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Specific, Measurable, and Immediate: The eCitizenship Institute

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Check out the eCitizenship Wiki to find many of the resources participants shared at the Institute.

Today we’re wrapping up with the eCitizenship Institute (follow us on Twitter! #eCit10). I’ve so enjoyed my time with this group because they are doing seriously inspiring work. Right now everyone is meeting in their campus teams. I asked them to view the institute and the larger eCitizenship initiative as a laboratory for democracy. In their laboratories of democracy, they are experimenting with different ways to make eCitizenship work. We will then share successful strategies with the rest of the ADP campuses.  Before turning them loose to start experimenting, we also asked them to take Melissa Helmbrecht’s challenge seriously. This challenge was to make their actions specific, measurable and immediate, because this is how change happens.

For much of the institute, we’ve talked about the value of the tools. Last night at the student reception, the Director of the Ferndale Library asked a great question. He asked if social networking tools will broaden, expand, and improve the public sphere that Habermas wrote about, or will they shrink it? While this is an important question, for me it isn’t altogether that relevant. The eCitizenship initiative is about the use of tools. These tools are supplemental. They will never replace the public sphere. But they will hopefully enrich and supplement it.

Whether or not the tools are good depends on how well we use them. We don’t yet know what the best methods for using social networking tools for engagement are.  It will take boldness to try new strategies knowing that we may not succeed. In fact, we may fail utterly in our first attempts. But at least in our efforts, we’re learning what doesn’t work, and knowing this gets us closer to discovering what will work. We will also learn more about how we might better prepare our students for lives of authentic citizenship.

In my perfect world, every university leader asks them self, “How am I preparing my students to be citizens for our democracy?”  And the second question they ask of them self is, “How am I reaching students online?” I don’t think it’s necessary for campuses to launch stand-alone eCitizenship projects. What I think will work best is if they fold online dimensions into their on-going and offline civic engagement activities.

Because for many people, the “e” in eCitizenship is quickly disappearing. The line between our online and offline lives is quickly blurring. With the blur comes added responsibility to figure out how we take our citizenship behaviors into online communities. There are many notable examples of how people have done this. One in particular that struck me came out of the eCitizenship Institute. Kevin Deegan-Krause, a professor at Wayne State University and one of our collaborators on this initiative, told a story about how he was able to build a state-of-the art, highly interactive library. We had the opportunity to visit this library and I was deeply impressed. Not only does the library allow the residents in Ferndale to check out books, but it also serves as a civic space. When we visited, there were community members in the computer lab. There were parents reading to their children. There were people perusing the books shelves. There was a community group holding an open forum. And all of this was made possible through Kevin and his colleagues online organizing and offline interactions. Kevin said that he has started using his Facebook profile as a virtual lawn sign. When a new initiative is being voted on, he changes his profile picture to an image of the campaign sign he supports. Now there’s no way to measure the impact of this simple, immediate action. However, combined with his extensive person-to-person organizing, he was able to work with his community to create this important civic space.

So the questions for us are: How do we create online civic spaces? How do we use a blended approach that is effective at making our communities better places to live (both online and offline)? And what do we do starting tomorrow?

It’s up to the participants of the eCitizenship initiative to answer these questions. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. I’m excited to see what new strategies will be developed in the ADP laboratories of democracy.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I really appreciate the question posed by the director of the Ferndale Library and re-posed by Cecilia here. It is not an irrelevant quesiton in my mind and not simply reducible to “technology is neutral” with effects dependent upon any given particular use. What I think is core to Habermas’ critiqe of the rise and decline of the democratic public sphere is a concern with a type of “false” publicness that can flow from mass media techniques within a commercial culture– where a endless march of “public” opinion polls and just opinion masquarade as public dialogue and democratic problem solving. Certainly the web 2.0 world is not entirely conquered by commercialism and the democratic functioning and potential of the digital world remains robust. But the questoin itself seems so entirely right-on since the standard by which our work in the institute should be judged is the degreee to which it is in fact helping to recover and reassert an independent (non-state controlled, non-commercial) public sphere for democratic dialogue and engagement. Sorry to wax academic but I think its a fundamentally political dilemma and I am so happy to read thoughtful reflection like this. Thank you Cecilia!


    November 17, 2010
  2. Great comment, Christine! And thanks for your perspective. I couldn’t agree more.


    November 19, 2010

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