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Defining “Civics”

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Janet Li

What does civics mean to you? We asked this question at the launch of the LA Civics Initiative, a joint program of the Bedrosian Center and City Impact Lab investigating barriers and solutions to civic engagement in Los Angeles. These are how participants defined what civics in L.A. means to them.

Interestingly, the words most commonly used to describe civics were “engaged” and “community.” Civics is not just about traditional participation in government on a federal, state, or local scale; it is about engagement with your community on a personal level. Other standout words include people, understanding, involved, neighborhood, and service. Civics is about working for your community, and to do so, it is essential to understand the community you serve. Some believe it is a duty or responsibility to be active and engaged in the processes that affect the wellbeing of one’s neighborhood or other identified community.

define-civics-word-cloudCheck out some of the other definitions given by community members and leaders and see whether you agree.

“Local connections and relationships to find and produce solutions together”
“Engagement in the issues that impact a collective group of people”
“Participation in community-building through various actions, including volunteering, mentoring, leading, learning, educating others, and voting”
“Caring enough about our community to participate in its governance”
“Multicultural and intergenerational political, social and economic interactions among community members to collaborate in constructive methods to address evolving community needs”
“Being involved in the decisions that affect the quality of life for all residents, particularly vulnerable populations”
“Having the broadest possible range of voices part of the dialogue”
“Citizens working together to make communities more livable, connected, and prosperous”

The mission of the LA Civics Initiative is to create more dialogue around civic participation and what can be done to improve civics in L.A. What are the unique challenges of our region, and how can we combine the insights and powers of a wide audience of individuals and civic, nonprofit, and business organizations to tackle them?

Three barriers to civic participation were identified from the kickoff workshop. The Initiative will continue to discuss and brainstorm solutions for these challenges as we continue our workshops in different areas of L.A. The three civic barriers are: baseline knowledge, disconnect, and communication.

Baseline knowledge is about understanding the fundamentals of democracy and our government processes. What does Congress do, what does a Mayor or City Council do, what do Neighborhood Councils do? What are my rights and how can I assert them?

Disconnect is about apathy of governance, politics, and communal action, as well as a sense of regional incongruity. Why try to make something happen when you don’t believe you have any power? If you live in Culver City, do you have any say in what happens in the City of L.A.?

Finally, communication is about the availability and comprehensibility of information on the things happening in a community. Are you aware of the development projects being built in your neighborhood? Do you know the channels you can use to contact your elected officials or community leaders?

We will dive deeper into each of these identified barriers in future blogs and discuss the ongoing research and practices that are working to understand and address these challenges.

Our workshop materials are available publicly so others can host their own discussions and grow the civics movement. As we continue to host workshops, we will inevitably evolve and improve our processes and engagement. As different types of ideas are suggested, from the incremental to the wacky to the outrageous, we will share them in hopes of sparking an ever-growing chain of creative and impactful solutions for getting people involved. We are also compiling a list of civics resources at the local, state, and federal levels on our site — check them out and contact us with your personal suggestions!

What does civics mean to you? What challenges do you see to civic involvement in your community? Join the conversation on social media with #LACivicsInitiative and always feel free to email us at [email protected] with your ideas, suggestions, comments, and questions.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

~Margaret Mead

Bedrosian Center