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Civic Engagement: Acts both Big & Small

By Naomi Orensten

Much of our work here at Informing Change is focused on civic engagement and volunteerism. Our clients utilize civic engagement strategies to develop leaders, change public policy, promote cross-sector collaboration, and more. They embrace volunteerism as a tool for social change, to improve people’s lives and to make a difference in our communities.

So, it’s not a surprise that sometimes these terms—civic engagement and volunteerism—are perceived as so lofty, that it can be hard to fathom integrating them our day-to-day lives. Or, we can forget how much they are indeed a part of our everyday lives.

Lately I’ve been reminded how meaningful small acts of kindness can be. You see, my left arm is in a cast. All will be fine; I’ll be back to yoga and riding my bike in a few short weeks. In this time, though, I have been become so appreciative of small gestures, often from complete strangers, to lend a helping hand and made my day just a little bit easier. So to the person on BART, on that wet and crowded morning commute, thanks for helping me not get trampled. To my fellow airline passenger who placed my carry-on bag in the overhead storage bin, thanks. And for the support of my partner, colleagues, and friends, gratitude and appreciation abounds.

So do I think about these as civic acts? Certainly. Sure, they’re small and didn’t require a whole lot of time or effort, but they show a lot about how we see other people and how we make decisions to help others. It would be hyperbolic to state that actions on this scale drive major social change. Yet, they remind me that what’s behind these little gestures—active citizenship, people paying attention and helping others—are the same characteristics that drive broader civic engagement efforts. Volunteering doesn’t need to be formally structured; you don’t need to schedule it into your calendar. Civic engagement is more than a neighborhood meeting or showing up at the voting booth. My cast has served as a beautiful reminder that it is exactly these small acts that gain momentum and can become efforts that transform communities and improve lives.