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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/file
Demonstraters protest against a potential war on Iraq outside the Seaport Hotel in Boston on Oct. 4, 2002. Op-ed contributor Courtney E. Martin says of civic engagement in America: '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.'

I have a distinct memory of that cold Saturday morning in February 2003. The invasion of Iraq was imminent. I jostled lead-heavy arms and legs throughout the apartment to get my best friends up and out to the antiwar march. They were none too happy with my political enthusiasms the morning after a late-night dance session, but they appeased me nonetheless.

We 20-somethings marched in a near endless parade of humanity in Manhattan. The protest was coordinated with other demonstrations around the world, but it didn’t appear to matter. President George W. Bush likened the size of the protest to a “focus group” and said he wouldn’t make policy based on it. The war went on.

My friends didn’t say “I told you so” outright, but I knew that there would be no more such marching mornings with them. They’d tried and it hadn’t worked.

I was reminded of this early defeat when I read an interesting finding of the recently released “Millennials Civic Health Index,” put out by several groups including Harvard University and the National Conference on Citizenship. The report on 18-to-29-year-olds in 2012 finds that while civic engagement typically increases with age, 22-to-25-year-olds have lower levels of social cohesion and volunteerism than their older or younger peers.

Those years of our lives were certainly sobering ones for me and my friends. After being pumped up on “save the world” rhetoric and convinced of our own smarts at nurturing liberal arts colleges, we were kicked out of the dorms and into the doldrums of daily existence.

In the “real world,” I didn’t get A’s for sitting through the wandering rants of enraged people at my neighborhood association meeting. I didn’t receive extra credit for my get-out-the-vote phone calling, waiting as an elderly woman in Ohio left to get a pen and then forgot I was still connected, trying to tell her where she could vote in the upcoming election.

The years from 22 to 25, especially within America’s current economic constraints, are often a time of severe readjustment. What psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” can develop: When one has grand expectations, and finds them repeatedly unfulfilled, the unavoidable next stop is despair. Young people, already experiencing disequilibrium, find that their efforts to be civically engaged don’t feel as if they add up to much. They stop showing up at the marches. They stop making an effort to go to the meetings. What, after all, does it really amount to?

To some extent, this is a natural aspect of this stage in life. There’s a reason there’s so much awkward sex and soul-searching in Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” but almost no neighborly kindness. People in their early 20s are understandably self-focused. They’re trying to make a life for themselves.

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.

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 www.courtneyemartin.com.

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