West Virginia Center for Civic Life

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The West Virginia. Center for Civic Life is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps engage our citizens in community discussions of important public issues that affect our state and nation.

Think. Talk. Act.

Our Work: Civic Engagement Hub

The West Virginia Center for Civic Life is the hub of a network of people who want to improve their skills in engaging citizens in the civic life of their communities and of organizations that are working to engage productively with the communities they serve.

What is civic engagement?

Photo by "Muffett"Civic engagement includes a wide spectrum of public interactions that make it possible for citizens of all ages to participate in decisions and actions to improve the life of their communities.

Civic engagement is more than recruiting volunteers or involving stakeholders. It means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It is aimed at improving the quality of life in a community--through both political and non-political processes.

Another way to say it is that civic engagement makes the civic life of our communities strong and healthy. When civic life is healthy, communities have the civic capacity to create and sustain community life and public policies that are purposeful and self-directed.

What does healthy civic life look like?

In a community with a healthy civic life, you will find many people with a sense of urgency about improving their community. There will be many opportunities for people from various neighborhoods, institutions, and agencies to work through problems, consider solutions, and share a variety of resources to address them. You will see evidence of active participation in real opportunities to make a difference such as

These kinds of structures and systems in a community create civic capacity to respond to new challenges as they arise, even very difficult ones such as natural disasters or economic downturns.

In a healthy community, civic engagement never ends. People want to make a difference. As people take advantage of well-planned and organized opportunities to make the place they live all it can be, they create more opportunities for others to play their part and share in the work of community development.

How can we have civil and productive public conversations?

“Great discoveries invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.”
                                    Alexander Graham Bell

A reality of community life is that before people can act together, they need to be able to talk together. They need to engage in dialogue and deliberation.

When done well, these public conversations create the space for real dialogue so everyone who shows up can tell their story and share their perspective on the topic at hand. Dialogue builds trust and enables people to be open to listening to perspectives that are very different from their own.

Deliberation is key to civic engagement work as well, enabling people to discuss the consequences, costs, and trade-offs of various policy options, and to work through the emotions that tough public decisions raise.

There are many engagement processes that help citizens have honest, civil, and productive conversations—even on highly controversial issues—in public meetings.  Some of these practices are used throughout the country, such as National Issues ForumsStudy CirclesAppreciative InquiryListening ProjectsOpen Space, and World Café.

It is important to match the kind of process with the primary purpose for engaging the public, such as exploration of an issue, transforming a conflict, decision making, collaborative action, or a combination of many.

When people engage in public dialogue as a way to engage the community in thinking together about public issues, they have a much larger purpose than drawing a crowd and filling a room with opinionated people. When citizens deliberate about an issue and when a community has a habit of making public choices together, the directions they choose are often better and have a legitimacy that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Most effective dialogue and deliberation processes have several elements in common:

  • Neutral facilitators who work with the group to establish guidelines for fair and productive conversation;
  • A framework for discussing the issue at hand that nonpartisan and inclusive of a wide range of public views;
  • Diverse participation of the many sectors of the community; and
  • A plan for using the dialogue to inform action—future work in the community by individuals, volunteer groups, nonprofit organizations, policymakers, and governmental agencies.

How can dialogue lead to action?

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
                                                    Margaret Mead

Public dialogue can lead to may different kinds of change, from individual behavior to organizational and public policy developments.

Once people have talked through what is valuable to them and have identified some common ground around an issue or problem, they may work together to develop a common vision, an assessment of current needs and resources, and a plan to get where they want to go.

When citizens participate into a diverse, democratic conversation—a deliberative dialogue-- ideas for collective action inevitably spring up. There many ways to structure effective dialogue-driven community action , such as Action Forums and Possibilities Forums.

Common to all are the importance of bringing everyone to the table, building community connections, and organizing structures to share the work.