Active citizenry: Leading in your community

Being an active citizen means more than living in the nation or state where you have government issued identification. Active citizens are individuals who participate meaningfully in their community and are identified as leaders.

"The small group produces power when diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued." That statement, made by Peter Block in his book “Communities- The Structure of Belonging,” greatly reflects some of the important foundational ideas in youth leadership and citizenry education. Engaging youth in ways that develop their sense of responsibility for their community is one of the first steps in becoming an active citizen. According to Michigan State University Extension, encouraging youth to participate in community decisions fosters a sense of self-importance that helps youth feel like they really can make a difference. It is these characteristics that make youth valuable leaders and social change makers of the present and the future.

Being a citizen of a community is not just a term used for someone who lives in a given location. That being said, an active citizen in this article is referring to an individual who participates meaningfully within their community. Community in itself is tricky to define. To clear up the confusion with this definition, read the MSU Extension article, "Community: Beyond the bounds of geography.”

When collaborating with youth to grow as active citizens and community leaders, one of the first things to recognize before you teach is who is actually at the table. If you are examining a particular challenge or aspect in your community, ask yourself who are all the stakeholders impacted by this challenge. Think critically about this question, as we are often self-limiting of inclusion and understanding based on our own worldviews. After identifying all stakeholders with vested interest, see if each party's voice is adequately represented at the table. Are there some voices or perspectives missing? Sometimes just the act of reaching out to include previously marginalized voices can build a bridge for collaboration that would otherwise be nonexistent. Bringing all the stakeholders to the table is just the beginning. Creating a safe space for dissenting perspectives and equitable time for sharing and discussion is difficult even if the leaders are a neutral party (which is rarely the case).

If we have all the stakeholders at the table and perspectives have been shared, what's next? How do you move forward? Reflection. This is the time to take time. Think about what strengths each party or person brings to the table. How do those strengths compliment the weaknesses of others? As humans we each have gifts, talents and knowledge that we bring to the table. To move forward, we must collaboratively take ownership over action items that utilize our strengths. This appreciative, strengths-based approach keeps action grounded in positive perspective where engaged citizens feel valued and purposeful, thus increasing the likelihood of follow through and commitment to the community. All this being said, there are frequent instances when all the necessary actions don't match to all the strengths at the table. In these instances, someone has to take a risk by committing to something in which they feel less confident. Risk can be scary, but with support from fellow community members, can often result in the greatest learning.

"Leadership that engages citizens is a capacity that exists in all human beings. It is infinitely and universally available,” Block said. In no way are the steps mentioned above the magic formula for social change through active citizenry, but they are a great place to start. Remember that youth are a community of invested stakeholders who are very often not included at the table, and that anyone, including young people, has the capacity to lead in their community.

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