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A civics lesson for 20-somethings

Many young people drop out of civic life because we set them up to fail. In the Obama era, we talk about social change in such grandiose terms that anything after is bound to feel insignificant in comparison. I've learned that civic engagement, above all else, requires resilience.

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But in part, many young people drop out of civic life because we set them up to fail. We talk about social change in such grandiose terms – especially in the Obama age – that anything after is bound to feel small and insignificant in comparison.

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Being an engaged citizen hardly ever results in immediate reward or glory; it’s about the long-term commitment to going out of your comfort zone to make friends with your neighbors, to take things in your community and in your country personally, to get up and go to the meetings and marches even when you don’t feel like it, to move the nation toward justice, one unglamorous inch at a time.

But that’s not the story we tell about social change in America. More often, we shine the light on the tweeting, celebrity-surrounded mayor of Newark, N.J., Cory Booker, who saved a woman from a burning fire. Or we focus on curly-headed, sweet-smilin’ Blake Mycoskie, the socially minded entrepreneur delivering minimalist hipster shoes to Argentine kids.

We rarely highlight the community organizers and teachers and social workers. We rarely talk about the little, daily joys that make the lack of recognition or glacial pace of systemic change worth it. 

Civic engagement, above all else, requires resilience. That was a quality my friends and I weren’t cultivating when we gave up on marches. We were swinging wildly back and forth on the pendulum of our fragile egos, or as Wendell Berry writes, “Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.”

In our later 20s, my friends and I settled back to the sustainable center – knowing our power and duty, but not denying the complexity of change. After life had beaten us down, we had no choice but to learn how to get back up. And in the getting back up, we became accustomed to giving our energy to a cause knowing that the results might not be satisfying, at least in the short term. We built the mental muscles necessary to stick with it.

The personal truly is the political, when it comes to that strange first decade of adulthood. There’s nothing like personal heartbreak and professional disappointment to teach us how hard life can be and how much simply showing up matters. But as Parker Palmer writes in “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” we must be careful to “break open instead of apart.”

Our nation depends on it, and so do we as individuals. In rising over and over to the occasion of our civic potential, we find ourselves heartier and happier, more intricately woven into communities that care for and count on us. Resilience allows us to live up to our duty to leave America more just than we found it; it is the lifeblood of a fulfilling, connected life.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists” and cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network. You can read more about her work at


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