One useful way to look at different methods of civic engagement is the division between “thick” and “thin” efforts. In the wordsof Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Public Agenda, thick engagement “[enables] large numbers of people, working in small groups, to learn, decide, and act together,” while thin engagement involves people “as individuals rather than in groups.”
I don’t think it’s as simple as thick always being better than thin. Civic engagement is not a slice of cake. In fact, some of the best projects combine both styles of engagement, as I’ll illustrate below.
Thick vs. Thin
Thick engagements generally incorporate face-to-face meetings where participants share experiences, a number of policy options are presented and discussed, and concrete actions are subsequently planned.
In Fayetteville, North Carolina there has been discussion on whether or not to expand the city council and mayoral terms from two years to four. Sitting city officials have brought up the matter at public forums. They cite the difficulty of accomplishing the city’s goals in two years, particularly for new councilmen who have a learning curve when taking office. The Cumberland County Commissioners have four-year terms and they believe that it is appropriate to mirror their structure.
Some in Fayetteville believe that extending the two-year city council terms to four years makes sense. Councilman Larry Wright of District 7, has publicly voiced his concern that a two-year term is not enough to learn the ropes of city council and then launch and fund a re-election campaign.
Councilman Mitch Colvin of District 3 stated that taxpayers make an investment to train incoming council members because they have to travel out of town for training and state conferences. So it would not make sense financially to train a new councilman every two years.
T.J. Smith is a senior majoring in Politics and International Affairs and minoring in Biology and Spanish at Wake Forest University. He is from Greensboro, NC and is highly engaged on campus and in the Winston-Salem community. In this post, he responds to our invitation to provide a student voice in the discussion about the role higher education institutions can play in civic life.
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As a guest author, I would like to write from the student perspective in discussing civic engagement. I will be responding to Dr. Harriger’s post on the teaching mission of the university and the university’s role in community-engaged research. In particular, I hope to use my own experience as a Wake Forest University student to illustrate two things the university can provide students in order to advance civic engagement.
First, the university must offer service learning but within the proper framing. I agree with Dr. Harriger’s post that too often college students are engaged in community projects that do more harm than good so I would like to offer a solution.
When people find a purposeful passion for an issue, they are more likely to engage in matters related to that issue, both socially and politically.
As communities become more competent and public awareness is raised, there are moments when there becomes a need to create programs that challenge public policies perceived to marginalize the disadvantaged.
I recently read a book by Leonard Jason, Principles of Social Change, where he provides five principles for social change that transform passion into action which include:
In the summer of 2014, San Diego-based Stone Brewing Company sought to find a site to open an east coast production and distribution facility. Stone targeted a few cities in Virginia, Richmond being one, as possible locations.
The City of Richmond Economic Development Office, city officials, local politicians and many others worked to lure Stone Brewing to one of the two Richmond locations in which the company had shown an interest.
But it was neighborhood residents who caught the attention of Stone’s team, and who ultimately impacted the company’s decision.
On the heels of the June 2015 Charleston racially motivated massacre, that left 9 dead and one injured, there has been much discussion about the use of historical symbols by government entities. The overarching idea is that the government should not appear to be biased and should represent the interest of the entire community and not certain segments. The Market House in downtown Fayetteville is one of those symbols up for debate.
The Market House is rich in history and southern heritage. According to Barksdale (2015), the original building that sat where the Market House sits now, once served as the State House in which the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. When that building burned in the Great Fire of 1831, the Market House was erected in its place in 1832 . The site also hosted a Civil War battle in which Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton killed 11 Union soldiers and captured a dozen more.
The unique architecture employs a town hall-market scheme found in England and is the only National Landmark in Cumberland County (National Park Service, 2008). The second floor of the structure was used as the town hall and a general meeting place. On the first floor vendors came to sell meat, produce, and the occasional human.
Yes, I said human. Slaves were auctioned primarily under estate liquidation or to pay a debt. The actual number of slaves sold is ambiguous, but it happened, on the steps surrounding the structure.
Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Willie Ratchford, executive director of Community Relations for the City of Charlotte. Willie just celebrated 40 years working with the city, and I wanted to get his perspective on how community relations and engagement have changed throughout the years. I was also curious to get his take on the current role of local government considering the drastically different community landscape.
When Willie started with the city, the year was 1975. During that year Microsoft was founded, “Saturday Night Live” premiered, the Thrilla in Manila took place and the blockbuster hit “Jaws” was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. We may have social media and 3D video games today, but one of the most popular (and odd) gifts for kids during the holiday season in that year was the Pet Rock. So yes, times have changed. Significantly.
Willie has seen a lot throughout his life and career – from the desegregation of schools to his involvement in the administration of Charlotte’s fair housing law in 1988. In 1994, Willie became the executive director of Community Relations. He felt that this role was a defining moment in his career because he had the opportunity to impact race relations in Charlotte. He firmly believes that it is the responsibility of local government to promote community harmony.Continue Reading
My colleague Melody Warnick wrote an excellent post recently about the unique role of local elections in communities. I was so pleased to read it, recognizing myself in the lady she writes about who comes huffing and puffing up her driveway to ask her to vote for her husband for sheriff.
My husband is running for a Town Board seat in the small town where we live. It’s a non-election year, so we’re expecting about 200 people to actually vote – a little under 10% of the town’s population. We’ve made a few yard signs, put out some postcard flyers, and set up an email account…but in small town elections, it’s the other, less professional engagement activities that make local elections so different and so fun.
That’s why I believe it’s important for more people – especially younger people – to rethink local government and how they can contribute.Continue Reading
Who do these people think they are?! Why would citizens want to change something that works perfectly well, and has for years! Why waste time and money on something silly like a festival, or art project that will only last a day, week or month? We have bigger issues than worrying about one neighborhood’s wants. We know what’s best for our citizens and they will see it our way, or learn to deal with it.
The following post is a short conversation between Rick and Cate, who both like to think about how broken patterns of engagement might be fixed or improved. In this case, Cate asks us to think about what gentrification might be like with authentic, collaborative engagement of long-time residents with the gentrifiers. Thinking of old and new in terms of “we” rather than “us-them.”