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Beyond Voting: The politics of civic engagement

March 3, 2012

I was invited yesterday to give a talk on civic engagement and opportunity divisions at Year Up Baltimore, a fantastic program that works to close the opportunity divide for low-income young adults. Recently I’ve been asked to speak about racial inequity, so it was refreshing to veer into a slightly different discussion.

One thing that strikes me about traditional discourse on “civic engagement” is that it is often limited to voting and electoral participation, making it an incomplete conversation. I’m often asked to give my thoughts on low voter participation, as if voting is the only means of exerting one’s political will–by the way, opting not to vote is a form of political expression.

That said, I wanted to impress upon the Year Up students the importance of protest and political activism. Baltimore’s 2011 elections saw the lowest voter turnout in the city’s electoral history–nearly 80 percent of eligible voters opted not to vote and the winner of the mayor’s race received fewer than 37,000 votes, an appalling low figure. The blame for the embarrassingly low voter turnout was quickly directed toward the citizens who chose not to vote.  That’s one way of looking at it. But poor voter turnout is an outcome of a disengaged citizenry and I blame myself and people like me for that–folks who are in the business of raising political consciousness.

Citizen activism, consciousness raising and protest are critically important to civic engagement. As I noted to the Year Up students, most political activity occurs outside of the voting booth. There was a good discussion on this very topic on this morning’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show.

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