The Civic Renewal Movement: Community Building and Democracy in the United States

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Jan 29, 2010

Sirianni, Carmen and Lewis A. Friedland. The Civic Renewal Movement: Community Building and Democracy in the United States. Kettering, 2005.

Authors Sirianni (Brandeis University) and Friedland (University of Wisconsin), who also wrote the earlier Civic Innovation in America (2001), argue in this well-researched book that civic renewal – which they define as developing capacity for public problem-solving and citizen participation in governing – is growing in the United States. They give examples of various types of civic groups, such as watershed associations, neighborhood associations, youth commissions, healthy community coalitions, and service learning initiatives at higher education institutions as evidence of this upswing in civic activity, but does this increase actually point to the development of something that can be called a “movement”?

The book is divided into several sections. In Part One, the authors make the case for an upswing in civic renewal, by sharing case studies of organizations doing work in the areas of community organizing and development, civic environmentalism, the “engaged campus”, youth development and K-12 civic education, “healthy communities” initiatives and public journalism and civic communications.

In Part Two, the authors use social movement theory to argue that this increase in community involvement is an indication that a movement is in fact developing, and further, they maintain that these developments can be stimulated and nurtured by seeing them in that light. They examine the overall shape of the civic renewal movement, its themes, and what makes it unique.

Part Three offers a rather brief overview of organizations that played a part in helping create a civic renewal movement, such as the Reinventing Citizenship Project (now the Civic Practices Network), the National Commission on Civic Renewal and the Saguaro Project. This is perhaps the least satisfying section of the book. Several of the organizations listed here were, in fact, not able to survive due to lack of funding, which does not help the authors’ case that momentum is building behind a growing movement. Also, all of the examples date from the 1990s. If a need existed in 2005 to define the movement, it would have made a stronger point to also highlight some groups doing such work at that time rather than in the past.

In Part Four, the authors address those persistent challenges that face all who seek to encourage civic renewal, although they don’t address them in much detail. They also set aside a few pages to argue for non-partisanship in civic engagement and to highlight individuals from both political parties who have supported civic renewal initiatives.

Because of the overview approach that the authors take, this book would be a good place to start for anyone unfamiliar with civic engagement who wants to get a look at the “lay of the land”, find out what the key organizations are, what sorts of issues are under discussion, and what scholarly research has been done in the field. There is an extensive (70 pp.) section of resources, including a bibliography of scholarship in the field, but disappointingly, the authors do not use footnotes or end notes in the text, which can make following some of the content to its source a little more difficult. Those new to the field will also encounter some jargon that remains undefined.

Written by Lisa L

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