Scaling Deep into Civic Engagement

I gained much from the day: new insights about civic engagement, new connections, and renewed energy for my own work. Above all, the day served to strengthen my faith in our individual and collective power to, in Gandhi’s words, become the change we wish to see.”

Scaling Deep into Civic Engagement

by Christine Laliberté

On June 14, 2013, close to fifty change leaders and social innovators gathered in Montreal to explore new ways of engaging and empowering citizens. I was fortunate enough to join this diverse group of educators, researchers, activists, environmentalists, youth mobilizers, data geeks and community workers from all over Québec, as they put their heads together to delve deep into various aspects of civic engagement. Initiated by the Carold Institute in collaboration with Ashoka Canada, CUSO and Framework, the Scale Deep initiative aims to amplify wisdom through reflection, in order for change leaders to be more effective in influencing systemic change.

To set the stage and get our creativity flowing, Seanna Davidson from the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience briefly presented two key concepts of change theory: scaling out, which consists of trying to solve a problem by replicating the same approach across different audiences, and scaling up, which involves changing the very system that is causing the problem. As Seanna explained it, scaling out is a necessary first step towards scaling up, as it allows change leaders to test their theories and to gain insight into the system that needs to be altered.

To help translate these ideas into practice, we were then asked to scale deep into some fundamental questions, chosen by the participants themselves:

–       How do we promote dialogue amongst key stakeholders?

–       How do we prevent information overload when promoting participation?

–       What does it mean to be “political”?

–       What are the new models for citizen engagement?

–       What are some new collaborative strategies for engagement?

–       How can we better manage risk and uncertainty?

By the end of the day, it seemed as though more questions had been raised than answered. Yet, somehow we had set the wheels in motion towards scaling out and scaling up our theories of civic engagement. While the full results of these discussions can be found at Scale Deep, here is some of what I learned from the day:

  • Civic engagement can and should be seen as an end in itself. Our job as engagement practitioners is to empower people, especially marginalized groups, to take action and to make their voices heard on issues of personal importance to them.
  • Access to data is a crucial part of civic engagement, as data provides the spark, as well as the framework to move engagement along. As practitioners, we need to empower citizens to access raw data and to make sense of it through a coherent narrative.
  • Civic engagement is akin to an ecosystem: it is multi-faceted, it has different points of entry, it happens over a lifetime and it ebbs and flows along an individual’s lifetime. As practitioners, our goal is to anticipate the changes in the system and to accompany them.
  • If we are to truly scale up and deep into engagement, we need to open up our community to those who do not necessarily share our views. We need to turn our paradigms on their heads and evaluate if they truly promote civic participation, in all its diversity.

Most of all, I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the participants’ knowledge and commitment to furthering civic participation and engagement. While we come from vastly different fields, ranging from international development and new technologies to aboriginal rights and girl power, we are united in our commitment to engage citizens, especially the marginalized, in creating a better world. I gained much from the day: new insights about civic engagement, new connections, and renewed energy for my own work. Above all, the day served to strengthen my faith in our individual and collective power to, in Gandhi’s words, become the change we wish to see. And for that, I am grateful.

The Scale Deep initiative is led by the Carold Institute, in collaboration with Ashoka Canada, CUSO and Framework, and with the support of the Community Foundations of Canada, the Community Knowledge Exchange, Équiterre, Fondaction CSN, the Institut de coopération pour l’éducation des adultes, the Institut du nouveau monde, the Québec Association for Lifelong Learning and the Social Innovation Generation. To learn more about the initiative and get involved, visit the Scale Deep project. To share your views on the day, please comment below.