An introduction to active citizenship
There are a variety of views and perspectives and much potential for disagreement about what it means to be an ‘active citizen’ and what active citizenship might mean for people and policy makers.
The arenas for active citizens to participate in are generally seen as:
Civil participation: about people getting involved with each other to pursue their own goals and interests. It includes participation in residents associations, sports clubs, faith groups etc (NCVO 2005).
Civic engagement: tends to refer to the more formal routes of public participation in the process of governance. This could be through user panels, citizens’ juries, citizen governors, non-executive board members, advisory groups, etc.
A useful way to consider ‘citizenship’ is through a 3 part typology developed by Westheimer
and Kahne (2004) which identifies three separate models of citizenship and citizenship education:
- the ‘personally responsible citizen’, for whom citizenship education increases their awareness of individual rights and responsibilities; the citizen as a ‘voter’ and ‘volunteer’
- the ‘participatory citizen’, for whom citizenship education also enhances their knowledge of participatory structures and rights; the citizen as an individual within a group(s), actively participating in existing structures, taking up opportunities for participation, including participation in the planning and delivery of services
- the ‘justice-orientated citizen’ for whom citizenship education also adds a high level of awareness of collective rights, more widely, and a high level of collective political and social responsibility, including responsibilities to engage with issues of social justice and equality; participates within group(s), actively challenging unequal relations of power, promoting social solidarity and social justice, both locally and beyond, taking account of the global context
Our perspective on active citizenship
We are interested in people challenging the way that things are currently happening – to become ‘awkward’ and critical citizens who challenge the systems and structures of governance so they work better for them and their communities; our work is about supporting and motivating ‘empowered and empowering’ citizens who understand how things work, who feel able to get involved, to challenge people and existing mechanisms and structures to be more inclusive and open.
You may like to take a look at the Take Part Evaluation Report – this government-funded programme aimed to support and encourage people to become ‘active citizens’ and work with public agencies to become more responsive to citizens and communities.
‘Citizenship’ can be seen as a continuum rather than an all or nothing affair, often reflecting the demands of caring and other obligations – which could also be interpreted as the exercise of ‘citizenship’ obligations.
We need to get to grips with the tensions and contradictions involved in working around ‘citizenship’ and equalities – where we explicitly recognise the inequalities in the structures, processes and cultures of governance. If we want to change these, then we have to challenge ourselves and others to become active critical citizens.
“To solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time”
Active citizenship is concerned with more than learning ‘the rules of the game’, and how to participate within existing models and structures. Active citizenship should be defined more broadly to encompass active learning for political literacy and empowerment, addressing structures and relations of power and working to change these, where necessary, in the pursuit of social inclusion and social justice agendas (Lister 1997). It also relates to how people can promote community cohesion and social solidarity, thereby strengthening civil society as well as empowering individual citizens.
It’s about making the connections between individuals’ learning and the potential for collective social goals. We are clear that these outcomes depend on the underpinning values, principles and approach of any learning – whether as part of a programme, part of action research or part of a collective experience. It is about ‘working both sides of the equation’ to build ‘a more active and engaged civil society and a more responsive and effective state that can deliver needed public services’ (Gaventa 2004 P 27)
The four essential ingredients
In order to provide opportunities for people to start to recognise their potential for leadership and participation, our model proposes that there are four essential ingredients. Each suggests specific learning outcomes, which combine to create the conditions for people to be confident and active in the public domain.
Value your own skills
Here the focus is on work with individuals, whether in terms of confidence building, validating life experiences or practical skills development, for example, presentation skills, public speaking, chairing meetings, budgeting, planning, dealing with difficult situations, being more assertive. In general, these can be the building blocks towards increased self esteem and an acceptance of one’s own value and experiences.
Know yourself through and with others
At this stage we can reflect upon our own situation in relation to the wider context of women’s experiences. It provides the opportunity to make sense of the factors that shape our lives, for example, education, religion, family, motherhood, sexuality, class, race, economic dependence. It is at this point that we realise that while we have many experiences in common, we are all products of our particular and diverse cultures, backgrounds and traditions. If we can learn how to value ourselves and communicate with others in a genuine way, we are in a better position to develop a network of support and deal with the inevitable conflicts and work together to make positive changes.
The model © changes
Know how the external world operates and choosing where you want to be
To be able to make changes and get our voices heard we need to know how the system operates: how decision-making structures are set up, how these structures work, who is involved, how accountable they are, who holds power in any given situation. This means knowing about the local, national and international structures that impact upon our lives. If we are clear about our place within the system; as a voter, a constituent, a consumer, a citizen, we start to have a clearer understanding about our rights and responsibilities. Once we have this knowledge we can make choices about where we want to be and the roles we want to play, for example, an elected member, a school governor, an MP, a magistrate, on a Citizen’s Panel.
Know where to go to get what you want
In order to make changes we have to make our voice heard, ask people for information and know how to get what we want from individuals and organisations. This can involve negotiating, campaigning, lobbying – or simply being more assertive!