It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as the eaters of the pie instead of the makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
The Transit Alliance
Our staff received the best kind of email this week.
I work for Transit Alliance, a Colorado nonprofit with the mission to empower citizens to lead the transformation of Colorado’s mobility future. Our largest program for working toward this mission is our Citizens’ Academy, a seven-week educational program with a competitive application process to learn about multimodal transportation services and the connections to economic development, health, housing, sustainability, and social equity. We host the Academy twice a year and boast over 800 graduates from our ten years of the Academy.
The aforementioned email was sent by a Spring 2016 graduate of the Citizens’ Academy. Since finishing the Academy, she has taken several steps to promote and encourage multimodal transportation options in her neighborhood, University Park. In less than a year, she has assembled a Mobility Issues Committee, which has surveyed 197 neighborhood residents. The results of this survey are now informing the work of the local transportation management association in their planning for two nearby light rail stations, and she is pursuing further partnership with the city’s Public Works department for additional improvements. Her accomplishments to date are significant, and her efforts will continue to improve transportation options in her neighborhood for years to come. But my favorite part of this email came at the end, where she typed, “If you hadn’t been the cattle prod to make me do a project, I’m not sure that would have happened!”
The cornerstone of our Citizens’ Academy is the Action Plan project. All participants are required to brainstorm a 6-month to year-long project to improve mobility that leverages their passions. The diverse scale of these projects ranges from joining a neighborhood organization in order to advocate for transportation choices to implementing best practices at transit development sites. The Action Plan is baked into every step of the Academy; applicants are required to propose an idea for a plan, we provide activities and opportunities for collaboration with classmates throughout the Academy, and all participants present a three-minute summary of their plan to the group on the last night of the Academy. The description of this project as a “cattle prod” is probably pretty apt. As the program manager, I feel like a significant amount of my job can be described as prodding, because the Action Plan process causes a lot of anxiety for some of our participants.
We spent the past year studying the first ten years of the Citizens’ Academy in order to chart the Academy’s future. This research included delving into nearly 1,000 applications to the Academy, well over 5,000 session evaluations, and a comprehensive survey of Academy graduates. One theme dominated these three research paths: applicants and participants found the Action Plan daunting, mysterious, and difficult. Our participants were overwhelmed by the prospect of designing and implementing a plan for change in their communities.
We believe the Action Plan is vital to the success of our program, because we activate the very concept of citizenship in a society where we have allowed active participation to become largely dormant. Citizenship is now a practice of consumption, rather than a process of collaboration and creation.
I see this individualistic approach to citizenship in the language that groups use to hold politicians accountable and that politicians themselves use on the campaign trail. When a policy is announced or a program is evaluated, the word we use to describe citizens is taxpayer. This is an individualistic conceptualization of how we contribute to society, focusing on individual monetary sacrifice, and not a collaborative process between citizens and society. It also reduces citizen involvement to a monetary, transactional relationship. This spurs the questions, “What if we held officials to be accountable to citizens, and what if we expected all citizens to act as more than just taxpayers?”
At Transit Alliance, we believe that there is a rather simplistic (if slightly painful) way to address this reductive citizenship. Twice a year, we assemble a group of 35-50 citizens and tell them they have to do something. We provide the cattle prod, but we don’t support the Action Plan projects themselves. Astoundingly, this works. Our alumni survey reveals that one-third of alumni complete their projects. This is an extraordinary number of projects implemented across the Denver Metro Region, and we believe this number of successful projects shows enormous buy-in and empowerment. (If you have doubts that a one-third project completion rate is significant, compare that rate to the 7 percent of people who enroll in and follow through with the significantly lower effort of completing a massive open online course through a website such as Coursera.)
I believe that with the Citizens’ Academy model, we are on our way to a regenerative model of citizenship. When the primary relationship between citizen and society is paying taxes, we risk a feedback loop in which citizens are increasingly focused on an individualistic and present-minded conceptualization of citizenship. But, when we call citizens to action, they bring others along for the journey. Take the aforementioned email as an example: we empowered one citizen to action, and she brought 15 new committee members and 197 neighbors along with her in a new relationship between citizen and society—one in which citizens are the makers of the pie. And, we are optimistic from our alumni survey, which shows that that graduates—even those who do not implement their action plan—discuss transportation and civic issues with friends, family, and colleagues significantly more after completing the Academy.
Transitioning to regenerative model of citizenship is vital for the success of regenerative development. Focusing our efforts on a goal beyond sustainability will require an unprecedented paradigmatic shift, and this cultural transition will require brave leadership, stakeholder buy-in, and citizen engagement. In order for leaders to seriously consider regenerative principles, they will need to know that they can count on the support of active citizens who perceive the responsibility they have for a larger whole. Stakeholder buy-in is paramount, as these citizens will provide the necessary expertise, innovation, and support.
And ultimately the success of regenerative development will be borne by engaged citizens who will comprise the critical mass required for implementation. This ask is too big and the stakes are too high to rely on outreach that stops with the dissemination of information. When this movement calls citizens to action, we must emphasize empowered action.
Fortunately, we have a model for doing this. There is nothing mystical about the Citizens’ Academy and our process. We engage, educate, and empower our participants to action by building relationships, connecting the mission with our shared human values, and creating urgency to act by way of the Action Plan.
I believe the sender of the email when she told us, “If you hadn’t been the cattle prod to make me do a project, I’m not sure that would have happened!” We need projects like this to happen in our communities, and there is urgency to act now on issues such as transit buildout, food system reform, and the switch to renewable energy. This means we need to be creating a call to action each day for citizens in empowering spaces to ensure that citizens will be given an opportunity to make more positive change happen.
If you are interested in the nexus of transportation, economic development, health, housing, sustainability, and social equity and you live in the Metro Denver Region, I encourage you to apply for our Spring 2017 Citizens’ Academy.
About Jamie Perkins
Jamie joined Transit Alliance as Program Coordinator after completing the Spring 2015 Citizens’ Academy. She became Program Manager in January 2016 and will lead the planning for the Rural Citizens’ Academy and the growing number of one-day Academy workshops with Cities and Counties around the Metro Region. In addition to her work with Transit Alliance, she is also completing her Masters of Public Policy at the University of Denver. Jamie completed her degree in Sociology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. After time spent in Portland and both Washington, D.C. as a Congressional intern and Washington state as an AmeriCorps volunteer, Jamie returned to her home state in 2013. When not at work, Jamie is in the garden or hiking in the Colorado sunshine.
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