Local Civic Leaders: Facing Threats to Democracy in Communities

Back to Summer 2023: Volume 112, Number 2

By Nick Vlahos and Matt Leighninger

This article reports on the “Local Civic Leaders” research, a partnership between the Kettering Foundation and the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League.

By examining the work of local civic leaders, we can get a better sense of what is actually happening to American 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.

We wanted to explore questions related to how local civic leaders are faring, so we interviewed a diverse array of local civic leaders, including faith leaders, librarians, nonprofit directors, community development workers, community activists, and business leaders, among others. Their different contextual experiences led to a set of overlapping themes that capture how civic leaders work to enhance democracy. The profiles of the local civic leaders we interviewed reminds 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 models and practices.

One of the main threads across these conversations was that they have a wealth of lived and professional experiences that help them engage with harder-to-reach populations and across political divides. One of the reasons for the success of local civic leaders is that they are very clear about serving all people regardless of their political attachments.

The democracy-saving and enhancing capacities of these leaders - as well as the weaknesses and limitations they face - can be instructive for all kinds of efforts to make democracy more inclusive, participatory, and equitable.

Creative Forms of Civic Leadership

Some of these leaders are mobilizing civic participation to make progress on a particular issue, such as intergenerational engagement between seniors and young people, equal accessibility of services to rural and urban communities, and encouraging voter participation. Others are addressing multiple issues at the same time or trying to set up ongoing opportunities for communities to address one issue after another, as they arise.

There are five notable ways in which these leaders carry out their work:

  1. Advancing Social justice and Systemic Change
  2. Building Bridging Networks
  3. Augmenting Civic Participation in Formal Institutions and Processes
  4. Plugging People into the Public Services
  5. Deepening Civic Conversations

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 pandemic thus hindered civic leadership in certain ways, but it enabled it in others. Local civic leaders learned to be resilient in the face of exigent circumstances. 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. If new ways to provide civic services were carried forward in a rapidly changing social and economic climate, then there was also a need to take a step back and apply a more measured and dialogical approach to prioritize how best to move forward.

At the Local Level, Process Beats Polarization

Local civic leaders work in settings where, despite political diversity, they 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. As a result of this approach, polarization is not always a daily challenge that civic leaders encounter; other aspects of their work tend to take on more importance, including addressing immediate needs as well as scaling their work to better serve their communities.

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

All of the local civic leaders we interviewed embrace racial and economic equity as core goals of their work. There are, however, variations in how they think about equity and act on these goals: some are focused on creating equitable processes for public decision-making and problem-solving; others go beyond that focus and 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 in the first place.

In these interviews, we heard about local civic leaders addressing equity in a number of ways. The strategies included: 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 we interviewed 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, and to getting to the next level of expanding the remit and scope of work.

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, in order to connect people in ways that makes their work easier and more effective. In this way, doing engagement might be done in replicable but less expensive and resource-intensive ways. 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.

Scaling and evaluating civic engagement activities is at the heart of broader aims that local civic leaders strive for. The ability to expand the remit and scope of civic activity along with measuring and evaluating their impact continues to be an ongoing process that comes up against a variety of difficulties.

Conclusion

Looking at democracy through the eyes of local civic leaders is a somewhat surprising exercise given the national media coverage of political polarization.

We found that in many cases, local civic leaders are:

  • Wanting to collect more data and measure the impact of their work more effectively, but in most cases lacking the tools, access, staffing, and skills to do
  • Increasingly focused on achieving equity in outcomes, not just processes, but struggle with connecting racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups to sustainable public
  • Adept at understanding the daily needs and direct motivations of potential participants (rather than just appealing to residents’ sense of civic duty), but doing this intuitively and on the basis of immediate relationships, and lacking the capacity to take a more scientific or scalable approach.
  • Wanting to engage larger, more diverse numbers of people, on a more regular basis, in order to spread the individual benefits and political power of their work, but in most cases lacking the tools, staffing, and skills to do this.

Recommendations that might help support and advance the work of 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
  • 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.

We’d like to thank David Cline, Tukwila, Washington; Hollie Cost, Montevallo, Alabama; Hillary Do, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Jerome Fletcher II, North Port, Florida; Leslie Garvin Elon, North Carolina; Derrick Hammond, Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Barbara Laimins, West Chicago, Illinois; Tabora Marcus, Albany, New York; David L. Nevins, State College, Pennsylvania; Marie Pyko, Topeka, Kansas; Karen Reyes, Erie, Pennsylvania; Leilani Salvador, Oakland, California; Emanuelle Sippy, Kentucky; Rachel Belin, Kentucky; Nancy Kranich, New Jersey.

Nick Vlahos is Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League. 

Matt Leighninger is Director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners