CBC TorontoOntario Votes 2011

Toronto Votes

Civic Muscle: citizens are more than irate shoppers

(Part 2 of 5)

It's the kind of conversation that's happening not just in Toronto, but in cities across North America, as citizens find that the biggest obstacle to city-building is often their own civic institutions.

Harry Boyte
Harry Boyte (CDC)

Harry Boyte is co-founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Michigan. He also chaired the civic engagement committee for President Barack Obama's election campaign.

Boyte says municipal governments across North America have adopted "a corporate model of governance" in which civil servants see themselves as the experts, providing citizens with services.

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What you get with that model, says Boyte, is "citizens as irate shoppers". He believes that civic engagement has atrophied in recent decades thanks to a pervasive and global consumer culture.

"It's a culture," says Boyte, "that produces a me-first attitude and a kind of whiny-ness, a grasping-ness, instead of a sense that WE'RE building this place."

Boyte says his research suggests that young people in particular are looking for a bigger role as citizens -- a hunger reflected in the centre's Public Achievement campaign in which teams of young people build a project around a public issue, anything from recycling to reducing crime in their community to building a skateboard park.

The initiative has spread to 23 countries, yielding a wealth of data on civic engagement.

Hunger for meaningful action

Cahul, Moldova
Students in Cahul, Moldova, created a group to help sick people get timely access to medicine. (CDC)


"We see a real hunger among young people to feel consequential," says Boyte. "Young people grow up in an environment in which they're entertained or sold things as consumers, or filled up with knowledge. But there are not many opportunities for young people to be challenged to be productive or to be consequential, or to make an impact."

Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Elinor Ostrom's groundbreaking research into the role of citizens in maintaining public resources won her the Nobel in economics last year.

In her book Governing the Commons, Ostrom argues that the best way to manage public resources -- from parks to fisheries to forests -- is not through privatization or by government, but through citizens who are given significant control over their particular piece of "the commons."

Building civic muscle takes work

Boyte, a colleague of Ostrom's at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, says Ostrom's research underlines the importance of what he calls "civic muscle."

"Civic work of that kind," says Boyte, "is sustained and it's consequential and it's hard and it takes time and it develops civic muscle."

And, says Boyte, there is nothing sentimental about this view of citizenship.

"When people learn how to work with people who are not in their friendship circle or in their family -- people who are different, who have a different political ideology or a different religious orientation, or a different income -- that's work.

"It means learning to deal with people who make you uncomfortable, learning to see different points of view, learning that people who are very different have something to contribute to a community project. So there is a growth involved, a development, a public growth involved in that process."

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