Why Civics Matters: Exploring What Civic Engagement Means Today

by Sydney Boyd, editor & content producer

When we talk about civic engagement today, what do we mean? Most people will agree it’s important—something that we collectively value in the present and recognize as a longstanding part of our identity as a nation—but what lies beyond that?

Given the upheaval and tragic losses of the pandemic, among so many other unprecedented events that have since materialized, it makes sense that our ideas about civic tenets like community, responsibility, and involvement are changing. And because of just how much has shifted in our everyday lives, it’s now all the more urgent that we take a close look at something we see as a bedrock.

Actions on the ground shape both perceptions and realities of being civically engaged. Tracing the roots of engagement through its many movements, blunders, and legislative landmarks gives context to whatever the dictionary may spell out: revisit the Declaration of Independence; study the fine print of the 19th Amendment; and learn about the motivating forces behind the Indian Citizenship Act and the Voting Rights Act. But arriving at a definition might also take the inquiring form of, for example, tracing voter apathy and voter trends. When voting drops off somewhere, is it because of indifference, a change in accessibility, or is it driven by some abnormal circumstance?

These kinds of inquiries inevitably uncover new questions, making an open discussion key to thinking through just what civic engagement is and why we feel it’s so foundational. Justice, equality, and ethics, for instance, come up when we consider what has motivated people in the past as well as whether or not we currently have a responsibility—even a duty—to participate in a democracy in order to make it so. It means building spaces and developing tools to connect despite disagreements about what underpins our various institutions, because we all share a commitment to our wellbeing, our livelihoods, and our freedom to pursue happiness, wherever we may be. Polarization only happens in isolation. And civic engagement, however we define it, begins with a sense of belonging.

This is the first blog in a series that reflects on civic engagement—what it is (this post), who it involves, and what location has to do with it all. This series draws from the work councils did in 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:

Connecticut: Democracy and Community

Delaware: Freedom Under Seige – The Global Retreat of Democracy

Georgia: Democracy

Idaho: Voting Issues in the Gem State

Kansas: The Art of Voting

Massachusetts: This is Your Democracy

Missouri: Show me Statesmanship

New York: What Does Democracy Demand

North Dakota: GameChanger Ideas Festival

Oregon: Consider This with Masha Gessen