Friday, June 7, 2002
Improving our civic and personal lives in Carlisle
President Bush has asked every U.S. citizen to give two years of his time to volunteering for his community or for his country. What counts as volunteering under the president's request? Unlike the unspoken civic obligation of years past, this idea is not limited to hitches in the armed services, although it may include them. This time, we are being asked to band together and give our time to any cause which will benefit our communities, large and small: soup kitchens, shelters, schools, libraries, hospitals, children's programs everything from organizing grass roots projects to spending a few hours each week cleaning up public pathways and roads. In the words of First Lady Laura Bush, the spirit of the president's idea is to widen the scope of "civility" in our country and to unite us as citizens and neighbors willing to lend a hand and help each other. Doing so, the theory goes, will close the gaps created by prejudice and suspicion and increase our understanding of each other, our ability to work together, and our mutual trust.
The decline of community
The Bushes have given voice not to a new concept, but to a very old idea which predates the earliest barn raising in colonial America. We are hearing a great deal about uniting and banding together these days, in the wake of September 11 and our sluggish economy, and it seems that on a national scale, we are in a real trough of low civic engagement. As a nation, we are becoming more isolated from each other, and more focused on the individual rather than on the common good. So say article after article, study after study, and in the year 2000, Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam in his acclaimed best-seller, Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam's argument is that in the last quarter century, there has been a rapid decline in what he calls "generalized reciprocity the practice of helping others with no expectation of gain," or in simple terms, volunteering. He charts in detail statistical declines in participation in the government process, religion, and various group activities, citing a preference to contribute money instead of presence. The World War II generation, he says, was the last generation which actively participated in civic and social activities, even dinner parties. They are being replaced by generations of less involved citizens who have become disenchanted with their government, stretched by the pressures of time and money, separated by suburbanization and sprawl, and "privatized" by the proliferation of electronic entertainment and communications. Sometimes, we are forced away from each other by the very institutions designed to protect us. In our litigious society, it has become necessary to limit parents in the situations in which they may volunteer their time to help schoolchildren, for example. Many formerly volunteer positions have had to be taken by paid staff members who are insured by the schools. That one area exemplifies a breakdown in the mutual trust which Putnam says must "lubricate" social life.
Does lack of civic engagement matter?
Well, maybe we're not running for office in great numbers, working on political campaigns, serving on committees, playing on teams, or participating in religious services as much as our predecessors did. Maybe we're only mailing-list supporters of special interest organizations. Maybe we are spending more time in front of the tube or the computer screen and less time with our friends. Perhaps we are experiencing a period of isolation and disconnectedness. How damaging is all this?
Putnam cites studies that indicate that children thrive better in areas where "social capital," or social interaction, is high. They watch less television, their schools function better, and children can learn more effectively. Communities in these areas are safer: violent crimes are fewer, and their inhabitants lead more productive and prosperous lives. There are even correlations between longevity and general health, and social interaction through group activities and volunteerism. The Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, a think tank, of which Professor Putnam is a member, states that "much hard evidence has accumulated that civic engagement and social connectedness are practical preconditions for better schools, safer streets, faster economic growth, more effective government, and even healthier lives."
It is good for us to engage with our communities, then, and we are experiencing a period of increasing social and civic isolation which can damage our health, our safety, our productivity, and our well-being as a nation. It's a serious situation. A situation similar to the one we faced a century ago, in reaction to a host of new social and technological changes which, as the seminar says, happened over a period of thirty to forty years and rendered "obsolete a whole stock of social capital. American society [in 1900] displayed classic symptoms of social-capital deficiency: huge problems in the cities, concerns about political corruption, and growing class antagonism."
In the first twenty years of the twentieth century, says the seminar, Americans addressed their social malaise by creating a host of civic institutions: "the YWCA, the Boy Scouts, the American Red Cross, the League of Women Voters, the Urban League, trade unions, fraternal organizations, and many others."
Civic engagement and social capital in Carlisle: do we measure up?
How do we stack up here in Carlisle? How's our civic engagement index? If we look at the last town election, which boasted only one contested race, it would appear that we prove the theory that fewer people are running for office. The turnout at election, nearly 50% of registered voters, would also tend to bear out the statistics: forty years ago, 62.8% of voters turned out at elections nationally. Today that figure is much closer to 50%. However, sobering as this may seem, there is much good news. Local elections always net fewer voters than national ones; 50% is actually not a bad turnout for a local election. Town Meeting is well-attended in Carlisle. Many of our town offices are volunteer positions; in fact, even though we struggle with the issue of low pay for our municipal employees, the town runs on a combination of paid and unpaid workers. The Mosquito runs on the same principles, and as General Manager Susan Emmons says, that element of volunteerism helps to keep the newspaper afloat. In fact, the Mosquito is a good example of a large organization in town which fosters social capital: for thirty years, Mosquito staffers have met to produce and improve the paper, sharing ideas, debating issues, and making friends over innumerable cups of tea and coffee, lunches, and snacks. Many of our town committees began as grass roots activities, started by concerned citizens, or by the League of Women Voters. Even though the traditional organization, the League, is less visible in town now than it was thirty years ago, the associations it started are very active. One good example is the Conservation Commission (ConsCom), which has been formalized into a committee with its own authority in town. Our Old Home Day celebration brings the whole town together, and rarely a week goes by without a sandwich board visible at the rotary announcing a children's activity, a garden club function, a pot luck supper, a theatre program, or a lecture. Most activities report good attendance, and they must be organized by volunteers, so there is evidence here of a good deal of social capital.
