Civics task force aims to rekindle citizen participation

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2001

For years, there's been lots of hand-wringing over low voter turnout and lack of citizen participation in government and other community affairs.

Instead of just whining about people's cynicism and apparent disinterest in their community, state and nation, Alaskans are trying to turn that lack of involvement around.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer named 14 Alaskans to a civics task force which will help guide the Alaska Democracy Project, an effort to renew interest in civics both inside and outside the classroom. Among those 14 is Sammy Crawford, who is vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education and active in the League of Women Voters.

Crawford and others on the task force will be working to rekindle enthusiasm for citizen involvement.

The mere mention of "civics" is likely to conjure up images of boring, irrelevant high school lectures. That's unfortunate, because real "civics" is about as relevant as it gets.

Civics is active participation in democracy. In fact, it's the cornerstone of our democracy. It includes voting; volunteering for a political campaign; running for office; giving elected officials your opinion; engaging in thoughtful discussion in public forums (such as Letters to the Editor); attending school board, city council and assembly meetings; serving on community boards; and volunteering for any number of worthwhile causes. The list goes on.

In short, "civics" is being an involved member of the public, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

The only way people become good citizens is to understand that they can make a difference, to understand their vote and voice and helping hands really matter. Good citizenship understands the power of one. It understands that what we do -- or don't do -- can make our communities better or worse. It's not someone else's job, it's ours.

Just a theory, but one likely reason people don't vote or don't get involved is because the idea that they can make a difference is foreign to them. There's also no recognition that what government does benefits them personally. Why would anyone want to be involved in something that makes a mess of everything it touches? Unfortunately, that's some people's view of government -- an impersonal, bureaucratic blob that's out to get them.

The community leaders, educators and business people who make up the civics task force certainly have their work cut out for them. But they need only look as far as the Kenai Peninsula to find excellent examples of "civics" in action.

One of the best is the "Caring for the Kenai" environmental awareness project. In that project, a partnership between business and education, students are asked to answer the question: What can I do, create, invent or improve to better care for the environment of the Kenai Peninsula?

The answers over the past decade have resulted in national recognition -- including an opportunity for some of the winners of the contest to meet President George W. Bush earlier this year.

Other great examples come out of the city of Soldotna and Soldotna High School, where students have been involved in a variety of projects that improve their community. The city of Soldotna has helped by awarding "mini grants" to fund some of the students' ideas. Students have worked on trails, built amenities for parks such as a fish-cleaning table and a shed, organized a blood drive and developed a Web site for Bridges Community Resource Network -- to name just a few.

The projects have one thing in common: They connect students to the place they call home and to neighbors they have never met before.

If civics is the cornerstone of democracy, and we believe it is, then that connection to a place and its people is the cornerstone of civics. The way to get people involved -- whether it's by voting or volunteering -- is to make them feel connected.

It would be hard to underestimate the value of the civics task force and the Alaska Democracy Project. The very foundation of our government depends on an informed and involved citizenry.

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