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diary of an Oiste volunteer

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Expanding Community: A Reflection on Civic Engagement

This semester while enrolled in a course on civic engagement and citizenship for which I volunteered at a Latino political organization, ¿Oíste?, I was given an opportunity to truly indulge in philosophical discourse with myself.  I questioned what it meant to be civically engaged, to be a citizen of the world, and to lead ‘the good life’; but as this was my last semester of undergraduate study, I also applied such themes to my own life. What is my role as a citizen of the world? How does this apply to my views on education? And perhaps most importantly, how does it apply to my life after college? To say I’ve been going through a crisis of identity is an understatement. Self-identification has been a grueling yet rewarding process, and is far from over. To say that self-examination is ever over, or that identity is stable is a farce to say the least. As the world around us changes, we constantly reconstruct ourselves within our world, and must shift our attention to matters the world over, while simultaneously focusing on the self.

Before this semester, I held to the Eriksonian viewpoint that in the stages of development, we must first establish identity and go through a crisis of who we are, before engaging in the crisis of intimacy, or who we are in relation to others (Erikson, 1980). But now I can’t help but believe that it is a synchronized process. We shape who we are in relation to others constantly, a crisis that is never resolved. As I’ve grappled with the topics of the course and completed my volunteer experience with ¿Oíste?, I have also gone on a personal journey of self-exploration; a journey that, I am excited to say, is far from over.

            My class on civic engagement required that I volunteer (or civically engage) with an organization that focuses on specific themes of citizenship: immigrant rights, English language classes, and citizenship exams.  I chose to volunteer at a Latino political organization called ¿Oíste? for its twofold politics and advocacy agenda, as well as the friendly email I received from the director of advocacy, Anna, as I was hastily sending emails to different organizations and deciding which to join. Anna’s enthusiasm (marked by the abundance of exclamation points in her emails) was contagious, and I wanted to be part of an organization with such a dedicated (albeit small) staff.  I, a Caucasian American with Irish and Scottish roots, was certainly an outsider of this Latino organization: I don’t speak Spanish, I am a middle class college student attending a private school, and I haven’t had that much direct interaction with Latinos, as my hometown had a population that was incredibly homogenous (96% white). My volunteer term at ¿Oíste? was therefore one in which I truly crossed cultural boundaries and in some ways became more of a world citizen. Despite this cultural difference, ¿Oíste? targets change in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and so the issues at the heart of the organization pertain to me, a citizen of Massachusetts. I was essentially becoming an active member of a community that I didn’t know I was already a part of.  A shift in the term ‘community’ as well as an adoption of the role of a global citizen were predominant themes in my work with ¿Oíste?. As I grappled with the issues of ideology and practice, I was able to advance both the organization and myself.

The mission of ¿Oíste? (www.oiste.net) is to “advance the political, social and economic standing of Latinos and Latinas in [Massachusetts]” through “civic education, leadership development and civic engagement.” ¿Oíste? holds that a democratic society is one in which citizens participate equally (cited in MacDonald, 2011a, 1). ¿Oíste? believes that if Latinos are politically engaged, they will be better citizens, and therefore be more responsible in their creation of a more democratic community (MacDonald, 2011a, 2).  Thus the organization’s goals are Communitarian in nature. According to Etzioni (2003), “Communitarians…pay much attention to the relationship between the self and the community. Responsive Communitarians stress that individuals who are well-integrated into communities are better able to reason and act in responsible ways than isolated individuals” (3) (cited in MacDonald, 2011a, 2). Thus legislation weighted unequally towards those who are less advantaged and who participate in politics less is justified because it will enhance citizenship and benefit the community as a whole. To achieve its mission, ¿Oíste? has created programs such as the Initiative for Diversity in Civic Leadership(IDCL), a 16-week training program (taught at Suffolk University) for aspiring candidates, appointees, public servants, and campaign staff. ¿Oíste? also works with the Boston Police Department in their ¡Despierta! program (which translates to “wake up!”). Such programs directly respond to the need to engage citizens through civic education, in hopes of increasing their political participation and effectiveness (MacDonald, 2011a, 2). In addition to community programs, ¿Oíste? pushes for legislation that will further its goal of engaging the Latino population.  During my volunteer period at ¿Oíste?, I wrote persuasive support letters for those bills, helped to create curriculum for ¡Despierta!, and contributed to the newsletter for the IDCL program.

