A day on for community service… and civic participation year round

Across the US, people are honoring the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by performing community service.   President-elect Obama has asked all Americans to serve on King Day and make an ongoing commitment throughout the year.

While I champion the call to service, I’ve been concerned for many years that the definition of volunteering and service has been too narrowly drawn and that what we should be encouraging is civic participation, in all of its many forms.

Here are a few examples of civic participation that don’t always get counted when the discussion turns to “community service.”

We’ve had a lot of snow here in RI over the last few weeks. My wonderful neighbor Doug, who owns a snow blower, has surprised us by pushing his blower well beyond his front walk to blow a path up and down the street that lets kids and grownups walk safely to the bus (and saves us quite a bit of shoveling as well). I think Doug’s gesture is an excellent example of civic participation… which I would define as actively contributing to the shared life of his community. You might just call it neighborliness, but that neighborliness multipled hundreds of thousands of times over knits our country together.

Just before the election, I was invited to a note writing event for the Obama campaign. About 20 women or more showed up to write handwritten notes to potential voters in other states. I also made phone calls in rooms filled with dozens of volunteers who were energized about the campaign. While this year may have been particularly noteworthy for the numbers of new volunteers, every year citizens from all ends of the political spectrum volunteer on campaigns for city council, mayoral, state representative, school committee and countless other offices. They stuff envelopes, canvass door to door, call neighbors, raise money, act as poll watchers… yet so rarely do we acknowledge their contributions.

I have the great honor of devoting my life to my work with nonprofit organizations. Every day I am inspired by individuals who have devote a giant portion of their lives to improving the communities where they live — whether their neighborhoods, towns, or the greater world. Yes, many are paid, but most of the people I meet could never be adequately compensated for the energy they spend each day improving society.

I want to honor the residents who show up at the community forums — people who aren’t often part of a particular organization, but take it upon themselves to get involved. I want to honor the civic participation that brings people out to stand vigil against unjust wars or to organize their neighbors against polluters, or the spirit that makes people volunteer to serve as union stewards, or to form the local crime watch, or raise money to build the neighborhood playground, or even just those who give a call or run an errand now and then for an elderly or infirm neighbor.

It is this spirit, the idea that we are not silos, but that we have a responsiblity to each other, that propels civic participation and makes us a great country and a great people. While Dr. King said “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” I’m pretty certain that his idea of service was the broad, all encompassing kind.

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