How did you first get involved? Was it an issue threatening your neighborhood, your child’s school, or your health?
Did you stay involved past the time your personal issue was resolved? At the Civic Fed we continue to work on the issue of sustaining civic engagement. We know lots of people in this community are motivated to “get involved” when the issue affects them personally. The greater question – and difficulty for civic activist – is, did you stay involved? Did you extend your interest to your fellow residents?
We are beating the bushes for new members, and working on retaining and supporting existing civic activists in the county as we always do. The Executive Committee discusses this conundrum at almost every one of our monthly meetings. What does it take? We know it’s tough and we know it is draining to stay involved. Citizenship is like that sometimes. Sustainment is an issue that civic activists talk about endlessly. Once your issue is resolved, how do you stay involved? What motivates you? Even if something is not occurring in your neighborhood, do you volunteer to help your fellow county residents?
Hahrie Han, an associate professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, is the author of How Organizations Develop Activists : Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2014). In interviews about her book at orgtheory.net, she distinguishes between ‘transactional mobilizing’ and ‘transformational organizing.” The former is something we have all experienced. An organization is in an urgent mode to get you to send that email; call that councilmember; write that letter. Now. And the organization makes it easy. Just click this button. Just cut-and-paste this email text. Just press ‘send.’ That is mobilizing.
Organizing is rallying the membership and having them write the letter themselves, or getting people together to write their own letters. ‘Organizers’ work with people so they can write the letters; so they know who their councilmember or Board of Education member is; so they know how to effect change. That is transformational. According to Han, successful organizations need both.
In the studies that form the basis of her book, she found that,
“…the core factor distinguishing the high-engagement organizations was the way they engaged people in activities that transformed their sense of individual and collective agency. Just like any other organization, these organizations wanted to get more people to do more stuff, but they did it in a way that cultivated their motivations, developed their skills, and built their capacity for further activism. Doing so meant that high-engagement organizations used distinct strategies for recruiting, engaging, and supporting volunteers.”
Han concluded too that “…transformation is possible.” We have seen that in the Civic Federation as we tackle new issues and widen our base. We are contacted most often when a neighborhood is suddenly blind-sided by a County Council, Planning Board, or Board of Education announcement or decision that will affect their school, or their neighborhood. Most people at first strive to get their grounding. How could this happen? What just happened? How come no one in the neighborhood knew this was happening? Each step is a learning process. What if we can’t get the documents? The DOT/Planning Board/Department of <NAME> told us these documents don’t exist. The <NAME> told us these documents aren’t available. The <NAME> told us there are no meeting minutes. And so on. The Civic Fed members have seen it all. And while we provide advice and some direction, as Han points out, transformation and sustainment occur when neighbors learn and then teach others.
If you have never written a request for documents under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), or never had a meeting with your council representative, fellow Civic Fed members are happy to assist. We hope that assistance is transformational. And as our community saw in fighting the ITA, the Civic Fed can also be successful at ‘transactional mobilizing’ thanks to our members across the county, who alerted one another and then acted decisively and quickly.
Han’s book and thesis provide guideposts and organizing principles for those of us who are civic activists and work on the issue of sustainment. So please join the Civic Federation. Many hands make light work.
The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect formal positions adopted by the Federation. To submit an 800-1,000 word column for consideration, please send an email attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.