Setting an Intention for Citizenship
"When have you felt most engaged in your role as a citizen?"
This was the opening question at a dinner event I attended last week with community and government leaders from around New England as part of the BIF2015 innovation summit. Most of us had a hard time coming up with examples other than voting, requesting a service or reporting a crime to the city, even though many of us work in this space.
With this experience, a couple seeds of thought were planted for me:
1. What does my role as a citizen entail? Just like any other role, are there ways to fulfill it better or make it more powerful?
2. As someone whose career revolves around engaging community, how can I engage citizens better? What causes a citizen, like me, to engage fully in their role and how can I translate that to my work?
What does being a “citizen” entail?
In our examples of citizenship, we were discussing the capital “C,” constitutional definition of citizen — a static birthright or qualification to participate in and be subject to acts of government. But there is a wider-ranging, voluntary and more organic role of citizenship — citizens as part of communities.
Though when we think of and talk about “citizenship” our minds immediately turn to our relationship with government, our most frequent and powerful citizenship experiences are as lower-case “c”itizens. We also have the most power to magnify and co-create this role.
At a hyper-local community leader meeting I attended a few months ago, the issue of increased summer crime and violence among youth in the city was brought up to be addressed. The police force rep talked about his department’s plans to patrol the area and increase manpower on the streets. This was the capital “C” answer — and during the summer they did all they could to effect change, but their efforts were limited by city resources and constraint of position.
When the question of what we, as a group, planned to do to combat the problem, a man raised his hand.
He talked about a program he was putting together to offer tutoring and soccer lessons to youth in the community in an effort to get them off the streets.
I’ve seen this same man going door to door telling his neighbors about community activities and picking up trash on city cleanup days.
He, like many times before, was magnifying his role as a citizen. He saw a problem, assessed his capabilities, and found a way to marry the two to create value for his community.
There are hundreds of people in my city magnifying their roles as citizens, and hundreds more who are not because they don’t see how — they are stuck seeing themselves merely as citizens of the state, not of a community.
There are resource and structural constraints to the power and influence of Citizens in effecting change, but as citizens there are endless possibilities for interaction, exchange and community influence.
This is where I, as a citizen, can make a powerful difference. I can assess what capabilities I have, find need in the community and intentionally meet it.
How can I engage others in lower-case "c"itizenship?
Community, and participation as a citizen within community, is marked by human connection.
The word community comes from an Old French word comunité “commonness, everybody, shared by all or many” and Latin’s communitatem “society, fellowship”.
What is shared by all? What engenders fellowship? The human experience. Empathy, emotions, fears, and desires, music, expression, relationships, food…
Engaging citizens in a community follows the same rules as engaging people — because they are people. Powerful, collective change is contingent upon this engagement, and as leaders in the community (which we all hold some role to play), we need to connect with those we serve in order to access this untapped potential.
That brings me to my first recommendation:
1. Build relationships, not “connections”.
At the BIF2015 conference, a common theme resounded: I am not my resume; I am a person.
Speakers talked about putting their teams through norm-shattering excursions to get them to connect, interacting with communities through public space art, the power of empathy and restitution.
I had the pleasure of interacting with Simon Majumdar, a man who has devoted his life to connecting people through food. As he talked of his experiences, he showcased the power of food as “the thing that everyone shares.” His philosophy is that breaking bread can break down barriers.
People want to play. People want to eat. People want to connect deeply, to be vulnerable and create.
There is energy in human relation.
Eat together, experience together, play together. That is how we connect as humans, and it is how we connect as a community, before anything can be done collectively.
2. Connect with people based on capabilities, not titles.
During our dinner discussion, after we had all introduced ourselves and positions in typical fashion, we were were talking about how to connect with each other, as community leaders, to bring value to the people we serve. A woman brought up a point that resonated with everyone — she said that she wanted to know what people do and are passionate about, not their position title.
“Who do I call when I need help with something? Knowing your titles won’t help me when I want to get something done; I need to know what you do, who you are.”
After this comment, communication began to flow more freely among the group and we began to get to know each other on a personal level. Where conversation had once been cordial, by the end, we were buzzing. Relationships were formed and conversations were catalyzed into action.
There is power in engaging people with their capabilities. Stuff gets done.
3. Be open to unlikely partnerships.
Being vulnerable on a human level allows you to connect with people, often unlikely people.
I was standing at a table during lunch one day of the conference, alone, when three people approached me. As we talked, it came out that one was an acclaimed French business woman, another a documentary director, and the last an advocate for women and minority representation in school curriculums. What an unlikely grouping.
And yet, that conversation was the most engaging dialogue I can remember having in months — because of our connections, and our differences.
We discussed politics and social issues, as well as what we do at work. We laughed and commiserated as we shared a meal together.
As lunch came to a close, business cards were exchanged, pictures were taken together, and there was discussion of a possible working partnership between some conversation participants.
Unlikely partnerships, created through relationships, pave the way for possibilities that did not exist before.
This is not just for your colleagues.
When you focus on building relationships, connecting with capabilities and being open to unusual partnerships, improving the citizen experience becomes intentional and powerful. However, these principles should not only be applied to connecting with other “leaders”; they need to be applied to building relationships with those you serve.
The most powerful experiences are co-created, drawing on the experiences and needs of all involved. And to co-create, you need a relationship.
I read a wonderful article this week, in response to the summit, that discusses the importance of co-creation.
The author says:
"When you trust the person you are trying to help and vise versa there is room for incomplete thoughts and critical feedback. You can also throw a lot of half-a**ed ideas around, which is often what triggers playing with new ideas, joyful riffing off of each other and the generation of something interesting and valuable out of something very rough. It is where the magic of innovation happens."
To co-create, you must open a space of vulnerability to allow other parties to play in the messiness and create with you. But that vulnerability is well-rewarded in outcomes that have system-wide impact and are grounded in user experience.
This interaction is where untapped value lies in creating a powerful and supportive citizen experience.
I may not be able to immediately change my power as a Citizen, but I can change how I, as a citizen, engage and how I, as a community leader, connect with the community I serve.