Essay II: Local Civic Leaders: Facing Threats to Democracy in Communities

By examining the work of local civic leaders, we can get a better sense of what is happening to democracy, including the threats we face and what we might do about them. Local civic leaders are up-close observers of political polarization, racism, and economic inequality, and they are on the front lines of many efforts to address these challenges.

Local civic leaders have a wealth of lived and professional experiences that help them engage with harder-to-reach populations and across political divides. The profiles of the local civic leaders remind us of the ecosystem of democratic practices that make up civic life – and which are in some cases left out of the discourse in democratic theory and analysis, which tends to prioritize single scales, models, and practices.

We wanted to explore questions related to how local civic leaders are faring, so we talked to faith leaders, librarians, nonprofit directors, community development workers, community activists, and business leaders, among others.

There are notable ways in which these leaders carry out creative forms of civic work:

  • Advancing Social justice and Systemic Change
  • Building Bridging Networks
  • Augmenting Civic Participation in Formal Institutions and Processes
  • Plugging People into the Public Services
  • Deepening Civic Conversations

Below, we provide a snapshot of the findings from our full Local Civic Leaders report.

Download report here.

Pivoting During the Pandemic

Every organization that conducts civic and community activities was forced to pivot during the pandemic. Much of this shift entailed introducing digital forms of communications. The forced and abrupt transition to digital activities was a double-edged sword: in some instances, it created barriers to bringing people together for work that is best done in person, and in other instances it opened opportunities to restructure core missions and create more accessibility and inclusion. The work never stopped even at the height of Covid-19 because leaders, community members and the broader public found new ways of building out teams across space, focusing on digital transitions, including but beyond the active use of Zoom, and the realignment of internal missions.

At the Local Level, Process Beats Polarization

Local civic leaders work in settings where despite political diversity, they often do not allow deep ideological differences to enter how they work in their communities. Instead, they remind everyone that they are not partisan, and are expressly focused on uplifting the voices of new immigrant communities or other underserved populations. Where others are actively able to deal with political polarization, it’s because they focus their energy on thick civic engagement processes that emphasize listening and respectful dialogue across positions. What these experiences tell us is that processes that help people listen authentically to one another can help them learn from different experiences and backgrounds.

Equity in Processes, Outcomes, and Meeting People’s Needs

Many local civic leaders embrace racial and economic equity as core to their work. Some are focused on creating equitable processes for public decision-making; others want to ensure that the outcomes of processes are themselves equitable; and some believe that meeting the daily needs of marginalized groups is essential for allowing them to participate. Some of the approaches local civic leaders use include developing arts-based forms of engagement to inspire new visions of change; provide grants and training opportunities for community members to engage in civic activities with the necessary tools and resources; educating youth and members of the public on political ideas and campaign initiatives; and engaging the public in formal consultative processes in connection with equity policies.

Humility in Leadership

The local civic leaders work in democratic ways: rather than using information or relationships to exert power over others, they are creating spaces for citizens and new leaders to step forward. This humble approach is effective – and it may mean that their contributions are overlooked and undervalued. Local civic leaders are enablers of civic agency in a variety of ways. In one sense this revolves around building awareness of other organizations that exist, and that members of the public are more readily able to reach out to and get involved. In another sense, civic leaders build awareness of how different types of processes and systems operate at an institutional level. Learning new and efficient ways to navigate bureaucratic and funding processes for further building up the capacity of civic participation can go a long way in removing barriers to entry.

Scaling and Evaluating Civic Leadership Activities

Civic leaders have a common desire to build better and more effective processes. This includes evaluating programs and measuring key indicators. It also includes devising operating procedures, removing inefficiencies and duplicate efforts across organizations, to connect people in ways that makes their work easier. Local civic leaders think about long-term sustainability in terms of a) embedding their work, b) handling discrepancies within internal and external systems, and c) aiming for their and other organizations to be ‘organically’ better able to mobilize, lead, and do civic work.

Ways to Support and Advance Local Civic Leaders:

  • Greater collaboration: at the local level, cooperation between leaders trying to engage residents in different settings and issue areas, and at the state and national levels, connections between leaders working in different places;
  • More support from local institutions, given that engagement requires time and skill, and there seldom seems to be enough people (paid or unpaid) to carry out the work;
  • More concerted efforts to take stock of the civic infrastructure – networks, organizations, grassroots groups, past history of engagement, local online spaces – of their communities;
  • Tools and processes that will help them measure processes, outcomes, and attitudes;
  • More effective, scalable tools and approaches for reaching out to community members, particularly among under-represented groups;
  • More versatile engagement processes that can help them interact with people ‘where they are,’ especially in hyperlocal online spaces, homes, and workplaces.
*The research conducted for the Local Civic Leaders report was supported by the Kettering Foundation.


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