Monday, May 5, 2008

Civic Summit: Getting from Small to Large

The civic mind begins with small things.

Rough patches left in the pavement in Roslindale by a utility company. The way a precinct in Beacon Hill with low voter turnout in city elections keeps getting redistricted. Or the dissatisfaction by a Grove Hall resident with quality-of-life services: “Things just don’t get done,” she says.

When more than 450 people gathered Saturday for the “civic summit” at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, most of them were from either neighborhood groups or non-profits. Both kinds of groups usually cover a limited territory. For the neighborhood groups, it often means land use or public safety. For non-profits, it’s the economic development project, the social service, or advocacy for a particular need.

But the summit co-chaired by City Council President Maureen Feeney was supposed to help groups move beyond their usual boundaries. Even as participants arrived, they were given stacks of business cards so they could follow up on new contacts from around the city.

Feeney reminded them of a low point in Boston’s civic engagement, the 14% turnout of registered voters in the 2007 election for City Council. But Mayor Thomas Menino and the event’s other co-chair, the executive director of the Mass. Convention Center Authority, Jim Rooney, brought up some high points of civic engagement, from the War to Independence to the opposition that stopped the extension of Route I-95 through Boston.

The morning workshops were closer to the small things: zoning, organization building and resources, political action, and getting out a message through the media. But the people taking on these topics at the workshops were from all around Boston. And the topics themselves often require organizations to think beyond their own territory and natural allies—whether in a dispute over land use or in being portrayed by the media.

At lunchtime, there was a shift toward a larger perspective, in a talk by Dr. Thomas Sander, Executive Director of Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sander compared the recent gains and losses in civic engagement to the beginning of the 20th century, when new groups took shape in response to immigration and the massive population shift from the countryside to the city.

A century later, Sander explained, there have also been dramatic changes. He acknowledged research indicating that racial diversity can make people close ranks more closely among their own kind, while being less trustful of others. But he vouched for the advantages of social capital, even on a small scale. One example: getting to know neighbors is more effective at reducing crime than increasing coverage by police.

“We didn’t think the answer is that we all ought to live in gated communities,” said Sander.

Likewise, during the town meeting after lunch, small things connected to something larger. Participants from Dorchester noted that desirable streets could be only stone’s throw from a “hot spot” for gun violence, just as a student attending a prestigious exam school can ride the same bus route on which another student was fatally shot last year.

When asked to identify the “most important issues” facing Boston, more than three hundred participants put education and youth development in first place, followed by economic development and public safety. They also identified education and youth development as the issue that would benefit the most from civic engagement, followed by public safety and the environment.

Other results from the town meeting showed there was a gap between the turnout at the summit and Boston’s population. Almost three-quarters of those at the summit were white, and two-thirds were at least 45 years old. They listed concerns about youth participation, a disconnect between citizens and government, even feelings of “us vs. them” in community groups.

But, for all the concerns and the demographic mismatch, participants tried to figure out their next move. For the year 2020, their goal was a city with a 100% high school graduation rate and a school system on par with those in the suburbs. For the year ahead, the list began with after-school tutoring, a campaign against litter and graffiti, and more summer jobs.

They were only lists, but the small things had gotten larger.