What Makes a Good Citizen?
What do we mean when we talk about "civic engagement?" Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "civic" as anything related to "a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs."
Building off that, civic engagement happens anytime an individual or a group of people addresses an issue that matters to the public. Whether it's advocating for change or preserving the status quo, civic engagement is simply making your voice heard on an issue that affects your community.
How do you approach civic engagement, though? We've launched this project on FindLaw.com to help you explore the various ways that you can civically engage. But we also want to help you understand the baseline skills that are helpful to have if you want to get more active in your community.
An Understanding of 'Civics'
Here, we don't just mean the definition above. Instead, we're referring to the subject of the class that the vast majority of American high schoolers take in the ninth grade. For most, this class focuses on the nuts and bolts of American democracy:
- The structure of the federal government
- The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights
- How a bill becomes a law
- The administration of federal elections and how to run for office
According to the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, administered by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 51% of American adults in 2020 were able to name all three branches of government.
Additionally, likely due to a tumultuous year of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests, and the presidential election, 81% could name at least one the five freedoms (speech, religion, press, assembly, petition the government) enshrined in the First Amendment.
While the 2020 survey showed great improvement in civic knowledge, it's clear that we still have a long way to go. If you want to get involved beyond the voting booth, these are important facts to know, along with how your local and state governments work.
'Soft' Citizenship Skills
Beyond learning about how your government works, it is also important to think about the skills that it takes to be a "good citizen." (When we use "citizen" here, we do not mean only U.S. citizens. You can be an immigrant without your citizenship and still be civically engaged in many ways!)
While civics education helps people learn how government works, it often falls short in teaching people how to engage constructively. According to a study by the American Federation of Teachers, no states require any experiential or problem-solving lessons as part of civics education. Only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service as part of civics education.
Through civic engagement, you will likely notice a need to develop the following "soft" skills to become a more effective advocate:
- Respect for differences of culture, beliefs, and opinion
- Negotiation, persuasion, and compromise
- Persistence and patience
- Media literacy
Respect for Differences
One of the United States' biggest strengths is the diversity of our large population. This does not just mean people of different races, sexual orientations, gender identities, countries of origin, abilities, and religions. It also means that on any issue, people across the country hold a wide variety of opinions.
While the media may classify most divisions as a left-right issue, there is broad disagreement within groups, like the Democratic Party, for example, on how to best solve problems.
Respecting those differences of opinion doesn't mean being untrue to yourself or your beliefs. It just means that when you engage on an issue, such as passing a new city ordinance, to remember that not everyone will agree with you on the best solution or whether this is even a problem. Other people have just as much of a right to be civically engaged as you do.
The Art of Negotiating, Persuading, and Compromising
That leads us to the next point, which is that to get your desired result, you have to be ready and able to win people over to your viewpoint. At the same time, there will be times in civic life where you may not be able to get a 100% win, but a 90% win may be possible. Only you can know when is the right time to compromise and when is the right time to stand your ground, but it's important to realize that there will be times when being adaptable is essential.
Patience and Persistence
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke throughout the 60s about how "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He had to remind activists of this because he knew that change didn't happen overnight. We see that again today as the racial justice protests of 2020 bring renewed determination to build on civil rights successes of decades past.
Compromising to accomplish one goal today does not mean that your work must stop. Civic engagement can be a lifelong exercise in making compromises sometimes and refusing to budge at others.
Along with all of these interpersonal skills that form the basis of good citizenship, another important one is media literacy. In today's media environment, we are flooded with information from all kinds of traditional and non-traditional sources. It is important to know what and who to trust. Don't just consume media that comforts you and confirms your beliefs: Doing this will not make you a very good advocate for your cause.
Put These Skills to Use!
Now that you've learned a little about what it takes to be effective at civic engagement, it's time to get out there and make a difference. There are many ways that you can get involved, and we encourage you to find the methods that make the most sense for you.