Monday, November 12, 2012

The Youngest Guy in the Room

By Warren Vaughan, Senior Planner for a county development district in SW Montana
I am in my mid-30s, and have worked in local government for the past eight and a half years. For the first two years, I made the rounds - the daily grind of permitting, the phone calls with people asking about zoning, the front counter work with the public. I enjoyed it, but I also struggled: I had gotten a degree in land use planning because I loved the idea of building community, not processing permits as a low-level bureaucrat.
Then I got lucky. A convergence of events led me to suddenly being the primary facilitator of three separate community planning processes across our large and rapidly growing county in Montana. I have spent the past six years working directly with citizens groups and local nonprofits on first-ever community plans, new sidewalks, sewer infrastructure, and a two-county economic development district.
A community meeting in SW Montana
And through all of it, one very personal fact is always apparent to me: I am the youngest guy in the room.

I often wonder where everyone else is - out starting businesses, out raising families? Certainly, the challenges of becoming civically engaged in my mid-30s are very apparent to me. I work full time, am raising my own family, and am enrolled in a doctoral program. Juggling it all is a complicated experience.
The author and his daughter
As someone who is directly involved in day-to-day activities of civic engagement, I think about how community work best gets done in today’s world. Sure, we have our share of Rotary Clubs and American Legions, but most of those organizations are aging and being replaced by local professional organizations.

Rather than focusing on community work, the local associations I see are often not tied to civic service but rather provide venues for people making business and professional connections. Because a significant part of my job involves economic development, I heartily support these sorts of associations...but I also recognize that something is lost. And it isn’t just my own experience: civic engagement, nationally, looks very different than it used to.

Civic engagement in America

Historically, Americans have been civically engaged on multiple levels. Alexis de Toqueville, the most well known early commentator on democracy in the U.S., famously described Americans as constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming local groups to deal with local issues [1]. One of the consequences of all this association, argued Toqueville, was that we were literally practicing democracy at all levels of society. Importantly, the practice of democracy was scalable. Learning how to take part in civil dialogue at the dinner table allowed for a healthy exchange of ideas over a game of cards. The skills that allowed friends to discuss the local politics of the day could work during one’s tenure on the school board; then, what worked on the school board or Lion’s Club could work as a city council member. Moving up, those skills, in turn, would also work in state legislatures and even on a national scale.

Photograph by Kestral Aerial
Toqueville’s work has cast a long shadow. In 2000, Robert Putnam put him back on the map with Bowling Alone, Putnam's account of the decline of social capital in America [2]. Putnam argued that that strong ties and face-to-face interaction in groups created democracy from the ground up. Putnam warned that civic engagement had been on the decline since the 1960s and suggested that any discussion of democracy needed to get serious about social capital and civic engagement.

So what changed since the 1960s? Theda Skocpol, a sociologist from Harvard, provides an historic view [3]. For one, the types of groups Americans join today are different than the ones they joined 50 years ago. Membership in volunteer-driven organizations like the Rotary Club is on the decline, while professionally run organizations with centralized headquarters are up. Single-issue groups are replacing broad associations based on socializing. Vietnam caused a generational rift in community organizations based on military service.

 The upshot of it all is that the character of our civic engagement began looking a lot different. The result, according to Skocpol, is a “diminished democracy”. 

Moving forward

So what’s to be done about this? If we take seriously the idea that a thriving civic life is key to our success as a democracy, then what do those of us working on rural policy issues do about it? How do we encourage a new kind of civic engagement, one that takes into account the realities of striking political polarization, digital communities, and a modern life that leaves little time to get involved in issues larger than oneself?

Public trails in the author's home county

One thing I do know is that civic engagement in politics in my own community looks very different than it did just four years ago. Our local and state tea party group has largely come to dominate my county’s politics, and the process by which they’ve done so is worth understanding. In contrast to many of the political groups involved statewide and locally who depend on professional staff, mailers, and requests to contact legislators at key times, our local tea party group consists of ordinary people who track political issues, are placed on planning commissions, and have been elected to local office.

Regardless of how one feels about the politics involved, the fact remains that this is civic engagement happening on a capacity not seen in 50 years. The process is worth our attention as professionals involved in rural policy and development.

On a professional level, I swing between valuing civic engagement as an end in itself and just wanting to get things done as a professional. The challenge is that local work is inextricably bound up with the national conversation. Sitting down with someone week after week at meetings to try and hammer out local solutions for and by local people simply isn’t going to work if the larger public sphere has been taken over by a divided national conversation, and I often question whether the endless night meetings build social capital or simply entrench positions.

A personal choice to participate

In the end, I find the question of civic engagement a deeply personal one. What does it mean for me to engage in the larger questions of today’s society? How can I effectively move beyond my own self and my private concerns to connect with larger values of community and hope and faith? How do I, as an employee of local government, conduct myself at a time when much of the public sphere is dominated by debates over the value of government?

These questions extend to larger ones about youth engagement. How do we engage people younger than me in questions about the common cause? Youth turnout in the past couple of election cycles has been encouraging, but civic engagement goes beyond casting a vote at the ballot box. 

To quote Robert Bellah, “democracy means paying attention” [4]. In my mind, that means understanding that every one of us is embedded in layer upon layer of relationships, and recognizing that how we engage in these relationships has systemic impact on our civic life and democracy. As challenging as it is in these days of hostile political discourse, we’re all going to have to start paying a lot more attention. I don’t want to be the youngest guy in the room anymore.

I don’t have ready answers, but on a personal level, I put myself firmly in Toqueville’s shadow: I believe civic engagement is the practice of democracy. As I survey my own life as a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and a professional who deeply cares about the future of my own community, I am moved by the idea that my relationships are part of the practice of democracy. That, indeed, is a powerful idea.


[1] Toqueville, A. de. (2003). Democracy in America. In V. Hodgkinson & M. Foley (Eds.), The Civil Society Reader. Hanover: University Press of New England.

[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Skocpol, T. (2003). Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

[4] Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Tipton, S., Sullivan, W., & Swidler, A. (1991). The Good Society. New York: Knopf.

Warren Vaughan works in community and economic development for local government in Montana. When he finds the time, he squeezes in work on a PhD in collaboration and community at Fielding Graduate University. His favorite thing in the world is getting distracted by his wife and three year old daughter. He can be reached wvaughan [at]

Photo credits: Landscape photographs (including Kestral Aerial photo) courtesy of Gallatin Valley Land Trust. All other images provided by the author.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personal involvement is the best way for rural communities to make change to benefit them. Here in Ontario with have a line in the sand regarding severances and minimum sizes of rural properties. Only if people get involved can we get a more thorough understanding of all sides and come up with solutions that will benefit and protect everyone. But I am the same, "I don't have time to participate and keep up."