- Civic Studies:Bringing Theory to Practice
Civic engagement is integral to the creation and perpetuation of healthy communities and robust participatory democracy. While the preservation of our democratic society is strengthened through the engagement of community members as a whole, for some—those I call civic practitioners—the practice of civic engagement is the heart of their work.1 They act as our proxies in making democracy function as representatives in elected and sometimes appointed government positions, advocates in public life, intermediaries in negotiations and social capital formation, and organizers who mobilize others to influence public policy and practices. The regular activities of civic practitioners are at the foundation of civil society. Civic theory, such as that provided in the Institute of Civic Studies, can positively inform their work by articulating effective models of engagement and providing them opportunities to reflect on their goals and values.
As with all work, that of civic practitioners requires knowledge and training. Knowledge of the issues is essential: those who work on any public or community issue need familiarity with that issue as it is understood in theory and applied on the ground. In addition, practitioners can profit from training in effective civic practices. For example, legislators and those who seek to influence them need to know how a bill becomes law, government officials and those who work with their policies must learn how to navigate the administrative process, and organizers and negotiators can be trained in how to conduct meetings. This skill-based knowledge, often provided by veteran civic practitioners, includes strategies such as listening to constituents, finding ways to engage others, and using various forms of media. [End Page 162]
Theory can also powerfully inform the work of civic practitioners. In addition to familiarity with underlying issues and the necessary skills, an understanding of civic theory is critical to perpetuating and strengthening civil society in two ways. First, theory offers the practitioner an ethical context and goals. Second, it provides examples of powerful, effective civic strategies, along with an understanding of the environments in which these strategies have been employed, so that practitioners can make informed strategic choices. Leaders of revolutions and movements, community organizers, advocates for major causes, politicians, and peacemakers frequently articulate a compelling collective moral vision and a set of clearly articulated strategies that guide their work and help them effectively influence others. These are as critical to the practitioner as issue knowledge and practical civic skills.
In referring to a collective moral vision, I am not speaking of an ideology. While those who choose to make civic engagement an integral part of their work may have deeply held ideological beliefs and values, the moral vision of the most respected practitioners transcends their ideology. They subscribe to guiding principles of civil society that are integral to democracy—principles such as freedom of expression, cooperation and collaboration, nonviolence, and collective responsibility. The work of such civic leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was grounded in principles of civic engagement. Many of these leaders developed their moral vision and strategies through reflection on the teachings of others: Havel spoke of Martin Heidegger and Kafka; Gandhi relied on thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and the Jain leader Thinkar Mahavira; King himself on Gandhi, but also on the study of other religious leaders and philosophers whom he and his many compatriots in the civil rights movement encountered at seminary and in training grounds like the Highlander Institute. Civic practitioners of today, in turn, can access the writings of Gandhi, Havel, and King as a starting point for reflection in developing their own theories of engagement and in educating their fellow citizens on the meaning of democracy and how to be involved in it.
The remainder of this paper suggests how some of the theories discussed in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies could impact practitioners' approaches to their work in several areas and thereby strengthen civil society as a whole. The paper concludes with two real-world examples of the application of theory to civic practice. [End Page 163]
The National Organizers' Alliance defines a community organizer as "someone who builds a democratic...