An Orientation in Time: The History of Civic Participation

Ralph Ellison ends his 1955 essay “Living with Music” by wondering if perhaps “in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one’s origin are so quickly lost” our hope is to find “an orientation in time.” As we think about the history of civic participation and how it affects us today, the idea of finding and holding on to a solid foundation is pivotal.

Grounding ourselves in civic history means embracing generations of community. This doesn’t mean that we must all agree, but instead that we listen to one another across the different places, lived experiences, and rich cultures that make up our nation. 

As such, learning about the history of civic participation takes all shapes. Because we are living in a moment where information is everywhere, conversations with scholars, journalists, and media experts can help us become discerning consumers of all the news piling up around us. Many times, vitally open discussions begin with a question. Making spaces to answer those questions by expressing emotions and opposing views, understanding that we’re all in different parts of our civic journey, and learning from the past help us, in turn, to teach democratic principles to future generations. And innovative ideas about how we teach key aspects of this history–like women’s suffrage, voting rights laws and legislation, and the civil rights movement–light up the past by showing how it has shaped where we are today. 

What civic participation means, who’s involved, and where we practice it begins with finding ourselves in its history. “One learns by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar,” Ellison writes. We can only do that if we retrace our civic steps.

This is the final blog in a series that reflects on civic engagement—what it is, who it involves, and what location has to do with it all. The series draws from the work councils did in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021 as part of “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation,” an initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and generously supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Explore this topic through humanities councils’ programs in:

Alaska: Voting Stories

Florida: Florida Decides – A Conversation with Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee

Kentucky: Vote Worthy

Minnesota: With Malice Toward None

Montana: Why It Matters – The Purpose of Protest

New Hampshire: The Civic Reckoning That Was 2020 And What it Means For Teaching And Learning Civics

New Jersey: Promoting the Understanding and Value of Democracy in 2021

Rhode Island: Why It Matters – Innovative Ways to Encourage Civic and Electoral Participation

South Carolina: Electoral Initiative

Vermont: Civics Collaborative

Virginia: Expanding the Franchise