Original article published Saturday, January 18, 2013
Missourians are more likely to volunteer and to do favors for a neighbor than the average American. But their level of civic engagement depends greatly on their circumstances.
A new report on the state’s civic health, issued by six Missouri universities and the National Conference on Citizenship, found that Missouri largely aligns with the rest of the nation on community involvement.
The report measured political activity, but also whether residents volunteered, helped their neighbors, or attended public meetings.
Michael Stout, an associate professor at Missouri State University and co-author of the report, says many people underestimate the difference they could make by getting involved.
“When we think about how to address the issues that face our communities, we tend to think about government or the private sector,” Stout said. “We don’t talk a lot about the role our communities can play, and the human element - the neighbors we have, the relationships we nurture.”
The report showed that Missourians who volunteer tend to be more involved in other civic activities as well.
Yemi Akande-Bartsch, with the nonprofit group FOCUS St. Louis, says there’s enormous potential for change when individuals are engaged.
“We need to know our neighbors,” Akande-Bartsch said. “We need to be able to have a bigger network, so we can do work that’s in the greater good of the community and leave a legacy that’s impactful.”
Both nationally and locally, some people are more involved than others.
“It’s those of means – those that have advanced education, those that make more money – they’re the ones who are volunteering and who are involved in politics,” says Amanda Moore McBride of Washington University, who also helped write the report. “That raises great concerns around justice.”
The report found that residents of St. Louis, in particular, were more likely to be registered to vote, but less likely to take non-electoral action like discussing politics with friends.
Report authors Amanda Moore McBride and Mike Stout appeared on St. Louis on the Air Thursday with Rick Skinner, vice president of the volunteer center at United Way of St. Louis, to discuss their findings. McBride is associate professor of social work at Washington University’s Brown School and Stout is assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University.
Stout said he hoped people reading the report and hearing the discussion would come away with two points: first, that communities can play a role in solving problems.
“When we tend to think about most of the problems that exist in our world and in our society and in our communities, we focus either on the political system to address problems or the economic system to address them,” Stout said. “One of the things that I think gets left out of the discussion when we only focus on those two types of institutions, is the role that our communities can play in fixing our own problems and actually taking responsibility and coming together, building those networks and working together to make a positive impact.”
And secondly, that it is important to build programs that can help bridge the gap between civic engagement opportunities and disenfranchised people.
“As people become clustered into social networks of people who look more like themselves, and as resources such as income, education and things like that become clustered into kind of these segregated networks, it cuts off access to opportunity and ladders of mobility for people who would otherwise like to get involved but may not have access to those resources to do so,” Stout said. “We need to focus on intentional programs for making those connections.”
McBride also had two key takeaways: a call for increased political action and fitting community mobilization with the needs of the community.
“Volunteerism or charity is not a substitute for political action. And where we stand on the indicators of political engagement, we’ve got a long ways to go,” McBride said.
She described community mobilization as needing direction and cited the need for more tutors and mentors in public schools.
“We know our public schools need volunteers. But they need them like they need them,” McBride said, suggesting that schools be able to communicate their needs to the broader community and direct what form of volunteering takes place.
For Rick Skinner of the United Way of St. Louis, the civic engagement report is an opportunity to motivate people to volunteer. He said the key to volunteering is connecting with your passion, and directed St. Louisans interested in volunteering to the United Way website, where they can see what volunteer opportunities are available.
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