Author Jonathan Tisch has devoted a lifetime to active citizenship, and in his book "Citizen You," he outlines how to use the power of practical creativity and grassroots participation to solve seemingly intractable problems. Tisch challenges readers to join this movement and points the way toward making our world a better place, one person and one neighborhood at a time. An excerpt.
Today’s new activism is emerging at a time when a fresh definition of citizenship is sorely needed — a time of unprecedented challenges on the national and world stage, when citizen engagement is not a choice but a necessity.
Within the last generation, the cold war ended and the fear of nuclear annihilation receded. Today new technologies are enabling cross-cultural connections and business opportunities that were never before possible, and expanding economies like those of China, India, and Brazil have lifted millions of poor people into middle-class status. But growth in the developing world has worsened global pollution, increasing the risk of disastrous climate change, and age-old problems from terrorism to racial and religious hatred to poverty and disease have continued to defy solution.
Now a worldwide financial and economic crisis threatens to reverse the gains of recent decades and return millions to lives of desperate poverty.
Here in the United States, a generation of young people is on the rise that is better educated and better equipped for the future than any in our history. Having largely shed old forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia — they are eager to play their part in helping to solve the great challenges of our time. And in 2008, they took a momentous step in that direction by helping to elect our first “citizen activist” president — Barack Obama, a former community organizer who harnessed the power of idealism and citizen engagement to create what many have called the best run, most innovative, and most broadly inclusive political campaign in our nation’s history. But today’s youth also face challenges more daunting than any since the Second World War — economic collapse, looming environmental disaster, crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional health and educational systems, and festering international tensions.
Rarely has the world been faced with such momentous opportunities and dangers. The election of a smart, charismatic young president is a hopeful sign. But the problems we confront are too enormous to be solved by any one person or even by the massive powers of government alone. The question is: Will we the people dare to reshape the social, political, and intellectual structures that have confined us, making it all but impossible for us to make the right choices for our world’s future? Or will “old thinking” doom us to repeating the same mistakes that made the twentieth century an era of both enormous technological advancement and horrific human suffering?
The new activism holds a possible hopeful answer to this fateful challenge.
• • •
Today, newly engaged citizens are busy on dozens of fronts experimenting with new ways to solve long-intractable problems. In particular, they are exploring ways of transforming old models of civic activism into new ones that may have the power to create more meaningful, far-reaching change. In the process, they are also transforming their own lives, becoming not just engineers, lawyers, or teachers, but citizen engineers, citizen lawyers, and citizen teachers — models of the kind of engagement to which everyone can and should aspire.
Today’s new activism is transforming old ways of thinking about citizenship and social change in the following seven ways.
From volunteerism to active citizenship
For millions of concerned citizens, the old model was about volunteering — “giving back” a portion of your time and resources as a way of expressing gratitude for the blessings you enjoy and, perhaps, of improving the lives of those who are less fortunate. Volunteerism is a proud American tradition, but its impact is inherently limited.
The new model is about active citizenship — taking part in the life of the community, not out of noblesse oblige but because you care about the health of the society in which you live and share a responsibility for its future with every other citizen. Active citizenship doesn’t just mean giving time to the local soup kitchen on a Saturday night (although efforts like that may be helpful, even admirable); it also means examining the root causes of problems like hunger and considering the entire range of actions you can take as a citizen to help eliminate those causes. Where volunteerism tries to alleviate the symptoms, active citizenship strives to cure the disease.
From charity to social entrepreneurship In the old model, affluent individuals and companies who cared about the welfare of society were urged to donate money and other resources (time, talent, goods, services) to benefit the needy. Those who contributed received nothing in return other than a sense of personal virtue and, perhaps, a tax deduction. And when their generosity ran out, or the stock market took a dip, the donations would usually dry up, often leaving the poor worse off than ever.
In the new model, problems like poverty, hunger, homelessness, and disease are tackled by self-sustaining organizations run according to sound business principles and designed to generate revenues even as they help those in need. Powerful examples of social entrepreneurship include Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which turns a profit even as it provides small loans to millions of rural poor, helping them earn their way out of poverty, and the Clinton Foundation’s UNITAID initiative, which has brought medications at affordable prices to 750,000 AIDS sufferers while enabling pharmaceutical manufacturers to make a reasonable profit on each sale.
From targeted philanthropy to systemic change
In the heyday of traditional philanthropy (approximately 1920 to 1985), major donors like the great foundations would award financial grants to individual not-for-profit organizations, which would use the money to support programs aimed at alleviating specific effects of social dysfunction. These efforts helped reduce human suffering and fostered incremental improvements, but they usually did little to bring about large-scale, lasting change.
