Civic Engagement: What’s in a Word?

I had never heard the phrase “civic engagement” until my sophomore year of college, and even then it was completely by accident; sitting in my Power and Politics in America class, half listening to the professor half reading the latest POLITICO article, I notice that my professor had stepped away from the podium to make an announcement. Thinking that the announcement would be about the upcoming midterm – how a test can be a both midterm and at the end of September still baffles me – I minimize the article. Instead, some guy named Sameer was introduced and walked to the front of small auditorium where my class is held and started talking about an organization called Generation Citizen. It was a good pitch, strong body language, asked the right rhetorical questions, gave a nice personal example and by the end, of it I was absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, whole-heartedly, completely disinterested in joining. It looked like an internship focused on teaching and I have absolutely no desire to teach. But I was looking for something to get involved with so I decided to put my name on the signup sheet and do a little digging, and by digging, I of course mean Google.

I was surprised by what I found, because nothing that came up had anything to do with teaching, I don’t think I even saw the word teach. Instead, what I found was politics, a better word for it is civics, but to me it was politics. For too many people a dirty word, but for me it’s a passion. Growing up for me wasn’t Saturday morning cartoons, it was Sunday morning talk shows. This Week and Meet The Press were the staples of my political diet, even if I didn’t really know what was going on. What that passion has given me is the knowledge that government is a place where individuals and groups can catalyze profound positive change in our country. I know that this is not a commonly held belief, and for good reason – the current political landscape in the United States is filled with a fractionalization that has reduced the complexities governing a country into sound bites. This frustrates me to no end because the political culture of today is only possible because we have allowed it to get to this point of dysfunction. We are the ones to blame for the slow decay of our political system, for this simple reason; despite a congressional approval rating in the teens in less than a month, little more than 45% of eligible voters will go to the polls. This is a reality that I am not willing to accept, and Generation Citizen gave me the opportunity to help change that reality. GC gave me the chance to help to influence the political system, something that I thought I would have to wait until I was at least out of college to do.

That is the problem, isn’t it? We always think we have to wait, that our big dream will have to wait till tomorrow because we don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, the connections, the – whatever – we think we need to accomplish what we want. To have the impact we all believe that we can have on the world around us. For me, that is hearing that a bill was passed and saying, “Hey! I helped push that through,” or I worked on that campaign that helped passed it, or maybe even one day getting to vote on it myself. That is my “civic engagement”; GC gave me the opportunity to start down that path, and hopefully shows the thousands of students that will be taking GC classes this semester that they don’t have to wait to change the world around them.

– John Fitzsimmons, New York University Democracy Coach


Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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