Volunteerism received a big push on October 16 in Texas when President Barack Obama and former President George H.W. Bush shared a stage at A&M University. The event leashed new energy into community service, and called for a redoubling of efforts in tough economic times. Community service "is integral to achieving our national priorities," Obama said in a 22-minute speech and that “it is how we will meet the challenges of our time."
Literature is replete with examples of robust states and active civil society leading to healthy levels of civic engagement. Digging heels into the grounds, what is it that needs done? To effectively invest in and empower civil society, it is key to obtain a thorough and independent assessment of the extent, structure and capacity of national or local civil society actors. Why, you may ask. The participation of new actors — civil society, private sector, communities, local action networks, and social entrepreneurs — is fundamental to solving today’s development challenges.
A participatory engagement warrants a process by which community groups are assisted in identifying problems, goals, mobilize resources and develop strategies collectively. Some civil society organizations face capacity challenges, for instance in areas such as internal management, self-regulation, networking with other organizations and platforms, and advocacy. However this process of identifying problems has to come from within. Empowering organizations to recognize areas that need attention is crucial.
Many of the world's most effective social, environmental, peace and political movements have started on college campuses. I realize that too and as a member of the Brandeis community I have access to educational resources, information and, most importantly, the passion of a few but like-minded peers, creating a tremendous combination for taking action in the Waltham community. Having been part of the process of finding out “what does our community want” and in reconnecting with Waltham the realization is there is so much to be done. And we are treading a path that has been worn bare of any grass.
There is strong support among students and faculty members for the idea that colleges have a role to play in encouraging civic engagement and promoting good citizenship. But there are real doubts about whether colleges are actually carrying out that role. In a study conducted, it appears that the longer a student is on campus, the less likely he or she is to think that such issues are a key part of the campus culture.
Another problem the study suggests is that everyone on campus seems to think that they are more visible in promoting civic engagement to students than the students actually perceive that group to be.
What is the solution here? How about turning this whole exercise around and presenting the baton in the hands of the community? One of the ways in which this can be done is supporting communities to respond effectively to collective problems. This strengthens the capacity of communities. A subsequent step would be to develop a well defined set of guidelines that lead the way for formal and informal relationships, to collaboration, or partnerships where previously separated groups are brought together with full commitment to a common mission. And last but not least, a timeline that suggests that programmatically, the assistance is not forever and that the idea is to develop sustainable independent communities. In saying so, I am not presenting a formula for change. A variety of steps could precede that depending on what course the interrelationships take. However I would like to assert that “community” engagement or any social development work needs systematized and not relegated to intermittent educational ploys or fragmented interests. In saying so let’s put the “community” first before everything else.
Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.