In the new model, activist leaders are stepping back to examine entire social structures, looking for the organizational problems that prevent them from serving human needs. The goal, however, is not heavy-handed “social engineering” like something out of the Soviet era, but rather a search for leverage points at which a realistic investment of resources can trigger broader, positive change.
Consider, for example, the Harlem Children’s Zone project, which targets kids in a sixty-block area of New York for a broad array of interventions, from parenting workshops and pre- and post-school programs to charter schools and job training, all aimed at reshaping the future for an entire generation of inner-city youth.
From helping a few to building to scale
In the old model, a relative handful of lucky beneficiaries were helped by charitable programs. Often the founders of these programs hoped that their successful efforts would become models for more widespread campaigns — but this rarely happened.
No longer content with piecemeal improvements, today’s citizen activists are taking seriously the challenge of building successful change efforts to scale. They are involving global corporations from Walmart to Procter & Gamble to apply their systems-building expertise to the problem to finding ways to bring needed goods and services to entire countries, even continents. And a younger generation of philanthropists, led by high-tech billionaires like Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar, are sponsoring programs designed to alleviate suffering among hundreds of millions of people using simple, practical, scalable techniques like inoculations, water safety programs, and microcredit.
From lobbying governments to energizing the private sector
It was once assumed that only national governments (or international agencies) had the financial clout and political influence required to address major social problems. That assumption has largely fallen by the wayside.
With the collapse of most former communist regimes, the scaling-back of socialist systems in Western Europe, and the downsizing of government programs in the United States, more and more people are realizing that the private sector — including for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, universities, and other institutions — must carry the main burden of most future efforts to improve society. Thus, in recent years, the major turning points of social progress have involved not the launching of government programs but private efforts, from the launching of healthcare programs by the Gates Foundation to the peacemaking and democracy-building efforts of the Carter Foundation. And leadership in global citizenship is being exercised not by presidents or prime ministers but by private individuals from many walks of life — inspiring figures like Al Gore, Bono, Nelson Mandela, and Warren Buffett.
From modest reforms to entirely new models
Citizen activists once contented themselves with encouraging government, business, and individuals to undertake small improvements in the way they conducted “business as usual.” For example, they might urge corporations to donate funds to help the poor, or to provide products at discount prices to those in dire need.
Today, the greatest energies are being focused on creating entirely new models in both the public and private spheres, often blending social activism, business systems, and government support in novel ways. For example, the private initiative known as One Laptop per Child (OLPC), founded by experts at the MIT Media Lab and funded by high-tech companies, is building powerful, low-cost computers for sale to school systems in such developing country markets as Brazil, Cambodia, and Pakistan. It’s a way of bridging the “digital divide” that combines the best capabilities of business, academia, and government in a way never seen before.
From paternalism to community-based action
Finally, the new activists have learned the pitfalls of traditional top-down, paternalistic forms of social change. They’ve seen how massive aid programs like those administered by the World Bank and other global institutions often fail to meet their goals due to a lack of real understanding of conditions on the ground and the needs of local people.
Today’s smartest citizen activists are partnering with individuals and groups who were once relegated to the role of passive recipients, from Native Americans to indigenous peoples of Africa to inner-city youth in the United States, drawing upon their insights, needs, and preferences when designing programs to foster social progress.
• • •
There are so many incredible opportunities for determined, creative individuals to literally change the world — sometimes in giant leaps, more often in small yet significant steps. Scott Harrison discovered his niche. But additional, equally inspiring examples are all around us.
For example, there’s Will Allen, the famed “urban farmer” who has taught thousands of inner-city residents how to grow nutritious, delicious, natural foods in vacant lots. Son of a South Carolina sharecropper, Allen played pro basketball briefly in the ABA, then settled down with his wife and kids on a small plot of land in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Like many others, Allen became aware of the phenomenon of “food deserts” in America’s cities — neighborhoods where there are fast-food outlets, convenience stores, and liquor stores aplenty, but no places to buy fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. But Allen didn’t just fret about the problem or hope for a solution from city hall. He founded Growing Power, which has created farms in Milwaukee and Chicago and training sites in five other states, each creating neighborhood jobs and producing tasty, good-for-you produce that’s available in local markets, schools, and restaurants. Allen’s programs are improving the nutrition of some ten thousand people and providing a practical model of reform that he hopes to spread to locations around the country. “Chicago,” he tells a visitor with a grin, “has seventy-seven thousand vacant lots.” Imagine how many malnourished people could be fed with the produce of seventy-seven thousand block-size urban farms! Will Allen and his supporters are working to make it happen.
