Photo credit: The March for Our Lives / Facebook
Do you remember those moments that brought you to the work? Moments that pained you and shook you to the core? Those experiences where you lost your innocence and came to understand that there was something wrong with society and you had an obligation to do something about it.
Do you remember the origins of your hope? Where you saw a better world, perhaps through a child, a teacher’s message, a sermon at a house of worship, a protest, a service program or a transcendent piece of literature? Do you remember how it made you feel? Do you recall that promise you made to yourself? To join the fight and the “beautiful struggle” without knowing what the outcome might be?
Now ask yourself; what if everyone had access to moments like these?
I believe that our current crisis in community development is not one of intellect or resources; it is one of values, virtue, ethics, beliefs and solidarity. We cannot tackle complex issues like racism, poverty, social inequality, healthcare and educational equity, food justice and affordable housing when only a small fragment of the population comes to care about those issues in the first place. Of all the types of inequality, it is perhaps the inequality of civic agency that concerns me the most.
It has become clear to me that citizens who have evolved into agents of change got their start working towards social justice through meaningful exposure; people, mentors, coming of age experiences and realities different from the arbitrary confines of their immediate environment opened their minds. For my father, it was being exposed to heroic efforts of community solidarity in the midst of abject poverty and a near-death experience with the Ku Klux Klan while doing service work in Mississippi. For me it was a continuum of realities and learning opportunities that encompassed growing up in a low-income community and being immersed in spaces of activism and protest in the US and Latin America.
The process of becoming an active citizen is much like that of becoming a great athlete or musician; it requires constant exposure, practice and dedication to improving one’s craft. Institutions must be charged with the task of designing spaces that guarantee that people develop a thoughtful commitment to social progress and construct a class of citizenry worth celebrating.
Educating our youth to be the stewards of our democracy and transform society may very well be the greatest challenge and opportunity of our time. To do so, we must provide comprehensive civic learning opportunities with a strong focus on addressing what leading scholars have identified as the civic empowerment gap. The theory states that students from historically oppressed communities are those least likely to have access to the types of civic learning and empowerment needed to dismantle the very inequities that have created a nationwide educational debt. Studies show that creating civic agency in the lives of our students and their families is one of the most powerful indicators of academic, economic, political and social success.
During the Civil Rights Movement, activists created Freedom Schools to train the next generation of young people to tackle the great injustices of their time. Our leaders understood that the sustainability of our efforts depended on developing individuals and communities dedicated to deep democracy.
Creating these moments of obligation must be a core component of any approach to community transformation.
So how do we produce socially conscious citizens? How do we cultivate the next generation of teachers, engineers, activists, politicians, artists and entrepreneurs who will take us further than we have ever gone before with the common good in mind?
There are no easy answers. Some leaders have touted ideas like a national year of service as a common expectation and civic rite of passage through programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps to address public problems, bridge cultural divides and transform the individual. While many laud these efforts, others believe they are far too apolitical and do not go far enough in creating what Westheimer and Kahne (2004) describe as justice-oriented citizens who work to dismantle systems of oppression. Communities like Jackson, Mississippi are advancing democratic innovations born out of global traditions like people’s assemblies, and participatory budgeting. Other emerging efforts have centered on creating a pipeline of talent and training for community organizing through initiatives like the Resistance School.
All of these practices provide promising examples of strategies that place the citizen and communities at the forefront of any process to define exactly what development is. The urban planning and design space must incorporate approaches that cultivate social awakenings. Only then will we possess the kind of radical imagination that goes beyond defining success in terms of monetary measures and focuses are broader concepts like freedom and capabilities pioneered by thought leaders like Amartya Sen.
The hopes and ambitions of our communities are limited by the lack of exposure that is far too pervasive in our societies; by creating meaningful spaces for civic learning, reflection and action, we invest in the potential for a newfound collective consciousness that will serve as the breeding ground for future social transformations in the community development sphere.
Rob Watson is an Education Policy & Management Master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an incoming Mid-Career Master’s in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. His work focuses on issues of educational equity, civic engagement and poverty eradication in the USA and Latin America.
 Levinson, Meira. The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions, 2010.
 Ladson Billings. From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools, 2006.
 Westheimer and Kahne, “Educating the ‘Good Citizen’: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals, ” 2004.
 Kelley, Robin D.G. “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” 2003.