Alabama ranked highly in neighborliness, but dead last when it comes to working with each other to solve our community’s problems, according to the 2015 Alabama Civic Health Index (ACHI), compiled and designed to measure indicators of our community’s civic health.
Cristin Foster, Executive Director of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, led a discussion of what the ACHI reveals with a group of folks gathered at the Hoover Public Library on Sunday at a meeting hosted by the Alabama School Connection.
Foster was encouraged about what the ACHI revealed but acknowledged there are areas of civic health that can be improved.
She also introduced the Civic Scorecard which can be used by middle- and high-school students to call attention to the various types of civic work to be done in their communities.
Measures of political action, social connectedness and public work are the three areas used to determine our civic health.
She told the group the report is meant to be a snapshot and to start a conversation, and that data only tells part of the story. The goal of assembling the ACHI is to identify assets and challenges in a community to help them work better together, she said, adding, “The real question isn’t where are we now, but where are we going to go from here?”
We’re Pretty Good at Voter Turnout, Not So Much at Engaging Public Officials
Political action includes voting, discussing politics with family and friends, contacting public officials, expressing a public opinion online, and buying or boycotting products. All of these actions can impact and influence government both through voting and non-voting means.
Alabamians run at or above the national average in most measures of political action, with the exception of contacting public officials and buying or boycotting products (as an expression of political action).
During the 2012 Presidential election, more of Alabama’s African-Americans (63.1%) voted than whites (61.2%) . With respect to local elections, 59.9% of Alabamians reported regularly voting in local elections, landing us at 34th in the nation on that measure.
Measures of political action used in the ACHI are depicted below. Rankings (which include the 50 states and the District of Columbia) were not provided for all measures.
Social Connectedness: Alabamians Are Neighborly
Alabamians’ highest rankings among other states came in the social connectedness category, which includes the factors depicted below.
Foster, who most often serves as a moderator of discussions among community members, acknowledged that the ACHI leaves many questions unanswered, but said that point of the ACHI is to raise those questions to allow communities to examine their strengths and weaknesses.
Alabamians’ social connectedness is a strength, Foster said, judging by the measures included in the ACHI. Those relationships form the basis of working together to solve a community’s problems through public work taken on together.
Even though the measures are encouraging, Foster warned that across the state, she hears more and more that people are not getting to know their neighbors, “even in some small communities” where you wouldn’t think that would be a problem.
Group Participation, Churches and Political Activity
Foster said that group participation, particularly among young people, is a “breeding ground” for future civic participation.
Of the 36% of Alabamians belonging to a group, the largest percentage of membership is within churches and religious organizations (21.6%), followed by school groups, neighborhoods, or community associations (18.1%).
Given that churches and religious institutions play a key role in bringing communities together, attendee Rebecca Kinney questioned whether churches should play a bigger role in engaging church members in public work. In response, I shared that over time, church leaders have increasingly stepped away from political activity, worried that their nonprofit status could be in jeopardy if they do so. Many questions arise when it comes to churches and political activity.
For that reason, here are a few resources on what churches and religious organizations can and cannot do. Simply put, churches can engage in “insubstantial lobbying”, (a vague term and refers to how much time a church spends on a particular issue that may be a part of an upcoming vote), but churches cannot endorse or oppose a particular political candidate for office.
Pew Research Center offers this guide for churches. Project Fair Play, an educational outreach effort of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, offers questions and answers along with other resources on its web site. Finally, the Freedom from Religion Foundation publishes resources on their web page to help determine in what types of activities churches are and are not allowed to engage.
Foster mentioned that the irony of the concern about churches engaging in public work is that in many of the 67 counties to which she travels, the only available public meeting spaces are houses of worship.
Public Work: Walking the Walk
Given Alabamians’ high level of social connectedness, we still have trouble turning that connectedness into action.
Alabama’s lowest rankings came in the area of public work, depicted below.
Foster questioned the low measure of working with neighbors to fix something in the community, saying, “I actually think Alabamians might be under-reporting in this area”, noting the measure fell from 10.1% in the 2011 Index to the current 4.7%.
She questioned whether Alabamians see the informal exchanging of favors with neighbors as something neighbors just do, when those favors may actually result in improving something in the community.
