Civic Voice and Civic Duty

Earlier this month, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) released research showing that Americans’ volunteering rate remains strong. Over a quarter of U.S. adults volunteered through an organization last year, while nearly two thirds volunteered informally.

This is welcome news, but also disconcerting: recent trends point to steady volunteering rates but drops in other civic activities. A December 2014 report found that “16 of the 20 civic health indicators dropped,” with volunteering as one of the few positive outliers. Collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, civic health indicators cover topics including voting, volunteering, political expression and group membership.

Personally, I am quite concerned about indicators related to civic voice. A 2010 NCOC report found that, among Americans who are not engaged with a community group, less than 15% express their political voice in one or more ways. This number rises significantly for those who are involved in a group (about 40%) and especially for those with a leadership role within a community group (nearly 70%).

But the disparity indicated by these gaps is alarming. Under 10% of the population falls into the category of “leaders,” raising important questions about the socioeconomic and gender disparities represented in that gap.

For example, a 2012 study by my former colleagues at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looked specifically at the civic lives of young people with no college experience – some of the most underrepresented people in our society.

When one focus group was asked whether they had a voice in their school, they all simply laughed. One young man in Little Rock argued that student voice in school was a myth: “Even when you are class president and school president you still don’t have a say, so … it’s only a show.”

Another student is quoted as saying, “even if you do voice your opinion it won’t do any good—the suits are the ones who are gonna make all the decisions.”

That is deeply problematic for civil society.

Too many people feel as though their voice does not matter, as though their perspectives don’t add to the world.

This is a fallacy. A myth perpetuated by false social standards laying claim to what types of people have value and what types of views have value.

All people have value; all voices matter.

Unfortunately, too many people have been taught that their voices don’t have value – that they would only add to the noise if they ever dared to speak up. Once this message is internalized, the civic silence is hard to break.

But that’s why it’s important to remember – speaking out is not a luxury, its not an activity you do to show off how important you are. It is a civic duty. Sharing your own voice and perspective – particularly for those whose voice and perspective is often overlooked – is critical to transforming the state of civic dialogue. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard.

There’s this great and terrible irony in the world – it’s the people who worry about being rude or incompetent or otherwise being a terrible person who are the least likely to be rude, incompetent or an otherwise terrible person.

The same can be said about civic voice – if you never speak up because you are so convinced that your own voice can’t possibly add value, then you are depriving the rest of us of your wisdom. I know it is awkward, and I know it feels self-aggrandizing, but forget about all that: we need your words and your perspective. It’s a civic duty to share your voice. Really. We can’t tackle the hard problems without you.


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