Anna Stifano, the Director of Advocacy at ¿Oíste?, runs the ¡Despierta! program. During the 10-week program, participants learn about all aspects of the community and how they can get involved (or be civically engaged).  ¡Despierta! is a partnership between ¿Oíste? and the Boston Police Department, in which Anna and members of the police department teach classes in Spanish to convey to the community their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The police department’s role is not only to teach the community about self-defense and organize community watch groups, but also to break down the barriers that often exist between immigrant groups and the police.  This program allows the police to bridge trust with the Latino community, so that together they can help to make the community safer.  In this way, the citizens engage actively with the community by cooperating with a community group (the police). The goal of ¡Despierta! is to get Latino citizens civically engaged, and the program demonstrates ways in which engagement is possible. While the program emphasizes social advocacy and engagement, Anna believes that before members of a community can be engaged, they must be educated in civics. Therefore ¡Despierta! also includes classes on citizenship and government. My role in this was to construct a simple lesson on state and local government. My lesson included information on the branches of government, the titles and roles of elected officials, as well as information on their specific district representatives. By understanding how government works, Latinos can become more engaged and be actively involved in legislation that is passed that directly affects them.  This echoes the notion of Community Matters “Civic Education and Political Participation”, which states that a key to a civic engagement education is not only hands on, experiential learning (like in IDCL), but also information on civics (Galston, 2005). Knowledge of government is necessary to take part in the political process, so ¡Despierta! helps Latinos in the first few steps toward becoming civically engaged. Other supplementary lessons include what the community can do with this information on civics, and provide information on where to vote, how to start a community watch program, etc.  Such education is essential to the engagement that is necessary in a democratic society. Galston (2005) writes, “Civic knowledge promotes support for democratic values. The more knowledge we have of the workings of government, the more likely we are to support the core values of democratic self-government” (29).  Therefore knowledge of government precedes political action, and ¿Oíste? makes sure to outline the state of government before providing the tools to alter it.

¿Oíste? also runs a program with Suffolk University called the Initiation for Diversity in Civic Leadership (IDCL). During the program, all of the students learn the skills to run a successful campaign, with hopes that they will be elected to government office and create positive change for the community. The program is focused on people of color, in order to increase the civic engagement of those who are at risk of falling prey to the civic achievement gap (MacDonald, 2011, 2). This program provides hands-on, experiential learning, where students must create campaigns, fundraise, go door-to-door, and actually raise a certain amount of money. This echoes Community Matters (2005) approach to civic engagement because it cannot simply be taught in a classroom. In “Solving the Civic Achievement Gap,” Levinson (2005) writes “Experiential civic education helps students learn and apply a significant amount of civic knowledge, develop a number of civic skills, embrace positive civic attitudes, and practice important civic behaviors” (18). Classroom teaching must be supplemented with hands-on experience so to foster the desire to become civically engaged. Here lies the notion that rather than receiving mere government assistance to better the community, it is better to have the community pull itself up through education and engagement. Therefore, rather than trying to persuade politicians to benefit the Latino community, IDCL helps Latinos get into politics and start advocacy campaigns so to better their community themselves. In this way, ¿Oíste?  really focuses on community betterment, and focuses on those in a specific community (sometimes only Latinos, but mostly people of color).

Similar notions serve as the foundation for this course. While the class provides lessons and discussions on civic engagement, all students are required to also become civically engaged, volunteer at an organization, and log their experiences. This way, formal teaching can be supplemented with experience. While some may say that you cannot force someone to be an engaged citizen, I believe that sometimes one doesn’t understand the inner need to engage until he/she does it. For instance, I began working with an organization called Peace First, which teaches elementary aged children social emotional learning, conflict resolution, and leadership skills, with lessons and projects involving civic engagement. It runs with the notion that if students become engaged in their communities, they can help improve their communities and make them a better place. I started volunteering to reduce my semester workload by one paper, which was beneficial immediately. But after the semester was over, and I was free to stop my work with the organization, I remained. I found that I enjoyed teaching and helping students. Had I not been given the task as a requirement, I may never have discovered that particular passion.

To truly engage in a community, one must feel included in the community. But if ¿Oíste? targets a specific community of which I am not a member, how can I really benefit the organization? The answer lies in the definition of community. “While ¿Oíste? does not conceal its goal to enhance to civic opportunities of the Latino population in the state, the goals of the organization should not be interpreted as catering to individual interests” (MacDonald, 2011a, 2). ¿Oíste? addresses the inequalities between Latinos and the rest of society in order to improve the quality of citizenship (by increasing the opportunities for individual citizens) in Massachusetts, and thus improve all of society. The goals include specifically bridging gaps in education and politics.  The problem with gaps in both academic and civic achievement is that many who can afford to help don’t ever see the extent of the problem, ignore it, or rationalize that it does not affect them. The refusal to allocate funds unequally to those who need them more is often frowned upon by those who can afford to get less.  Even so, the majority of society must support legislation for it to affect change, so those who do have proportionately more need to support laws that would benefit others in society. When it comes to passing statewide legislation to help achieve that goal, ¿Oíste? cannot simply rely on those legislators who represent heavily Latino districts (MacDonald, 2011a, 2).  Instead, they must expand their notion of community from Latinos, from people of color, and to all of the citizens within the commonwealth of Massachusetts. This notion of community expansion, in my opinion, does not counter ideologies of either Liberalism or Communitarianism but rather shifts political ideologies towards that of a more global approach. In this way, expansion of community directly relates to the concept of a global citizen; in order to become a global citizen, one must expand his/her community to that of an entire state, to an entire country, and then to an entire humanity.

As stated in MacDonald (2011a), one legislative issue I’ve worked on has been the passing of a law that aims to decrease the high school drop out rate in the state of Massachusetts. But rather than focus an argument for it’s passing on the direct community of drop outs (which disproportionately includes Latinos and other minority and immigrant groups), the argument for ¿Oíste? was one of a broader notion of community. Together, we argued that the presence of drop outs not only affects those small communities in which drop outs live, but rather the entire Commonwealth, because drop outs drain funds from the state for public housing, welfare assistance, incarceration, and add little to state funds in terms of income and property tax. Finally, high school drop outs are far less likely to vote or be involved in politics in any way, so they are also a drain to the state in terms of citizen quality. Here, we can assume that everyone in the state wants Massachusetts to have funds that can be allocated for their needs, and that funding for welfare, incarceration, and other public assistance uses up funds that could be given to better the state in other ways. Therefore, our argument to legislators was not to support the drop out bill so that specific neighborhoods could benefit, but rather so that the entire state, the entire community of Massachusetts, could benefit. In this sense, the whole of the community needs to be on par with each district’s standards (specifically in terms of education) in order to keep the community running smoothly. If one area (or demographic) of Massachusetts falls behind, then the entire state falls behind. This rests on the notion that citizens are intertwined, as the governmental body of the state represents all of its citizens. Thus legislative decisions impact not just the immediate beneficiaries of the bill, but also citizens of the entire state. The individual is therefore not an individual, but one among many within the body of the state. And because the presence and actions of others around the individual impact the individual, it is in the individual’s best interest to have some standard of quality apply to all of those citizens around him/her, not just to those in the individuals immediate vicinity. By shifting the mindset of a group, and by calling attention to what really impacts an individual, this expansion of community mediates between Liberal and Communitarian ideologies and finds a practical application to the theory.  