Here in Carlisle, we have an active children's sports program, coached by volunteers. Parents volunteer to support children's school activities in impressive numbers. Verna Gilbert, of the Trails Committee, reports that membership and participation is holding steady in that organization. If you look through the blue section of the Carlisle Phone Book, you'll find any number of service, social, and special interest organizations active in town. One of the most active is the Newcomers Club, whose social purpose is to welcome new Carlisleans to town, but remains a vibrant organization long after newcomers become established residents. The greater number of these clubs, committees, and associations report active membership; some are seeking members, so check the Mosquito regularly to find out about meetings.
The lessons of history
The solution to any social malaise in our new century and the answer to the president's call for volunteers must be put in historical perspective. Few will argue that the organizations which were formed to right social wrongs at the beginning of the twentieth century did, and have continued to do, much good. However, many scholars agree that, in the words of historian Nell Irvin Painter, "fear of working class violence explains much of what has been called progressive reform." Certainly not all the institutions formed in the last half of the nineteenth century successfully addressed America's growing social and civic disenfranchisement. Most of us would agree that the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal order formed in the 1860s, may not be a spur to mutual trust and social interaction. Even an organization like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, originally formed to promote the health of society by attacking a widespread alcohol problem and very effective in its operations, unintentionally assisted gangland crime which resulted from Prohibition. Perhaps these are two examples of what Putnam terms "overdone communitarianism." We can certainly be inspired by the positive accomplishments of the Progressive era in our history, but our solutions must be for our own time.
Good news and challenges: education
Professor Putnam and the Saguaro Seminar offer a number of strategies to promote civic engagement, and the good news is that Carlisle is ahead of the game in exercising many of them. Improved civic education in the schools is one. Also, "A mounting body of evidence confirms that community service programs really do strengthen the civic muscles of participants, especially if the service is meaningful, regular, and woven into the fabric of the school curriculum[they] enhance citizen efficacy, increase social responsibility and self-esteem, teach skills of cooperation and leadership and may even (one study suggests) reduce racism." Our students must earn community service credits, and many of the kids, expressing real satisfaction with their community service hours, go on to volunteer for other projects on their own. "Participation in extracurricular activitiesis among the strongest precursors to adult participationFrom a civic point of view, extracurricular activities are anything but 'frills'." Historically, Carlisle has been supportive of a variety of extracurricular activities, and we may need to find ways of raising the funds to keep them in operation during periods of fiscal squeeze like the one we're experiencing now. Adults teaching skills to children, or "intergenerational mentoring," already a part of education in our area, needs to be encouraged as well. We need to rely on the skills of a Generation X'er, perhaps, to help us come up with the "Internet-age equivalent of 4H" or "the Boy Scouts' ingenious combination of values and fun."
Real, not virtual, social capital
The Internet raises questions about how computer-driven communications and electronic entertainment can be used to foster real, not virtual, social capital. Putnam suggests the idea of " joint explorations of local history, or even announcements of a local Ultimate Frisbee tournament residents who have easy access to local computer-based communication can use that new tool to strengthen, not supplant face-to-face ties with their neighbors." Certainly Carlisle is engaged in trying to get broadband access for the town, and many organizations already use e-mail for meeting announcements and the Internet for links to related subjects. Perhaps there are ways to get more of our citizens on-line through volunteers who can engineer connections, upgrade those computers that show up in the swap shed and donate them, and train those without computer skills in the use of the Internet.
The community-congenial workplace and good government
The Saguaro Seminar also encourages finding ways to make the workplace "more family-friendly and community-congenial" to accommodate the movement of women into that workplace, and rewarding "firms that act responsibly toward their employees' family and community commitments." Companies should be addressing "the new demands for part-time work," encouraging initiatives for building teamwork, and finally "challenging the notion that civic life has no part in the workplace."
We need to restore trust in our government beginning at the local level by running for office. There's a real challenge for Carlisle citizens. If there is a contest, there is interest and choice, and more voters will come to the polls.
Building social capital this summer
Finally, we need to get together and talk about this very tall order for improving the health of our civic and personal lives. We need to get out and play with each other: take walks, play a softball game, share a meal. We need to make social contact to build social capital and civic engagement. This should be much easier now that summer's here and it's barbecue season!
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito