Civic engagement has been defined as “the notion of belonging, the experience of investment, and the position of ownership a citizen feels throughout the local, regional, national and international political communities to which they belong” (Wikipedia, Civic engagement 2005a). It has also been defined as individual and/or collective actions intended to identify and address issues of public concern. It means advocacy on behalf of others, or participation in public or community life (Campus Compact 2005). At the same time it also encourages the participation of the other people in your community as you all together try to address an issue or concern that is
Thus, civic engagement is not limited to individual action. It may involve individual action, such as volunteerism or advocacy, but it is intended to change or benefit a greater public. It is an engagement or commitment to your community, whether it be in the local, political, or national arena.
What are the concepts that relate to civic engagement and how do these concepts affect and raise consciousness about civic engagement?
This paper will analyze the modes of raising consciousness about civic engagement. It will also study how factors such as money, values and stewardship relate to civic engagement.
1. Raising consciousness about civic engagement
The movie industry has always been one of the subliminal ways of raising consciousness regarding civic issues. Film makers attempt to raise our consciousness for the need for civic engagement by making movies that portray characters involved in civic engagement activities, or movies that revolve around key issues that film makers feel the public should be conscious about.
In his film A Day Without A Mexican, director Sergio Arau attempts to raise the American people’s consciousness over the plight of the Latinos. In this movie, the people of California is enveloped by a cloud, and one day its inhabitants wake up to find themselves unable to communicate with other people outside the state. Worse, it wakes up to find that all the Latinos in California mysteriously disappeared.
The state goes into mayhem. The people they rely on — such as their cooks, gardeners, nannies, police officers, and construction workers — have also disappeared. This movie has been tagged as a “mockumentary” but carries a strong social and political message from its director Arau, who co-wrote the script with his wife (Clyne 2004).
The message behind Arau’s movie is clear: people take for granted the work that Mexicans/Latinos do. Mexican residents, whether legal or illegal, oftentimes perform the type of menial labor that their white counterparts refuse to do (HARO Online 2005). Arau also shows Mexicans employed as teachers, doctors, and politicians in the movie – thereby implying that California, wherein the Latino community is the largest minority group, would be crippled with this sector of society.
The movie explores the state’s biases by its non-Latinos. The character of Senator Steven Abercrombie for instance displays a clear racist dislike for the Mexicans, and shows how white American is often clueless about the history, background and ethnicity of this minority group. At one point in the movie, Senator Abercrombie declares: “All Latinos are Mexican anyway!” (Clyne 2004) Yet he still turns to them not only for his daily needs, but to get elected. One of his aides in the movie said: “Hating them got you senator, loving them will get you governor.” (Clyne 2004)
What Arau seems to be doing in this movie is to point out that white America simply refuses to do certain kinds of work, and depends on the Mexicans to perform this kind of labor. White America, following Arau’s storyline, is also dependent on Mexicans, not only for menial labor, but for other social, political, and economic employment as well.
The movie also shows that there are many layers to what outwardly seems to be just a single issue – not only white Americans with or without their biases, but Mexicans and their sense of identity, and their awareness of their role in the so-called “American Dream”. The movie also shows Mexican immigrants who, although residing in the U.S., have remained locked within their own culture. Many of them still refuse to learn English, and live in barrios where the way of life seems untouched by American customs even if they are located in California.
Arau thus points out that although non-Latinos may be guilty of prejudice, Mexicans themselves are sometimes guilty of limiting their own worlds and opportunities for growth by refusing to assimilate with the world around them.
In sum, the whole movie raises our consciousness on the role that Mexicans have in our lives and how we sometimes take that the role they play for granted. The Latino community is something that we cannot ignore, for they constitute the biggest minority group in California. Thus, it is important to understand and respect their role in our community.
The entire movie, through its storyline and the strong message it conveys, raises our consciousness on this public issue. Instead of relying on a single character to get the point across, the whole movie is structured as to point out to the public the many diverse issues surrounding us regarding this public concern.
By way of contrast, the movie Erin Brockovich focuses on individual action to raise conscious about civic engagement. In this movie, one woman, Erin Brockovich, single-handedly steered a small town to battle against a huge corporation that was polluting its public waters. Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, is a single mom working as a paralegal in a law firm.
Although she is a strong, feisty woman, Brockovich is primarily concerned with making ends meet. But she cannot turn her back to what is obviously going on around her. She is challenged by the character of Ed Marsy (played by Albert Finney), who demands: “What makes you think you can just walk in there and take whatever you want?” (Amazon.com, Inc. 2005) The movie sends the message that yes, we can take what we want and make a difference, regardless of how negatively or lowly other people perceive us.
Despite the challenges, Brockovich pushes on. The movie also shows how a personal crusade focused on raising the public’s awareness about a common issue oftentimes lead to self-discovery and self-growth. Brockovich in the movie, says, “For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. Please, don’t ask me to give it up.” (Amazon.com, Inc. 2005)
Thus, attempting to raise consciousness about civic engagement may be done collectively or individually. In A Day Without A Mexican the director sends out a powerful message through the entire plot of the movie – what would happen if the Mexicans disappeared? It calls for a collective response to an issue by showing the consequences of what might happen if we do not address this public concern.
In Erin Brockovich, we see an individual action that eventually draws the participation of the entire community towards a public issue. Instead of showing the consequences, like in A Day Without A Mexican, Erin Brockovich shows that even one person can make a difference. This movie does not threaten us with the possible consequences; it encourages us to fight it out and stand by our convictions the way Brockovich did.
2. Money and values as it relates to civic engagement
The relation of money to civic engagement differs between the people who have money, and people who don’t. Oftentimes people who have money, people who live comfortable lives, are unaware of how other people struggle on a day to day basis just to make ends meet. Money then is viewed differently between these two groups. For people with money, it is something that oftentimes they take for granted. It is a way of making life not just more convenient but also pleasant. It is a ticket to many opportunities. For people who do not have money, all their energy is usually focused on survival, on earning just enough to get by. The challenge is to raise our awareness to that sector of society which is constantly struggling.
In her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, author Barbra Ehrenreich (2002) explores exactly how the lower-income group lives. Ehrenreich, who is really an investigative journalist, spent 1999-2000 taking on various jobs: a waitress in Florida, a cleaning woman and a nursing home assistant in Maine, and in Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ehrenreich set out to discover how the unskilled labor force, earning $6-$7 per hour, make end meets.
Armed with only her car (which she later got rid of during the novel since it was too costly to maintain), a start-up fund of $1000, a college education, and her laptop, Ehrenreich joined the unskilled workforce and found a place to live and how to stretch her income. The transition from a member of the middle class to the lower class was anything but easy for Ehrenreich (2002), who said: “The downside of familiarity, I soon realize, is that it’s not easy to go from being a consumer, thoughtlessly throwing money around in exchange for groceries and movies and gas, to being a worker in the very same place” (p. 11).
Ehrenreich (2002) undergoes a sense of invisibility, somewhat similar to what was expressed in A Day Without A Mexican, of how society oftentimes overlooks the people who perform the jobs that we refuse to do – menial labor:
I am terrified, especially at the beginning, of being recognized by some friendly business owner or erstwhile neighbor and having to stammer out some explanation of my project. Happily, though, my fears turn out to be entirely unwarranted: during a month of poverty and toil, no on recognizes my face or my name, which goes unnoticed and for the most part unuttered. (p. 11).
Despite the advantages in Ehrenreich’s situation – she lived alone, did not support anyone else, she had a car, education, health, a start-up capital – her monthly income was only able to really sustain her once during her experience, and this was when she worked two jobs at a time during the off-season in a vacation town. One of the jobs happened to provide free meals. But throughout most of her experience, Ehrenreich struggled, and at one point almost ended up in a shelter.
The author points out that unskilled labor does not necessarily mean total lack of skill. Her jobs required her to think on her feet and to have enough focus and stamina to work hours. Most of the jobs also provided little training, so she had to learn fast. Most of the tasks, she admits, are repetitive, monotonous and uninteresting, and contribute to repetitive stress injury (Wikipedia, Nickel and Dimed 2005b). She criticizes employment interviews and questionnaires as discriminatory and oftentimes humiliating. One question she encountered, while applying at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, asked: “How many dollars’ worth of stolen goods have I purchased in the last year?” (Ehrenreich, 2002, p. 14).
She argues that the law of supply and demand have been reversed: the demand for workers decrease as the work pool for unskilled labor continuous to increase. Want ads and job advertisement do not necessarily indicate an opening, but rather, refers to an employer’s need to ensure a pool of applicants available for immediate hiring as a way of responding to rapid turnover of employees (Wikipedia, Nickel and Dimed 2005). Ehrenreich (2002) comments:
Only later will I realize that the want ads are not a reliable measure of the actual jobs available at any particular time. They are, as I should have guessed from Max’s comment, the employer’s insurance policy against the relentless turnover of the low-wage workforce. (p. 15).
Although Ehrenreich does not provide for concrete solutions to the issues she pointed out, she does remind us that the people we deal with – at the supermarket, the fast food counter, the Laundromat – should be treated as people. In other words, they must not be overlooked and should be treated with kindness, respect and dignity. The problems they encounter as they struggle to survive more than enough for a person to deal with:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. (Ehrenreich, 2002, p. 221).
3. Stewardship as it relates to civic engagement
Civic engagement does not only involve an awareness of our social environment. It is not concerned only with the people around us, but also with our ecology and environment. We thus have a responsibility to not only deal with social and economic issues, but environmental issues as well. As inhabitants of this earth, we have a responsibility for being stewards of our environment.
In her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, author Janisse Ray, who grew up in the rural isolation of South Georgia, writes partly about her family and their history, and about the environment where she was born. She describes her home as: “It is a land of few surprises. It is a land of routine, of cycle, and of constancy” (Ray, 2000, p. 3). Ray grew up among mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clearcuts, fields, and lost forests. She grew up in the junkyard her father built just outside a longleaf pine forest in Southern Georgia.
The longleaf pine forest ecosystem has nearly disappeared in the South due to excessive logging. Ray (2000) is aware that her ancestors have long ago done their bit to denude the forests of Southern Georgia, having been long-time inhabitants of the area: “I was born from people who were born from people who were born from people who were born here” (p. 4).
The author is aware how the Crackers have historically been too poor to care whether their means of income – logging – was economically and environmentally sustainable or not. Of the original 85 million acres of forests in the South, less than 10,000 remain (Gipson 2002). Ray (2000) is conscious of how her family and ancestors have contributed to this problem, and continues to carry around this awareness of her ancestors’ mistakes: “The memory of what they entered is scrawled on my bones, so that I carry the landscape inside like an ache. The story of who I am cannot be severed from the story of the flatwoods” (p. 4).
Yet despite this awareness of the sins of her forefathers, Ray displays a deep love for her home. Rooted from this love and appreciation of her environment, Ray conveys the message of the need to take care of our surroundings. Even though she lived in isolation and poverty, Ray expresses appreciation for the love and values that her parents imparted upon her. She appreciates every little thing in the forests she calls home, and waxes poetic about her surroundings:
Only the sky, widest of the wide goes on, flatness against flatness. The sky appears so close that, with a long-enough extension ladder, you think you could touch it, and sometimes you do, when clouds descend in the night to set a fine pelt of dew on the grasses, leaving behind white trails of fog and mist. (Ray, 2000, p. 3).
The author not only appreciates her environment – she also felt safe in its constancy. She points out that the environment’s constancy is the reason why people tend to take it for granted – we think it will be there, forever, in exactly the same state. Ray shows disapproval for what her Cracker ancestors have done to the land, yet at the same time she conveys love and respect for her ancestry. The message Ray tells us that it is not a matter of choosing one over the over – people over the environment, or the environment over the people. It is possible to love both, and to co-exist harmoniously. The responsibility falls mainly on people, who must take care of their environment. Nature, after all, is oftentimes defenseless to man’s advances:
That’s because the land is so wide, so much of it open. It’s wide open, flat as a book, vulnerable as a child. It’s easy to take advantage of, and yet it is also a land of dignity. It has been the way it is for thousand of years, and it is not wont to change. (Ray, 2000, p. 4).
