Thursday, September 2, 2010

The (imperfect) Table of Traditional Civic & Community Engagement

Silver Spring is many things… And one thing we sure are is “active”!

It is really quite a blessing to live and work in a place where there are so many opportunities for engaging in our community. Among the many traditional venues for civic and community engagement, we have our:

- Associations (neighborhood associations, block clubs, business associations)

- Corporations (private for-profits and non-profits; from big to small)

- Institutions (educational institutions and faith institutions; from large, major institutions to the ones that are volunteer run)

- Instrumentalities (authorities, appointed boards, committees and commissions)

- Political sphere (local, county, state, and federal)

Our involvement in community through these traditional venues can be sparked by many things. It is usually a combination of:
- An incident
- A political situation
- A cause
- An issue

Why we chose to become involved in one or another of these traditional venue - or when we chose to become involved - is a complex, individual decision. How we chose to spend our precious personal time is a very personal decision. What drives us to participate is as varied as we are.

More often than not, our involvement is the result of person-to-person contact with a neighbor, a friend, or a co-worker. Generally, we get involved because - or a combination - of our:
- Personal commitment
- Altruism
- Faith
- Moral values
- Economic self interest

Opportunities for involvement in traditional civic venues abound. We go through our own version of a ‘cost benefit analysis’ using a personal matrix of what is important to us. Ultimately, the choice to participate is a totally personal, individual, decision.

When we choose to participate in a given venue, we come into an imperfect table with imperfect folks sitting around it. Sometime we are there when the venue is created; sometimes we step into a venue that has decades of tradition. Regardless, we join because we feel welcomed and believe we can make a difference by participating.

We also come into the venue respecting its intent and spirit – the “mission/vision” thing – and recognizing that there are established roles, responsibilities, rules, regulations, and protocols that are expected to be followed. That is, we implicitly acknowledge the limitations, framework and guidelines that define how the venue gets its job done. Sometime all of this “stuff” is clear, unambiguous, and written down. Sometimes the venue relies on tradition and word of mouth… Most often, the reality is somewhere in-between.

So, most often we become agents of change in the venue itself discussing, discerning, and being part of the decision process that amends ‘how things get done’. At times “how we get the job done” gets in the way of “getting the job done”. Yet, “getting it right” is critically important and merits focused attention… We end up spending countless hours on the by-laws; the procedures for election; the hard rules and regulations… And, that is not a bad thing – just painful.

How decisions are made; who makes them; and how they get operationalized is more an art than a science. It is a mix of relationships and facts; a mix of ‘left brain / right brain’ processes; a mix of relying on what is written and what is perceived.

We get frustrated because we are seeking to get something done and the venue in which we participate does not have the authority or “power” – real or implied - to do so. For example:

[1] We may sit on a board with a mission to help the homeless, and we know the link of this issue to education. Yet we must remain focused - in our work in this particular venue – and not tackle the Board of Education. (But we go home and write that personal letter to the Board anyway!)

[2] Or, we may feel passionate about war and peace. Yet we know that our neighborhood association is not the most efficient nor effective venue to tackle that issue. (But, we will talk to our neighbors till the wee hours about how wrong the war is or why peace is the only alternative!)

[3] Or, we are active in a political campaign. Yet accept that this is not the venue to talk faith. (But, surely we can invite our new found friends to our faith community’s carnival or cook-out!)

Then there’s the issue of ‘accountability’… Who exactly is the venue in which we choose to participate accountable to? The only true independent venue is when we act individually. In all other venues we are accountable to the group and its ‘constituents’… But, even identifying – and reaching consensus on – who exactly is the constituency is not always crystal clear… So, we ‘muddle through’, balancing the need to have a defined and definitive structure with the reality that this ‘community engagement’ business is not linear at all.

Yet with all this angst and ambiguity we ‘engage on’; we remain involved; we want to participate... We have the good will... We want to be part of the solution, not the problem... And, we celebrate when we get it right!

To those of you that already participate in our traditional civic and community venues: THANKS! (And please ‘keep on keeping on’.)

And, to those that are “looking for the right fit”, please JOIN US! (There’s plenty of room at the table.)

But, don’t expect the table to be perfectly square or round; or that the shape will ever remain the same over time…


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