Pay heed to the disengaged

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By Alberto Olivas

One morning, before heading to the Arizona Town Hall on Civic Engagement, I had breakfast with my mother. “What’s this thing you’re going to?” she asked me. “Well,” I said, “It’s a meeting of community leaders and representatives from all over Arizona. We’re going to discuss how to get people more involved in their communities, more informed about political issues, and more active and engaged with one other as citizens and neighbors.”

“Hmm,” she said skeptically, “It’s not gonna work.” Now, as a board member for the Arizona Town Hall, the sponsor of this event, you might think I would find such a comment coming from my own mother to be a little off-putting. But, I have learned that, by paying attention to the perceptions and skepticisms of people like my Mom, I could learn a lot about policy-making and community change in the real world. 

I first learned this lesson one evening when my family was gathered to watch one of the debates leading up to the 2000 presidential election. During a break, my mother shook her head and revealed to us that voting was, to paraphrase her words, “for chumps.” At the time, I was the Voter Outreach Director in the secretary of state’s office. I argued with her, but, when I cooled off, I realized that there was an important message that I needed to hear in her cynicism. 

My mother is not a hardened cynic or a callous misanthrope. She, like many in our community, has been so often let down by politicians and “community leaders” that she has lost confidence in our political system and in our key community institutions. So, when she cast a skeptical eye on the usefulness of a statewide gathering to discuss civic engagement, I tuned in.

“Why do you say that?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “they want people to volunteer and to go around doing neighborhood drives and things. Working people aren’t going to do that; they don’t have the time that upper class and retired people do. Also, people don’t trust each other here, or want to do anything for each other.” 

“But that’s not true, mom,” I countered, “You help out the old folks across the street and do other things for your neighbors all the time. “Yes,” she said, “but lots of people don’t really know what resources there are to help people with their problems, or how to get involved when and however they can. They should do more to educate people about these things. They should offer things that people need, and use that as an opportunity to educate them about community issues and resources, like giving away food baskets or offering dental exams. Those are things that would get people’s attention.” 

I agree. Too often we rush to judgment about “disengaged” or “disenfranchised” members of our communities. If we press them, we can learn a lot about the concerns and misperceptions that need to be addressed, before we can make any meaningful change in the community. Just a few weeks earlier, Arizona Youth Town Hall participants said much the same thing. One of their key findings was that, until we confront the social justice issues that impact our community, we can’t really expect everyone to be fully invested in political or other forms of civic engagement.

At the main Town Hall, recommendations included: educating people at home, in public schools, in higher education, and in the workplace to be engaged and active citizens; removing barriers to engagement; and confronting incivility in public discourse, such as in online commentaries, social networking platforms, and in the news media. There were also recommendations about how government agencies need to do more to educate the public about policy issues and how to play a meaningful role in governmental decision-making.

Most importantly, to my mind, the recommendations recognized the need to view unengaged young people and minorities not as problems to be fixed, but as resources to be tapped. We won’t always know exactly how to do that, but, by bringing them into the conversation, we will discover opportunities to learn from and engage them that may otherwise never have surfaced. Town Hall has reinforced my conviction that everyone cares deeply about their communities. Given the chance, most people will step up and be glad to take part in finding solutions.

Alberto Olivas is Director of the Maricopa Community Colleges Center for Civic Participation, and is on the boards of directors for Kids Voting Arizona, Valley Leadership, Arizona Town Hall and the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. View the recommendations from the Town Hall at

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