For a very different image of an active citizen, there’s Alex Green, a twenty-year-old high school graduate from Topeka, Kansas, whose mom pushed him into signing up for the National Civilian Community Corps. NCCC is a federal program that provides young people with a modest stipend ($80 per week, plus $4.50 per day in food money) in exchange for essential services — disaster relief, nature conservation, infrastructure repair, and the like. In his two years working for the NCCC, Green has built houses in communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, cleaned up after floods in West Virginia, and cleared fallen timber that blocked hiking trails in a state park in Maryland. Perhaps equally important, Green has grown on the job. As a teenager, he’d experimented with drugs and drinking, and he’d had some scrapes with the law. “I saw community service as a punishment,” he admits. Now he’s become a team leader, supervising a crew of other service volunteers that includes college graduates with business degrees. Green has turned his life around and is busy helping others do the same, while contributing his time, talent, and energy to making America a better place to live.
Or consider Paula Lopez Crespin, a fifty-year-old Latina and former banking executive who rose from teller to vice president of marketing — then abandoned her business career to join Teach for America (TFA), the program that trains aspiring educators for jobs in some of the country’s toughest and most demanding inner-city schools. (Maybe you think of TFA as being tailored specifically to new college graduates. That’s the common assumption — yet currently over 80 percent of TFA applicants are either graduate students or would-be career changers.) Inspired to take this leap by her own daughter, who joined TFA after graduating from the University of Colorado, Crespin passed the program’s grueling admissions process (which accepts fewer than one applicant in eight) and, in June 2009, completed her first year as a math and science teacher for third and fourth graders at Cole Arts and Science Academy in a troubled Denver neighborhood. Her typical workweek stretches to sixty hours. Adding to the challenge, Crespin’s husband has recently changed careers as well, leaving the business world to pursue a master’s degree in social work. The family income has shrunk a bit. But Crespin says, “It hasn’t really bothered us. We are happier than we were.”
As these examples and many others like them suggest, you don’t have to be a millionaire or a CEO to contribute something unique to the betterment of our society. You don’t have to be particularly religious, high-minded, or idealistic. You don’t need the unique talents of a music superstar like Bono or the world renown of a statesman like Bill Clinton. The fact is that everyone has a role to play in the emerging world where active citizens are the driving force for social progress.
Students, teachers, and academic researchers can launch or support programs for social change in their local communities or in needy areas around the world, using their research methods and technological savvy to promote innovative ideas with an immediate positive impact on human problems.
Business managers, executives, and entrepreneurs can apply the resources and talents of their companies to community needs, as the workers and managers of Walmart did when they led the disaster recovery effort in the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina, or as the people of Procter & Gamble are now doing with its Pur water treatment product.
Leaders, workers, and volunteers at nonprofit organizations, NGOs, charities, and foundations can use their experience in tackling social problems to help them develop creative new partnerships with government, business, and citizens’ groups that can do far more in combination to solve humanity’s greatest dilemmas than any single sector could do alone.
And government employees, legislators, and elected officials can put their considerable clout behind the active citizenship movement, providing seed money and other forms of support for promising new programs as well as clearing regulatory and legal hurdles that might otherwise stymie efforts at change.
We hope that everyone who reads this book will be inspired to ask, “What can I do to help make our world a better place?”— and then to devote at least a portion of his or her life to discovering the answer.
Today, the opportunities for individuals to make a real difference are more numerous and varied than ever. When a terrible earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, the island country’s neighbors responded with remarkable speed and creativity. President Obama asked Americans to take advantage of new technology by texting their donations to the relief effort. Within a week, users of a single phone network (Verizon) had contributed three million dollars, ten dollars at a time, and the Red Cross reported receiving more than ten million dollars through texting. Dozens of nonprofit organizations rushed to the scene with medical supplies, food, water, tents, blankets, and rescue equipment. Corporations jumped into the fray: employees at Cargill packaged 20,000 meals for earthquake victims; UPS sent members of its logistics emergency team to set up a supply distribution center in the Dominican Republic; Florida-based Seacor dedicated a construction team to rebuilding Haiti’s largest port to facilitate food and medical shipments; and tech companies from Google and Intel to Apple provided equipment, set up emergency communications networks, and lent experts to help repair damaged infrastructure. And countless ordinary Americans — doctors and nurses, construction workers and firefighters, schoolteachers and psychologists, engineers and clergy — put their personal lives on hold to rush to the scene and offer help.
Reprinted from “Citizen You” by Jonathan M. Tisch with Karl Weber. Copyright © 2010. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. For more ways to get involved, go to