WACO—Civic engagement involves “crossing the bridge” from being a consumer of what a community offers to a creator of what it has the potential to become, a Waco-based community activist told the Civic Life Summit at Baylor University.
Creators of community operate in “a lively state of optimistic discontent,” Ashley Bean Thornton, senior director for informed engagement and continuous improvement at Baylor, told the summit, convened by the university’s Public Deliberation Initiative.
“Whatever else we are … we are all citizens,” she said. “We are responsible for building the kind of community and world that we want.”
Thornton, chair of the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee named by the Waco City Council and a leader of Act Locally Waco, acknowledged when she was growing up, her involvement in volunteer community service was limited to helping with Vacation Bible School at church or participating in an occasional mission trip.
“I was a terrible Campfire leader and was the world’s worst Big Brother/Big Sister mentor,” she confessed.
Change in perspective
She gained a new perspective in August 2006 when she accompanied a group from Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco to a Passport camp for students in New Orleans. As part of the missions camp, teenagers participated in helping residents clean their homes and neighborhoods a year after Hurricane Katrina.
“It was the biggest mess I had ever seen and ever hope to see,” she said.
The group with whom she worked noted New Orleans’ wealthy residents had recovered from the hurricane and resultant floods, and middle-income residents made significant progress toward recovery. But for the poor, “the hurricane might as well have been last week,” she said.
However, one high school student voiced an observation that changed her perspective: “We have poverty just as bad in Waco.”
When she returned home, she began to research her city’s poverty rate and discovered the truth in the student’s comment. Although she acknowledged lacking the spiritual gifts of mercy and compassion, Thornton said her discovery “offended my sense of how systems should work.”
She began to attend meetings of various community-improvement organizations and social service agencies, and she eventually even ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the city council.
Along the way, she made another discovery.
“We are at our happiest when we are working on something meaningful and doing it with other people,” she said.
Thornton offered suggestions for becoming engaged in civic life:
- “Start to talk like a creator.” Instead of focusing on what “they” are not doing in a community, claim ownership by speaking of “we” and “I.”
- “Start working on a personal vision of the community you want to live in.”
- “Find others who care about what you care about.”
- “Get in the game in some small way. … Then get involved to the point where it is aggravating.” Begin by giving a small donation or volunteering on a limited basis. Then move beyond “the point of feeling good to doing good.” Evaluate whether involvement is moving the community toward one’s personal vision of what it needs to become.
- “Take the time to appreciate the people who are already involved and working.” Value the contributions of other people who are building the community in different ways.
She also emphasized the importance of moving outside one’s usual circles of acquaintance to have meaningful conversations with other people in the community. That may just mean sharing social activities or enjoying walks together, she noted.
“Everything doesn’t have to be about saving the world,” she said. “Part of saving the world is just getting to know each other.”