Ray points out, very aptly, that natural world is as vulnerable as a child – it is practically helpless to man’s actions. Like a child, thus, nature should be taken cared of and nurtured. We are not merely inhabitants but also participants in this world. Our participation should be as stewards.
Stewardship has been defined as the “responsibility for taking good care of resources entrusted to one” (Wikipedia, Stewardship 2005c). The environment is vulnerable to our actions, as expressed in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and is always available to us not only for resources but for the sheer beauty of nature that it offers to us.
What Ray tells us that raising consciousness on our civic engagement to preserve our environment should go hand-in-hand with an understanding of our history of a people, the mistakes we made, and how not to repeat these mistakes. Most importantly, the author points out that taking care of our environment should be rooted in love and appreciation to what our environment gives us.
In conclusion, raising our consciousness about civic engagement may be done through two general methods – by individual and collective action. The concepts of money, values and stewardship also affect our awareness for the need for civic engagement.
Whether it is individual or collective action, civic engagement always involves addressing a public issue or concern. It may begin from a personal journey to attempt to make changes, as displayed in Erin Brockovich, and it may be through showing the consequences to our society when we refuse to address certain issues, such as what was portrayed in A Day Without A Mexican.
A personal journey to make changes or to deal with public issues does not necessarily always mean affirmative action. In Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, the author Janisse Ray points out that appreciation and understanding are also important tools. Though she does not crusade as vigorously as Erin Brockovich to bring about changes, Ray nevertheless raises our consciousness to take our role as stewards of our natural world more seriously. Through a reflection of her childhood, family, environment, and history, Ray shows a different method of raising our consciousness on civic engagement.
In contrast, Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, attempted not merely to reflect on a social issue but to actually live in its reality. By joining the world of the unskilled workforce, she points out to us the things and people we take for granted. Similar to A Day Without A Mexican, Ehrenreich tells us that we need to be aware of the people who perform the jobs that we refuse to do. Unlike A Day Without A Mexican though, Ehrenreich does not show us the consequences of taking this sector for granted, but actually participates in their way of life.
In conclusion, there are various ways of raising consciousness on civic engagement. These various ways may also be rooted in different factors such as money, values, and stewardship. Raising consciousness may be through showing the consequences when we take things for granted, it may be through an exploration of what an issue is really about, it may be through a reflection and appreciation of what we did and can do, and it may be through active lobbying to make a stand and bring about changes.
WORKS CITED LIST
1. A Day Without A Mexican. HARO Online. 2005. 24 November 2005 <http://www.haro-online.com/movies/day_without_mexican.html>
2. Clyne, Meghan. A Day Without Misrepresentation? National Review Online. 17 September 2004. 24 November 2005 <http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/clyne200409170630.asp>
3. Civic engagement. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2005a. 24 November 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_engagement>
4. Defining civic engagement. Raise Your Voice Dialogue Resource Guide. 2005. Campus Compact. 24 November 2005. <http://www.actionforchange.org/dialogues/civic-engagement.html>
5. Ehrenreich, Barbara. (2002). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Owl Books, 1st Owl Edition, 240p.
6. Erin Brockovich (2000). Amazon, com. Inc. 2005. 24 November 2005. http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/tg/stores/detail/- /dvd/B00004W4GT/quotes/203-4933796-8139158
7. Gipson, Gregory. White Trash Turns Green: A review of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Grist Magazine: Environmental News & Commentary. 14 February 2002. 25 November 2005. <http://www.grist.org/advice/books/2002/02/14/trash/>
8. Nickel and Dimed. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2005b. 24 November 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel_and_Dimed>
9. Stewardship. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2005c. 25 November 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewardship>
10. Ray, Janisse. (2000). Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Milkweed Editions, 224p.