If the Liberal viewpoint points specifically to the individual (Etzioni, 2003) and we’re living in a Liberal society in which legislators must cater to the needs of individuals in their districts, we must use arguments appealing to this ideology.  The goal is therefore not to make individuals more altruistic but rather make them see that their needs are intertwined with those in the rest of the state. Such a solution is in no way novel, as Rawls indirectly comes to it in A Theory of Justice. As cited in MacDonald (2011a), Rawls (1971) proposes that the most just (and therefore ideal) stance to take as a citizen is the original position, in which one does not know what position he/she is in (in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic class) and therefore must make decisions based on that uncertainty, within that veil of ignorance. Rawls (1971) theorizes that by using this veil of ignorance, citizens would act in accordance to what was most fair to those who were least well off in society, as each citizen could be the least well off. Rawls therefore begins to mediate between Liberal and Communitarian views by arguing that with this veil of ignorance the Liberal-minded individual would support laws that were also best for the community (MacDonald, 2011a). As Rawls’s theory is analyzed, it is evident that the solution he finds to this dilemma of justice in political organizations is exactly that which ¿Oíste? uses to persuade legislators into supporting specific bills. Even the principles upon which Rawls bases his theory are in line with ¿Oíste?’s mission.  First, Rawls claims that the state must be an association of equal citizens if it is to uphold liberty (Rawls, 1971, 212). Each citizen’s opinion is equal; the most just solution is therefore to maximize the amount of political participation of each citizen.  This aligns with ¿Oíste?’s goal to bridge the civic engagement gap and to increase the political participation of Latinos in Massachusetts. These goals are met, as stated above, through their IDCL and ¡Despierta! programs, as well as in their push for legislation which serves to increase the political involvement of Latinos.  Second, Rawls argues that social and economic inequalities must be arranged so that the greatest benefit goes to the least-advantaged under the difference principle, and offices are open to everyone under the fair equality of opportunity (Rawls, 1971, 303). This means that institutions should enhance equal opportunity for education and culture for all citizens (MacDonald, 2011a).  This argument is matched specifically with ¿Oíste?’s IDCL program which helps people of color get elected into political office and run advocacy campaigns. It is also supported through ¿Oíste?’s push for the English Language Learner bill, which would give English Language Learners (ELLs) more time to learn the language before being put into special classes. As many ELLs are Latino, this expansion of time would allow more Latinos to grasp English and excel in mainstream classes, as opposed to being put into classes of those with learning disabilities which would hinder their academic achievement. Thus ¿Oíste? aims to enhance political engagement by promoting campaign opportunities and educational equality for those who are the least advantaged in society.

Since a just society is one in which equal citizens all participate in the political process to maximize individual liberty, society must cater to those least advantaged (to enhance their level of participation) in order to make society the most equal, the most just, it can be (Rawls, 1971).  As democracy depends upon equality it is unjust for one to vote in his/her individual interest MacDonald (2011a, 5) cites Rawls: “Representatives are not, to be sure, mere agents of their constituents, since they have a certain discretion and they are expected to exercise their judgment in enacting legislation” (1971, 227).  Since just legislation is that which promotes equality for all by enhancing the position of those least advantaged in society, legislation supported by ¿Oíste? appears to be just, and therefore should be passed by legislators. But in order for legislators to vote in favor of such bills, they must understand that the community that they represent is larger than their individual districts; it is the entirety of Massachusetts. Thus, they must use their judgment for the good of Massachusetts, and our use of persuasion must be centered on that idea. Our arguments for the drop out bill were consistent with this notion since we argued that the presence of high school drop outs in the state poorly impacts not just specific districts, but rather the entire state.  Therefore Rawls and ¿Oíste? remedy Communitarianism and Liberalism by suggesting that the individual interest is in the community. He assumes, therefore, a limit to how much people are willing to benefit those outside of their community. Rawls (1971) writes, “The theory of justice assumes a definite limit on the strength of social and altruistic motivation. It supposes that individuals and groups put forward competing claims, and while they are willing to act justly, they are not prepared to abandon their interests” (281). Therefore, the strategy is to make people realize that their interests and the community’s interests are the same.  Those laws that benefit the least well off actually benefit every individual, because those laws ensure that each citizen has a fair chance to participate actively in government and engage with the community to improve it. A drop out prevention bill, therefore, cannot be seen as mere public assistance, or betterment of the least well off, but rather as legislation that benefits the entire community and therefore the individual. Again, this notion of community is expanded from individual districts to the entire state.  The broadening of community also expands the area in which individual interest lies; if the individual can be persuaded that his/her interests are those of his/her community, then a broadening of ‘community’ expands the area in which the individual’s interests are.

