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Education, mentoring seen as bridges to civic engagement
A lack of knowledge and a perception that their opinion doesn't matter stops some citizens from being involved in the community. Yuma residents gathered Tuesday in a mini-town hall to discuss how they can overcome these obstacles and encourage civic involvement.
At the end, participants summarized their thoughts and ideas in a statement. Among the group's conclusions: Education needs to be a bridge to lifelong civic engagement, and youths need to be engaged through use of social media and mentoring.
The community outreach program followed the 100th Arizona Town Hall that took place April 22-25 in Tucson, with “Civic Engagement” as the topic. That gathering resulted in a consensus of recommended actions.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan organization came to Yuma to share the recommendations and get input from local citizens, with a promise to carry their voice to the rest of the state.
“The end of this program is about you, as representatives of the Yuma community, telling each other what you think are the most important recommendations,” said Tara Jackson, president of Arizona Town Hall.
She pointed out that civic engagement is not just about voting. “It could be different things. Sometimes it's reaching out to a neighbor, it could be a block watch. No one piece fits all.”
Communities must also take into consideration different cultures and ethnic groups, she added.
“The strength of a community, the resilience of a community, is all tied to the members of the community, how they are connected to each other.”
Community ties are often missing, as indicated by a 2008 Gallup Survey that shows citizens do not feel connected to each other or their communities, Jackson said.
Two Yumans who attended the 100th Arizona Town Hall — Madeleine Coil, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Yuma County, and Judy Gresser, western regional manager of Yuma Community Foundation — shared their thoughts and experiences Tuesday. Linda Elliott-Nelson, dean of instruction at Arizona Western College, hosted the discussion.
“I didn't think initially civic engagement would be charged with so many ideas,” Coil said, noting her group focused on education and leadership.
What Coil took away from the Arizona Town Hall, she said, is that United Way of Yuma County needed to be more engaged and proactive in encouraging civic engagement. In response, the local organization formed a committee with the aim of encouraging civic involvement.
For Gresser, she noted, civic engagement means all individuals should have the opportunity to participate in the community. People need to take ownership and find new ways of doing things, such as online voting.
After a discussion led by Elliott-Nelson, Jackson created a Yuma statement summarizing the recommendations attendees believe should receive priority and how they can become a reality.
Jackson also announced that Yuma community leaders are organizing a youth mini-town hall to take place simultaneously with the Arizona Youth Town Hall Oct. 24 at the Arizona State University Tempe campus. For more information, call Arizona Town Hall at 1-602-252-9600.
To download or order copies of the full report from the 100th Arizona Town Hall, go to www.aztownhall.org or call 1-602-252-9600.
The lack of knowledge that our high school graduates and our residents have of our government systems is problematic. It's critical that we support efforts to improve civic engagement in our educational institutions. Education is a bridge to lifelong civic engagement.
To improve voter engagement, we need to improve the materials that describe the propositions on the ballot. There should be a clear and unbiased description of propositions that voters can access to make an informed decision.
We should also increase the opportunities for voting, perhaps by extending the time and methods of voting. We also need a PR campaign that changes the mindset of the average person who feels that their opinion doesn't matter. To help with this goal, the government needs to make more of an effort to listen to the public and to have transparency.
We should also incorporate technology and recognize that our youth use social media as part of their engagement. While social media and technology represent opportunities for more engagement, they can also be barriers to personal involvement. We should affirmatively reach out to youth and bring them to community meetings or support those organizations that are currently mentoring youth in how to be involved in their community.
With respect to voting, we need to take into account voter fatigue, especially when political races are drawn out. We should consider limiting the time period of political races and depoliticizing some positions such as the county treasurer. Ultimately, though, residents need to take ownership of being engaged in their communities — whether it's contacting a local official or voting.
Civic engagement in of itself is not enough. Uneducated engagement creates significant problems in Yuma. We should support efforts to inform Yuma residents about local officials and relevant political issues. We could do this at places like the art walk or festivals throughout the year and especially when it's not an election season.
Ultimately, it starts with each of us, whether it is mentoring a youth, reaching out in creative ways to those who are not engaged, building better relationships with our younger generations, supporting organizations that are already active in these arenas or encouraging our children and our grandchildren to be engaged.