What Is Civic Engagement? Definition and Examples

Voters voting in polling place
Volunteers help people vote at a polling place. Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Civic engagement means participating in activities intended to improve the quality of life in one’s community by addressing issues of public concern, such as homelessness, pollution, or food insecurity, and developing the knowledge and skills needed to address those issues. Civic engagement can involve a wide range of political and non-political activities including voting, volunteering, and participating in group activities like community gardens and food banks.

Key Takeaways: Civic Engagement

  • Civic engagement is participation in activities that improve one’s community or address wider social issues.
  • Civic engagement can involve political and non-political activities.
  • Typical forms of civic engagement include participating in the electoral process, volunteering, and advocacy or activism.

Civic Engagement Definition

Civic engagement describes how individuals become involved in their community to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. Drawing on the ideology of communitarianism, the active involvement of people through civic engagement seeks to secure the common good. The success of civic engagement activities depends on the tendency of people to consider themselves to be an integral part of society and therefore view problems facing society to be at least partly their own. Such people recognize the moral and civic impact of problems facing their community and are willing to work to correct them.

The activities of civic engagement seek to address issues in several major aspects of society including family life, the economy, education, health, the environment, and politics. Similarly, acts of civic engagement can take several forms including individual volunteerism, engaging in communitywide projects, and participation in the processes of democracy.

It should be noted that these forms of participation are often interrelated. That is, participation in the political and electoral process often helps address problems in other community societal areas such as the economy, police policy, and public health. For example, working or volunteering to help elect community leaders who support low-income housing can help relieve homelessness.

Types of Civic Engagement

The act of civic engagement can be conducted in three main ways including electoral participation, individual volunteerism, and advocacy, or activism.

Electoral Participation

The freedom of citizens to participate in the formation and procedures of their government through the electoral process is the foundation of democracy. Besides the obvious and vital act of voting, civic engagement in the electoral process encompasses activities including:

Volunteerism

Since Benjamin Franklin formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, volunteerism has been a hallmark of civic engagement in America. The desire of Americans to help each other as well as their community through volunteering is a proud part of the nation’s legacy.

A few common examples of volunteerism include:

  • Collecting and donating food to food banks
  • Helping groups like Habitat for Humanity build houses
  • Joining a neighborhood watch group
  • Helping to grow food at community gardens
  • Helping with recycling and cleanup efforts

The federal Corporation for National and Community Service reported that during 2018, over 77 million adult Americans volunteered through community organizations.

Activism and Advocacy

Activism and advocacy involve working to bring about political or social change through increasing public awareness of and support for particular causes or policies.

Some common acts of activism and advocacy include:

Though typically associated with the protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many expressions of activism and advocacy take place at the community level and have become for more common since the rise of the internet.

Impact of Civic Engagement

The impact of civic engagement can be seen in a few of its more notable success stories.

The Cajun Navy

Formed during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Cajun Navy is a group of private boat owners who volunteer their time, effort, and equipment to assist in searching for and rescuing storm victims in Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states. Since Katrina, volunteers of the Cajun Navy have helped with rescue efforts after the 2016 Louisiana floods, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Florence, Tropical Storm Gordon, and Hurricane Michael. During those and other flooding disasters, the Cajun Navy has been credited with rescuing thousands of people.

Habitat for Humanity

Driven by the belief that affordable housing is a key to stable communities, Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that helps low-income families build and improve homes. Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity volunteers have helped nearly 30 million people build or rehabilitate homes. Often working as a volunteer himself, former President Jimmy Carter sponsors the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, Habitat for Humanity’s annual home-building blitz.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn attach siding to the front of a Habitat for Humanity home being built June 10, 2003 in LaGrange, Georgia.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn attach siding to the front of a Habitat for Humanity home being built June 10, 2003 in LaGrange, Georgia. Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

The March on Washington

On August 28, 1963, approximately 260,000 people participated in the largest single demonstration of the American Civil Rights Movement—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. Advocating for the civil and economic rights of Black Americans, the march grew from a swelling tide of grassroots support and outrage over racial inequality. It was at this march that Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech demanding an end to racism. Seen on television by millions of Americans, the march helped President Lyndon B, Johnson pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Improving Civic Engagement

According to the 2022 release of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy’s survey of Americans’ civic knowledge, only 47% of U.S. adults correctly named all three branches of government, down from 56% in 2021. Only 24%could name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. And 51% think Facebook, a private company, is required to abide by the right to free expression, which it is not. 

Annenberg’s research showed that among those who knew the correct answers to their civics questions, one detail was predominant: they had studied civics in high school.

Voter turnout dropped significantly when schools stopped teaching civics, around the same time that states started mandating graduation exams for math, English, and science—but not social studies. When young people are taught to participate civically in their communities they are more apt to vote and more open to being active citizens, from showing up to running for office.

In response, California and four other states are now offering a State Seal of Civic Engagement to students who complete a series of criteria that range from studying how government works to completing service projects and research papers that demonstrate an understanding of our participatory form of democracy. 

In 2018, Pennsylvania enacted Act 35, a law requiring all public school students in grades 7-12 to take a test of U.S. history, government, and civics. The goal is to instill in young people an understanding of how taking action—civic participation—is critical to citizenship in America. Similar to the test given to immigrants before they become citizens, Pennsylvania’s school test features multiple choice questions about how the U.S. government works, and the completion of an essay based on events in U.S. history.

Sources and Further Reference

  • "The Definition of Civic Engagement.” The New York Times, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_defi.html.
  • Smith, Aaron. “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age.” Pew Research Center, April 25, 2013, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2013/04/25/civic-engagement-in-the-digital-age/.
  • “Volunteering in the United States, 2015.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm.
  • “What Does Civic Engagement Mean for Local Government?” CivicPlus.com, https://www.civicplus.com/blog/ce/what-does-civic-engagement-mean-for-local-government.
Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "What Is Civic Engagement? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Oct. 4, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-is-civic-engagement-definition-and-examples-5072704. Longley, Robert. (2022, October 4). What Is Civic Engagement? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-civic-engagement-definition-and-examples-5072704 Longley, Robert. "What Is Civic Engagement? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-civic-engagement-definition-and-examples-5072704 (accessed October 5, 2022).