Expansion of ‘community’ is what makes possible world citizenship; if one expands community to the world, then he/she will realize that what betters the world (in even the most distant corners) also benefits him/her as an individual. For if one can expand ‘community’ from city to state, then it seems feasible to expand community to the world. Rawls’s mediation provides the basis and justification for world citizenship. Nussbaum (1997) defines a world citizen as a “citizen whose primary loyalty is to human beings in the world over, and whose national, local, and varied group loyalties are considered distinctly secondary” (9, cited in MacDonald, 2011b, 2). If one operates under the veil of ignorance, one’s loyalty is to humanity, as he/she cannot know his/her social group; loyalty must be reserved for all so that community is expanded to include everyone. To be a world citizen is therefore the most just arrangement, and is a natural product of the mediation between Liberalism and Communitarianism. Further, it allows for both the individual and the group to flourish, as the individual realizes that his/her individual interests lie in the community, so that anything that benefits the community indirectly benefits him/her. 

Much of the discussion in this course was of world citizenship and its feasibility. While some suggested that it was impractical to assume that one could be a citizen of the world, I maintain both the plausibility and absolute necessity of world citizenship, which starts with education.  The process of civic education and learning about different cultures provides a lot of room for thinking about one’s individual identity. It is the process of mediating Liberalism and Conservatism, except backwards. If one can understand that the individual naturally has self-interest in mind, and that laws aiming to benefit one group in a community inadvertently benefit everyone (and thus the individual), the same expansion of community can allow for introspection. This is actually part of what Nussbaum argues when she says that liberal education allows one to more truthfully reflect on his/her own culture. This individual and introspective journey that also bridges boundaries between groups is completely necessary. Nussbaum (1997) quotes Socrates by writing that the unexamined life is not worth living.  Critical introspection is, according to Nussbaum, “not just somewhat useful; it is an indispensible part of a worthwhile life for any person and any citizen” (1997, 21, cited in MacDonald, 2011b, 6).  This examination of the self through awareness of the Other was not suggested first in this class, nor through Nussbaum, but rather has been discussed since the time of ancient Greek philosophy. Nussbaum (1997) writes, “We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notion of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world” (8, cited in MacDonald, 2011b, 5). The study of other cultures requires critical examination of oneself. Self-awareness is thus a necessary byproduct of a liberal education, as it is required for it. One must be willing to be critical of the familiar in order to really evaluate the Other. As we become aware of practices outside of our own culture, we are forced to critically examine the familiar in order to make sense of justice in light of this new knowledge. Gained knowledge of the Other and self-examination happen simultaneously, and nurture both the understanding of the unfamiliar as well as the understanding of what has been taken for granted as familiar. Nussbaum writes that if one makes a critical assessment of one’s own views, and reevaluates one’s values, then one can truly ‘own’ one’s thoughts (Nussbaum, 1997, 35 cited in MacDonald, 2011b).  Thus the understanding of others allows for a more truthful understanding of the self, which is necessary to be a world citizen. A world citizen must go on his/her own process of identity development and understanding in order to find commonality with all of humanity and designate the world as his/her community. Critical self-reflection, brought about through liberal education and civic engagement, is therefore necessary for world citizenship.

It is therefore feasible and absolutely necessary to become a world citizen. In fact, as Rawls’s mediation between Liberal and Communitarian ideologies finds a rational solution through world citizenship, becoming a world citizen is the practical answer to modern battles of ideology. But despite the necessity and practicality of world citizenship, such self-reflection and understanding of the Other is incredibly difficult.  Nussbaum (1997) writes that becoming a world citizen “is, in effect, a kind of exile — from the comfort of assured truths, from the warm nestling feeling of being surrounded by people who share one’s convictions and passions” (83, cited in MacDonald, 2011b, 3).  It’s lonely to have no in-group but rather to view everyone as part of your community. I think beyond the notion of abandonment of the familiar and arbitrary group we are born into, the notion of exile centers around the process of self-reflection. Becoming one with others involves the development of one’s own identity, one’s own position relative to everyone else. This process is a lonely one insofar as it must be completed by the individual. But that is not to say that this process must be done alone. As mentioned before, self-reflection can take part in the presence of others, or more specifically, in the presence of the Other. Being among the unfamiliar makes one hyper aware of him/herself and creates room for self-reflection.

