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Civic Action: Instilling a Lifetime of Active Citizenship

LEAD Initiative
July 25, 2018 Spencer Long University of Illinois at Chicago

Is there a difference between volunteering and being an active citizen? At the University of Illinois at Chicago, we base our service programming around the Breakaway Active Citizen Continuum (http://alternativebreaks.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Active-Citizen-Continuum-2014.pdf). Using this as a frame work for our programming, the answer to this question is yes. However, how do we help students understand the difference between volunteering and being an active citizen?

We are always asking ourselves how we can work to move students away from being a member of the community and towards active citizenship. For many students, service remains connected to a requirement for a class or a student organization and they are simply trying to fulfill an obligation. Their service is transactional with little thought given to which organization they are volunteering with, why that organization exists, and who benefits from the work. This is where our office has tried to help.

For our various Days of Service and other service events, we asked the community organizations to provide an overview of their mission prior to students engaging with service. This gives them the background information and the context of the service they will be providing. Additionally, we try to include a reflection or debrief of the specific service project. This allows meaningful dialogue to take place and furthers the student’s understanding of how their work actually made an impact to that partner organization.

Site selection is always important, especially in Chicago. With well over 500 community partners to work with, how do you pick? Recently, we have been working hard to establish new connections in areas of the city we have not had a presence in before. This may not seem vital, but what kind of message do we send to our students when we neglect areas and communities in which they may reside? By providing a variety of service opportunities, with different community partners, in different parts of the city, we are able to expose students to a wide variety of opportunities to explore. This opens doors to help facilitate each student finding an organization or type of organization they are passionate in working with. This idea of around the liberal arts of service brings me back to my original question of how we move students from volunteers to active citizens.

If we can support the connection between the student and the organization through various opportunities, then we have allowed the student to think differently on how that specific organization and others like it, play a role in the day-to-day functioning of our community. From this, students have the capacity to determine which causes they deem important and which organizations they wish to pursue volunteering with. This encourages the student to remain proactive around their work and pushes them to keep their passions aligned with their work. With that, students may engage with these various organizations more regularly, which may motivate them to take on a leadership role within the agency or pursue the field as a profession. It is our hope that students walk away from their experiences with that, along with the desire to take on other civic duties and responsibilities in their communities.

Will we be able to make every student we connect with an active citizen? Maybe. For some we will be able to do it while they are at the university level. For some, they will already be well on their way before they set foot on campus. As for the others, we are simply planting seeds and asking questions that will lead to a lifetime of active citizenship after they leave the university. I would argue that if we were able to make one of these three impacts on every student then we would have succeeded in our goal of creating lifelong active citizens.

What has your experience been? We would love to hear from you on your thoughts, failures, and success!