Over the past few years, my understanding of what “civic engagement” means has grown a lot.
When I was younger, I often thought that civic engagement was an empty buzzword. Other times, I thought that projects or causes had to be straight-up explicitly political in order to qualify as civic engagement. As I’ve entered my late 20’s, I’ve been lucky enough to engage in some event and initiative organizing in my community that has challenged and changed my attitude toward the concept of civic engagement.
Civic engagement is now pretty much what I do for a living. I work with YWCA Moncton as their Youth Programs Manager. In this role, I get to plan and organize events, help develop programs to support youth in our area, and help to create change on issues that affect women and girls. It’s basically all-community, all-the-time in this position, and I love it.
Community is really what changed my perspective on civic engagement and made me start to see the concept in a new light. Civic engagement is all about caring for your community and being active in shaping that community for the good of all its members. I used to think that for civic engagement to be meaningful, to “count,” it had to be big: big issues affecting a big community (like an entire province or the country), big actions, and hopefully big results. Work that was smaller scale was important and something I cared about, but was community involvement, not civic engagement. It wasn’t like I looked down on community involvement, I just thought it was different than civic engagement, which was about big-time public concerns.
I started to understand civic engagement in a much more open way when I was in university and started to get more involved in my campus community through feminism. Feminism is basically about believing that people of all genders are equal and living in a way that proves you’re committed to that belief. A lot of the time, feminism focuses on issues that affect women and girls, but it’s really a way of looking at the world that helps everyone.
The Women’s Centre at my university put on a production of The Vagina Monologues when I was in my 3rd year at the school, and it was a really intense learning experience for me. The purpose of performances of The Vagina Monologues is to help end violence against women. Of course, the other members of the cast and I weren’t putting a full stop to violence against women, but we were raising funds for a local women’s shelter and starting important conversations on our campus. Even though what we were doing was really only affecting people on our campus and town, it was an act of civic engagement because we were trying to shape our community into something even better than it already was.
Now that I’ve been out of university for a few years and have been involved in a number of feminist projects, I think of community involvement and civic engagement as inseparable. One doesn’t happen without the other; one is, in fact, the other.
The truth of this lesson is so apparent to me in the work I do with the YWCA movement in Canada. One of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on at my YWCA (in Moncton, New Brunswick) began with a focus on civic engagement and evolved into a something that was also all about community. The project, called Y Act Up, is a YWCA Canada initiative funded by Canadian Heritage that helps communities across Canada set up youth councils for young women age 16-29. Each council is basically a group of young women who get together to plan events, talk about issues, and learn new things.
As a result of this project, YWCA Moncton now has its own council, which we call our Young Women’s Collective. The Collective is more than a work-project for me, it’s the community that I’ve been missing in Moncton so far. You see, while I love Moncton dearly, it’s not exactly a hot bed of activities and events that tie into feminism. The Y Act Up project gave YWCA Moncton a chance to bring together a group of young feminist women who were interested in shaping our community, a chance to create a community that wasn’t there before. Over the last few months, as the Collective grew and gelled, it became clear that the project wasn’t just about the work we were planning; the very existence of the Collective, the creation of such a space, was an act of civic engagement.
Given this, it’s fitting that the Collective’s upcoming first action is to create a space for women and girls—just women and girls—in our community for an evening. On February 14th we celebrated Galentine’s Day as part of the Girls Action Foundation’s National Day of Action for women and girls (we also received financial support for this from the Foundation, which we’re super appreciative of). Galentine’s Day is a playful alternative to Valentine’s Day, where the focus is on friendships between women instead of romantic relationships. We sold cards, pins, and zines, and hosted a Galentine’s Carnival that will invite women and girls to celebrate each other.
The Collective and Galentine’s Day may be very much community-based, and we might may not have taken on any ‘big time public concerns’ (yet!), but the work we’re doing is important, the fact that our group exists is important, and it will change the community we live in for the better. Because of this, it’s an act of civic engagement that I’m fiercely proud to be involved with.
As I said before, other YWCAs throughout Canada have also set up Councils through the Y Act Up program. You can visit www.thinkbig-startsmall.ca to see if there’s a Council in your area (you can also read up on all kinds of issues that affect women and girls, as well as get information on how to bring about change in your own community). Lots of the Councils will be doing activities on March 1st as part of YWCA Canada’s Big Day of Change initiative, which is all about taking action in your community to create change. If you’re interested injoining a Council, March 1st is the perfect day to check it out! If you don’t have a YWCA or a Council nearby, you can always start your own group using the resources on the website. After all, starting a new project—even a small one—because you’d want to add more to your community is an incredible act of civic engagement.
Written for Faze Magazine by Beth Lyons