Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Importance of Civic Engagement

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With a full-blown scandal over the expenses of some senators engulfing the Canadian Senate, an ongoing inquiry into corruption in Québec’s construction industry, and the daily whirl of allegations from the Republican leadership toward the Obama administration on Benghazi, the IRS, and Associated Press reporters, it is not surprising that young people may be questioning themselves these days about the value of civic and political engagement. 

Rarely a day passes without a media story about a scandal, unearthed by the diligent work of an investigative reporter, reaching the mainstream networks.  It is no small wonder that cynicism and skepticism are growing about the workings of the body politic or civil society, and whether getting involved and making a difference is still as relevant in today’s world as it was in more recent times.

The temptation to sit on the sidelines and criticize from afar those who are betraying the public trust is becoming more comfortable than joining the fray, fighting for one’s beliefs or a noble cause, and trying to bring about change to a social or political condition.  Some actually believe that today’s younger generation—closely wedded to technological innovation—will be more susceptible to growing doubts about the value of civic engagement.

While the current setting in many Western democracies may lead some to pessimism and disengagement, I remain an optimist about the future and why it is more important than ever to get involved.History, more than the current context, is usually a better gauge of the degree to which individuals choose to engage in a cause.  From the period of the so-called Greatest Generation to the soon-to-be-retiring Baby Boomers, and now the emerging Millennials, there has never been a scarcity of issues or injustices to correct.  Fighting for research monies to find cures for illnesses, advocating for greater access to the fruits of education, and standing for greater equality within borders, among individuals, and between nations represent opportunities for engagement and making a difference.

Granted, the current media and political context is more volatile than ever.  Technology has changed how we cover events or how politicians campaign.  Yet, we have had examples of individuals through the decades in both Canada and the United States who have stood for their beliefs and entered the arena to advance their causes—the fight for civil rights in the U.S., the battle over Canada’s and Québec’s future, the need for greater equality between genders, the crusade for gay rights, the push for greater environmental consciousness regarding acid rain and climate change, to mention a few.

The key to civic engagement—whether as a volunteer running a marathon for breast cancer, as a devoted employee in a non-profit organization or as an elected official—starts with a sense of commitment to improve the lives of others.

Successful and satisfying civic engagement requires deeply held convictions, authenticity, risk-taking, courage in the face of adversity, integrity, and civility.  Despite the bad news that often clutters our television screens or fills social media feeds, it is my belief that an individual or a group of individuals can still make a difference.  It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote:

“To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people, and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics, and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better—whether  by a healthy child, or a redeemed social condition—to know even one life has breathed easier, because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.”

And this is why civic engagement remains as relevant as ever.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, civic engagement
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