Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Minnesota's number one rankings: More to the story

By all accounts, Minnesota is number one. Released November 2, the Minnesota Civic Health Index 2009: Integrating Civic Engagement into Community Life, indicates that Minnesotans vote, volunteer, attend public meetings, donate to charitable organizations, and more, in higher numbers than the rest of the country.

Number one in more ways than one

On Monday evening, I participated in a panel discussion about the report's findings with Gary Cunningham of the Northwest Area Foundation, Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. The conversation in the room centered around the stories that are untold merely by looking at the numbers. Despite Minnesota ranking so high in so many indicators of health and wealth, we also rank high in the disparities between the mainstream population and people of color or of lower socioeconomic class. These achievement and access gaps are social and racial justice issues that aren't brought to the fore in the midst of celebrating our first-place rankings.

In this vein, I shared that the first Citizens League event I attended was a breakfast meeting in 2005. From what I could see, I was the only person in the room under the age of 40 and the only person of color other than the videographer. What kept me around and encouraged me to join the Citizens League that morning, however, was the fact that in response to the state demographer and state economist's presentation about the changing demographics of Minnesota, I heard genuine concern amongst members in the room about whether or not Minnesota would be able to provide for its increasingly diverse children as it had its older citizens in the form of good jobs, affordable post-secondary education options, and a high quality of life. I was convinced those people, the members of the Citizens League, were truly interested in tackling the issue.

Four years later, I've come to learn that the Citizens League is not only a think tank, but also an action tank. I'm now co-facilitating the Quantum Civics leadership development course for emerging leaders, active with the young adult Action Groups, and a member of a board of directors that more and more resembles the diversity of our great state. We have much more work to do in becoming the kind of organization that can help shape the kind of state we envision, but if the past few years have been any indicator, we are well on our way.

Perpetuating the civic tradition


Much has been made of the rising Millennial generation. We’re closer to our parents, want to ensure that the work we are paid to do is connected to our life’s purpose, and have been engaged with service-learning and community service opportunities through school and religious organizations since we were young. This seems to translate, among my peers, into pounding-the-pavement activism, joining book clubs, volunteering at nonprofits, or fanning causes on Facebook. And if not that much action, then at least socially conscious discussion and decision-making on issues ranging from recycling to what kind of coffee to buy or whether to eat organic and how large a carbon footprint one would leave as a result.

Page 8 of the Minnesota Civic Health Index states, “One important finding of the national Civic Health Index points to the importance of widely communicating stories about civic traditions and current practices. Knowledge of the existence of a civic tradition turns out to be a powerful predictor of civic engagement. People who know that there is a civic tradition are much more likely to be civically involved.”

If a sense of a strong civic tradition and actual civic engagement are truly linked, I'm compelled to keep sharing my perspective of our local history. I spoke positively on Monday evening about the community of young people that I see engaged in Minnesota and working to develop its citizens and civic infrastructure. While that put me at risk of sounding naive or overly-optimistic, I'm proud to be a part of this great civic tradition in Minnesota and want to continue telling that story. This story, of course, celebrates the fact that our civic tradition now includes a whole host of new cultures, ethnic groups, and ways of engaging across them.

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