Global Citizens Ask “What Should We Do?”

Global Citizens Ask “What Should We Do?”

by Alan Solomont

As a former United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and now as Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, I see global communities grappling with two major trends. On the one hand, there is a growing sense of urgency about the state of democracy and civic engagement in the United States and around the world. Simultaneously, we face seemingly intractable transnational problems like racial injustice, climate change, food insecurity, epidemics, refugee migration, and internal displacement.

These challenges are interrelated and call for innovative solutions. I believe there is vast opportunity to apply the concepts and methods of civic engagement and leverage the assets of individuals and communities to, ultimately, have a direct impact on these and other global challenges.

At Tisch College, our work on these issues is guided by two core beliefs: first, that communities, nations, and the world are stronger, more prosperous, and more just when citizens actively participate in civic and democratic life; and second, that higher education has a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens.

When we talk about civic life, we should first define what it means. We can start with what it is not. It is not just about voting, though political engagement is an important part of civic life. And it is not the same as civic education, though it is clear that high-quality K-12 civics curricula can help prepare young people to become informed and effective citizens. And finally, when we talk about the requirements and responsibilities of citizenship, we do not refer to one’s legal status in a nation state, but rather to the actions we take in our communities to bring about change.

Civic engagement necessarily encompasses a spectrum of activities. It may take the form of direct community service that is informed by the root causes of social inequity. It may include activism, dissent, and protest; political action and campaigns; community organizing; non-profit work; issue advocacy; or public service at all levels of government. As my colleague Peter Levine, the Associate Dean for Research at Tisch College, has said, civic engagement is the action we take to answer the question, “What should we do?”

Taking this broad view of civic engagement allows us to examine how action in our communities brings about change. As one of many examples, research conducted by Tisch College’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looked at the resiliency of U.S. states and cities during times of economic stress. CIRCLE found that higher levels of civic engagement—as measured by volunteering, working with neighbors on community problems, attending meetings, registering to vote, and voting—had a positive influence on how well states and large metropolitan areas weathered the economic crisis of 2006-10 and how quickly unemployment began to fall with economic recovery. Subsequent research found that the prevalence and type of nonprofit organizations in a community, as well as the level of social cohesion, can further support a community’s response to an economic downturn.

Being active citizens on a global scale compels us to consider this work beyond national boundaries: not because we have all the right answers, but because there is too much we don’t know and cannot learn in isolation. We must engage with our fellow citizens around the world. This is one reason why Tufts University convened the Talloires Conference in 2005 to bring together the heads of universities devoted to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education institutions. The resulting Talloires Network has grown into an international association of hundreds of institutions in over 70 countries that are incorporating civic engagement and social responsibility into their research, teaching and priorities.

In addition, each summer Tisch College convenes the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, an intensive, two-week, interdisciplinary seminar, which brings together students, faculty, and practitioners from diverse fields of study. These sessions generate dialogue on questions like:

  • What kinds of citizens (if any) do good governments need?
  • What should such citizens know, believe, and do?
  • What practices and structures promote the right kind of citizenship?
  • What ought to be the relationship among evidence, ethics, and strategy?

The 2015 Summer Institute included participants from Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Zimbabwe, Liberia, and the Netherlands. We also conducted a parallel institute in Ukraine. It is a testament to the power of these fundamental questions that they apply universally, regardless of geography or relative age of the host democracy.

Going forward, I believe it is worth examining the questions we are not already asking. For instance, what do we ask of citizens in the most challenging situations? What is required in times of trauma and strife? What are the benefits and limitations of civic engagement in the most trying circumstances? These questions apply on the international stage, as well as in our own communities.

So I’d like to end with this challenge: part and parcel of global citizenship is the recognition that we struggle with hard problems, and this is part of a university’s responsibility. Higher education should help students develop the tools to ask these questions of themselves and of their communities, to think deeply about these challenges, and to find ways to address them, both during their stay on campus and, importantly, as they carry on in the world.

Image "Ecovillage Day" Courtesy EarthDayPictures / CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, is dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. Dean Solomont has been an entrepreneur and political activist, and served as the National Finance Chair of the Democratic Party. He was appointed by President Clinton to the bipartisan board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). He was reappointed by President Bush and became chairman in 2009. President Obama named Dean Solomont as the United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra. From 2010 to 2013, he strengthened Spain’s cooperation with the United States on matters of global security and economic policy, and worked tirelessly to support increased trade and investment between our countries. Dean Solomont has a long history of involvement at Tufts University. He served for ten years as a member of the Board of Trustees and he was the founding chair of the Tisch College board. He was also a visiting instructor at Tufts, teaching a political science course on the American Presidency.

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