Which brings me back to the question of how I, an ‘outsider’ of the Latino community, could work at ¿Oíste? without being the condescending, privileged Other who would save the day. First, I had to apply the same respect and morality to those of the Latino community as I do for my more local groups. Failure to do so could result in what Nussbaum (1997) calls descriptive romanticism, or viewing a culture as exclusively alien and other. MacDonald (2011b) cites Nussbaum’s assertion that viewing the other as alien means objectifying and simplifying it to a mystical form one cannot understand (Nussbaum, 1997, 125).  Descriptive romanticism hinders the practical expansion of community that is necessary for world citizenship. Making the Other entirely foreign creates a slippery slope of relativism in which the Other’s community cannot possibly align with one’s own community, and therefore cannot possibly be as pertinent to the individual. Therefore, becoming a world citizen and engaging with the Other should not enforce an assumption that the familiar and the Other are incompatible, but rather should make one aware of how his/her cultural values and assumptions are shared by and differ from the Other.  While volunteering at Oiste, I therefore also had to realize that the Latino community is my community. The Latino community is part of Massachusetts; I am part of Massachusetts, therefore I am part of the Latino Community, in the sense that the community we are discussing is Massachusetts. The wellbeing of Latinos affects me, just as the welfare of those in Africa affects me. This common humanity cannot be ignored, as it sadly often is, even when it’s a community whose base is less than a five-minute walk from Emerson’s campus (which is where ¿Oíste? is located). That’s not to say that I am Latina, but rather that Latino burdens are my burdens, and a benefit for Latinos benefits me as well. Just as we asked legislators to expand their community, I too had to expand my idea of community, so that I was not some well-off outsider saving the day, but rather a concerned member of the community who wanted to help make it flourish. Overall, I was able to move toward becoming a citizen of the world, which would allow me to, as Nussbaum claims, “see lives of the different with more than a casual tourists interest with involvement and sympathetic understanding” (1997, 88).  By including the Latino community in my notion of community, I was able to view ¿Oíste? not in the eyes of a visitor but rather as a member, which I feel is necessary if one’s community service is to be beneficial to both the organization and the self.

My exploration into the unknown through civic engagement became simultaneously an exploration into the familiar, an exploration into the self. My experiences with ¿Oíste? have led me to discover where differing ideologies can be practically mediated, so that the values of immigrant groups can be the values of the general population. It has allowed me to see where my optimism can be placed, as I’ve found an avenue in which the interests of the disadvantaged can be supported by the advantaged.  It’s also led me to see that I value such compromise, and that I truly feel that the responsible person is one who places the needs of the community above selfish aims; in that sense, the needs of my community are my needs. I’ve also learned that I truly support Rawls’s notion of the difference principle, of unequal distribution benefitting those least advantaged in society, and I will hold such beliefs with me in my future path.

Next year I will be serving as an AmeriCorps member for Peace First, an organization that services low income communities by teaching elementary aged students social-emotional learning, conflict resolution, and skills of peace making, while partnering such curriculum with service learning projects. Such an organization echoes Nussbaum’s notion of Civic Education, Levinson’s notion of bridging a civic engagement gap, and Rawls’s theory of justice. During the interview for the position, I was asked why I wanted to be a Peace First AmeriCorps member. I responded by saying that I felt a moral obligation, a responsibility to help. I said that I felt that if I didn’t use my talents to help others gain equal footing, then I was being irresponsible. Such ideas no doubt existed in me before this semester, but were most definitely cemented through our discussions on civic engagement. I look forward to my future of philosophical exploration that was sparked by this course and my future endeavors as a citizen of the world.

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