Civic life deserves thoughtful attention

By Elizabeth M. Lynn

There is something remarkable in America called civic life.

It is all around us — a vast network of people seeking to affect some aspect of our society by forming associations, serving on boards, giving and raising money, and staffing and leading non-profit organizations.

It is an invisible web, spun by thousands of citizens of differing values and convictions, through which we work out our sense of connection to others, express our values, and try to shape the world beyond our doorstep to reflect those values a little more.

Yet, for all that we give to this civic web — our time, talent, and treasure — we find it hard to give it thoughtful attention.

We compulsively tighten the nuts and bolts of management, build a bigger strategic plan, talk about how to “do good better.”

But we aren’t very good at talking about the good we came to do in the first place.

It isn’t easy to say what one values or believes. And it is especially hard in civic settings, where we are likely to be sitting elbow to elbow with someone who does not share our cultural, political or religious values.

The conversation could become uncomfortable. It could embarrass us, or others in our midst. It could divide colleagues.

If it threatens relationships and funding alliances, it could even destroy the causes and organizations we are there to support.

And so it is that, in the very places Americans go to act upon our values and hopes for our world, we are least comfortable thinking carefully and deeply about what it is we are really trying to do.

The consequence of this lack of reflection in civic life is a diminishment of critically important resources — clarity, articulateness, imagination — despite an abundance of talent and good intentions.

The Project on Civic Reflection is responding to this condition by encouraging civic reflection — reading and conversation on basic questions of civic life.

In civic reflection, groups of 10 to 20 people with common work come together to talk about their motives, principles and purposes for giving and serving.

Gathering in a hospitable place, they share a meal followed by a facilitated discussion. Carefully selected, short but thought-provoking readings anchor each discussion.

Facilitators ask questions rather than make pronouncements. They listen and help to clarify issues and thinking rather than deliver long speeches.

With support from Lilly Endowment, the Project on Civic Reflection is now providing small grants and other resources to help a wide range of groups and organizations talk more comfortably about their values and think more deeply about their choices.

After all, civic life deserves not just our time, talent and treasure.

It also deserves our thoughtful attention.

Elizabeth M. Lynn is director of the Project on Civic Reflection at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind.

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