The Power of Civic Engagement: What Europeans can learn from Americans
Recently, my husband, myself, and our three-year-old daughter had a vacation together with 10 other family members and friends. We had only one family with a child in the group. The group made all decisions concerning the group activities by simply voting. Most of the times our small family did not take part in the group fun as no one voted to take into account a toddler’s daily routine. I felt what most the minority groups would feel when their needs have not been addressed by the public solutions: excluded, frustrated, and angry. During my travel to the United States as a European Marshall Memorial Fellow in the spring of 2019, I learned what I could do about this. Strong and capable community and local leaders taught me that you will be heard if you ally with other people with similar needs, organize and structure yourself, find political representation, lobby the government for your interests, and/or find another non-profit or private solution.
Among all the good things we can learn from the United States, I would focus on the power of civic engagement and local leadership. I was amazed at the level of civic engagement of Americans. Most of the people we met during fellowship sit on multiple boards of all kinds of non-profits and actively participate in the life of their community. Many people organize themselves in different NGOs to advance shared goals or interests. A winemaker who runs an organic vineyard in Oregon considers serving on the board of a community organization as almost mandatory if you want to have a voice and represent your concerns for preserving the environment and sustainable jobs. A school in Girdwood, Alaska, run by three part-time employees, that opens its doors to be a community center. A mayor and city council member of a tiny village in Alaska who volunteers in these positions for the benefit of their village.
I was told that in the United States government and public institutions had no problem to hear the opinions and voices of their stakeholders as most of them were organized in different associations. People in the United States say that they have associations for everything; they even have associations of associations. As a result, nonprofits have a significant impact on the wellbeing of communities. They are one of the greatest sources of employment across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nonprofit sector employs 10 percent of the workforce.
Civic engagement in the United States is not only well organized but also very well equipped with instruments and capacity. I had the honor to attend a meeting of the supervisory board of a local immigrants’ organization in Portland, Oregon. They were very practical and instrumental in their activities toward their goal of being heard by the legislature of the state. They planned and prepared their visits to the Senate and city hall, and they provided advocacy training for community members in order to effectively conduct those meetings. They initiated trainings for their community members to teach them how to be politically represented. They were very aware of the power of engagement and participation in their community life.
I also met strong local leaders who pushed a progressive agenda at their level in spite of the lack of leadership at the state or national level. The Port of Portland that implements a social equity and environment responsibility agenda; the mayor of 800-strong Mosier who signed the Paris agreement on climate change; the pioneering job-placement nonprofit CARA in Chicago that changes the attitude of businesses toward the employment of most vulnerable people—such local leaders are capable of pushing the agenda at a national level.
In my country, Ukraine, which has a strong paternalistic background, we tend to underestimate the impact of civic initiatives on a country's policies and wellbeing. We rely (sometimes too much) on the national government and national leaders. Despite the growing civil society, the civic engagement of Ukrainians is still weak, especially at the local level. Only 7 percent of Ukrainians actively participate in community life and only 5 percent are members of civil society organizations. We should learn how to organize and actively participate in our community lives.
During that vacation, I did not quite succeed in getting the group agenda to account for our interests. After all, it was not the point of the 12-day break. But after my Marshal Memorial Fellowship, I am much better equipped to impact the wellbeing of communities I belong to.
Anna Chukhay currently serves as a senior RBM and Monitoring expert at a team that introduces Result Based Management at the Government of Ukraine. Prior to that, she worked as a manager at the National Reforms Council of Ukraine - an advisory body to the President of Ukraine that ensure political consensus of the President, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Parliament and civil society over reforms design and implementation. Anna contributed to the creation and further support of activities of infrastructure for reforms in Ukraine after a Revolution of Dignity. Anna has more than 8 years in project management mostly in the NGO and public sectors. She managed and contributed to a number of analytical and communication projects among them are Public Debates (10 events over 2011-2013) and the Ukrainian National Competitiveness Report (2011-2013) by the methodology of the World Economic Forum. Anna has an MA in Economics.
I am a responsible citizen of my country, a wife and a mother. I grew up in Eastern Ukraine but most of my life I have been living in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. I am in love with math, economics, evidence-based decision-making, and swimming. For the last 4 years, I am working at the government of Ukraine together with other new people who want to do our country a better place for a living. It is challenging but inspiring. I am a family person. With my husband, we are together for more than 18 years. We have a young daughter who teaches us crisis management and happiness every day. I have a younger brother who lives in Australia now and whom I miss a lot.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.