachter, a longtime community activist, therapist, and faculty member at LIOS Graduate College. 

“I see this a lot with couples that come in for counseling:  they’re midstream working and raising children, and somewhere along the line they just forgot about who they are and what else they valued doing,” Schachter says.  “I also see it in my students, and I see it in myself.  I have two children, and I haven’t been involved in a serious civic issue recently.  Because of the demands of our life, because we work so much, people who have careers and are raising children don’t have a lot of time left over.”

Where government can help, Schachter suggests, is by making some of the harsh realities of modern life less harsh.  “Some of this disconnect really is driven by how much it costs to raise a household today,” she says.  “These are hard facts:  what it takes to keep a household running forces people to work in ways that they would not choose to.”

But simply giving people more space, she says, isn’t the same as getting them involved.

“Even with spare time, we’re still living at a fast pace surrounded by high technology:  we have access to all this information about sadness and disasters in the world, and yet I think we feel less.  It somehow has less of an impact,” Schachter says. “So the question is:  how to feel?  How to care?  How to let myself care about another human being’s predicament.  And then not just to care but to care effectively – we’re no good to one another if we cave in.  We have to find a way to respond to others effectively.”

That’s something that comes down to a deeply personal choice, one where therapy can be helpful.
“The best way to get people involved, at that point, is to get them asking questions about what their values are and who they want to be,” she says.  “Sometimes even harder questions like ‘how am I lying to myself,’ and ‘how do these lies limit what I think I’m capable of?’”

When people have become clearer about who they want to be and what their values are, they’ll be more ready to reach out when they see a need.  Maybe that outreach won’t be a big, media friendly event like going off to protest.  But Schachter says that’s fine:  she’s thrilled when her patients – and her students – react in in basic ways, like helping a neighbor or going to a city council meeting. 

“You start with that, not with the big issues, but with the small personal issues:  reach out personally,” she says.  “It’s not very exciting, it’s not a grand strategy, it’s not a grand vision, but it’s the basic building block.  Choose to show up.  That’s how it starts.  Be more of the person you want to be, that’s how it begins.  That’s the beginning of engagement, it has to be personal.”

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