Foster said there are barriers to be addressed, adding that one point of discussion might be to look at how neighbors work together. Maybe we are working together with people in our own neighborhood but aren’t working with people across town, she said. “Maybe we just haven’t built those habits or we are not exercising those habits.”
Acknowledging the divide of talking about politics and actually engaging in public work, attendees had different thoughts about what the root cause might be, while Kinney remarked on the small number of people attending Sunday’s public meeting to even engage in this particular discussion.
Gianna Zellner, a Hoover resident and one of the group members who worked to “Save the Hoover Buses”*, asked whether engaging in public work isn’t seen as “polite” in Southern culture, which could keep many folks away from public work.
Building the Habit of Civic Engagement to Improve Civic Health through Our Schools
After reviewing the key findings of the ACHI, Foster asked the group to consider Alabama’s strengths and weaknesses and which one or two areas energy could be focused to improve areas of weakness and build better habits of civic engagement.
Civic education in public schools was brought up as an area on which to focus energy, with many sharing concerns that not enough emphasis is put on civics education and that in the past, 7th grade civics and 10th grade U.S. history were often taught by athletic coaches whose first priority might not have been teaching.
The increasing role of online education, particularly for the one semester of 12th grade Government, was also a concern, with Hoover resident Dan Fulton remarking that group participation in civics classes is vital to understanding how public work gets done. Many agreed that the online environment doesn’t lend itself to group participation.
Both Zellner and Birmingham resident Robyn Hyden talked about their high school debate classes and how that engagement served as a formative role in their interest in civics and public work.
Here’s an article about Alabama’s social studies course of study, which includes civic education in some form at each grade level. Here is the actual course of study used in Alabama’s public schools.
Many attendees questioned whether Alabama’s course of study doesn’t go far enough nor does it allow students to actually participate in civic work as it relates to a community’s public health. Kinney suggested teaching students that “civic engagement is power”. Another attendee asked, “what is the point of an education if not to teach students to be a good citizen?”
Quoting the Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning, Foster said, “Young people learn best how to be civically engaged by being civically engaged”. As examples of ways to encourage civic action among young people, she shared both the Civic Scorecard and also what is happening with the Students Institute in Montevallo.
First, the Scorecard!
Foster said she and other staff members at the Mathews Center created it as a way to help students understand what comprises civic and public work and to help them build those habits of civic engagement while they’re young. Foster added that adults can use it, too.
Foster explained the idea in creating the scorecard is to get people to think more broadly about civic action, adding “We’re hoping it encourages the next generation of young Alabamians to get involved in their communities.”
They’re asking folks to use the hashtag #ALcivicstrong and to post completed scorecards on Twitter and Instagram (find them at @DMCforCivicLife).
The Students Institute: Civic Education
This is the fourth year of the Institute. The goal is to give students experiences in actual civic engagement in order to build their skills. According to the Mathews Center’s web site,
Students’ Institute provides opportunities for young people to deepen their understanding of active citizenship and develop skills for more effective civic engagement. Students’ Institute is a joint effort of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the University of Montevallo Office of Service Learning and Community Engagement (OSLACE).
Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost is a big supporter and “is there every step of the way” according to Foster, leading students in the thoughtful and often hard work of being a responsible citizen in the Montevallo community. Please take the time to read about the work of the Institute on the Mathews Center’s web site.
The Institute is comprised of students from Montevallo Elementary, Middle, and High School, and now includes homeschooling students for the first time this year.
“Montevallo doesn’t have any private schools, but if they did, we would invite them to participate as well,” Foster said, adding that students from all schools are a part of the community and should get to know each other and work together.
Asked whether the Institute could serve as a model for other school districts, Foster said they are considering additional pilot projects in other schools and to stay tuned.
Sunday’s meeting was the latest in a series of meetings hosted by the Alabama School Connection to bring people together who believe that Education Matters. If you’re on Facebook, please join our group. And keep up with what’s happening on the Education Matters page of our web site. There will be no meeting in December.
About the Alabama Civic Health Index (ACHI)
The ACHI is a joint effort of the Mathews Center, Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts, University of Alabama’s New College, and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC). It was first published in 2011. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University analyzed data from the US Census Current Population Survey.
*In the spirit of full disclosure, I was also a member of the group that worked successfully to have Hoover City Schools’ board of education rescind their July 2013 action to eliminate buses for general education students.