Friday, June 15, 2007

Issues: Catalyst for or Results of Citizen-Centered Work?

Some research has shown that people, especially young people, are more inclined to be civically engaged when they become interested in a specific issue or cause. I know that was certainly true in my case.

This has raised questions about whether citizen-centered processes, which are deliberately cast as more open-ended or as public meetings that do not have a narrow or pre-determined issue focus, will be effective in inciting more civic engagement. As one colleague who’s a staunch believer in the power of issues as catalysts for longer-term engagement put it: “Who wants to come to a public discussion in which you have no idea what’s going to be discussed?”...

Well, maybe some of us would. In fact, I know many people who are tired of complex issues or problems being labeled in ways that immediately shuts off discussion or exploration. Think of abortion. Most Americans are decidedly moderate on this issue; yet, most public forums about it tend to be defined as either “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” Where do those who lie somewhere in between go to talk about the issue in ways that respect what they have to say?

Not to mention that there are always a swath of people who are just genetically wired to be interested in issues or causes. And there’s always a group of folks who want to volunteer. But are there spaces for the rest of the community who may not be interested in specific issues but who may want to weigh in on the larger health or well-being of their neighborhoods?

So, there are interesting questions about the role of specific issues in citizen-centered processes. Do issue-specific efforts among a smaller set of players who are interested in them lead to the likelihood that the larger communities in which these issues play out are more connected and interested in working together—across ideological differences—for the larger common good? What happens after the issues is resolved, won or lost?

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