Civic engagement allows us to truly connect with our neighbors, find value in our peers, and serve in a capacity that truly moves us forward.
DIVING DEEPER INTO CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Wichita is known for its Midwestern hospitality. The people are perceived to be kind, humble and honest — visitors refer to the people of Wichita like they would to characters from the "Andy Griffith Show".
But part of our perception challenge is living up to who we think we are. And while anecdotally, Wichita may be one of the nicest cities in the U.S., data paints a very different picture.
Click here to learn more about the Perception Challenge as a whole.
Reach Advisors analyst James Chung's research notes that, out of 108 U.S. metros surveyed by the U.S., Wichita ranked 11th-lowest in "talk with neighbors frequently," ninth-lowest in "frequently do favors for neighbors," and lowest of all metros in "see or hear from friends or family frequently."
A 2010 Soul of the Community poll from Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that Wichita residents cared for each other less than in other communities. The poll also revealed that gays, lesbians and young talent were perceived as unwelcome groups.
For Wichita to see success, we need to stop pretending to be a warm, friendly and inclusive city in the Midwest, and actually become one. A mindset focused on civic engagement will allow us to truly connect with our neighbors, find value in people we've never reached out to before, and serve in a capacity that truly moves us forward.
WHAT IS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?
Civic engagement is broadly defined as individual or collective actions that identify and address issues of public concern.
These concerns could be addressed through local political activism, the formation of a nonprofit or simply by volunteering with already-formed groups and organizations. No matter how individuals get involved, Ed O'Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, says it's important to constantly gauge whether or not that activity is effective.
"One of the things we're finding is that there's a big difference between being involved and being effective," O'Malley says. "There are incredible people serving on nonprofit boards for example, and a lot of them serve on five different boards. And, you know, the odds of them actually leaning in and leading to significant progress on whatever the issue a certain nonprofit focuses on, I think it is diminished the busier people get."
O'Malley's Kansas Leadership Center is a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that focuses on training leaders for stronger, healthier and more prosperous communities. The center is based in Wichita but serves the entire state.
O'Malley also argues that true civic engagement demands something deeper from participants than regular volunteer work. He says he volunteers with the Kansas Humane Society with his daughter, getting animals re-socialized for adoption. While he says this type of volunteering is vital to nonprofits across the state, it's not the type of civic engagement that truly creates change.
To create that change, O'Malley says it often takes discomfort and uncertainty.
"It's going to be risky," he says.
You're not going to know exactly the best way to engage in whatever it is you want to engage on, but you've just got to do it. You'll never know exactly. It'll never be perfectly safe. You'll always feel like you're stepping out into the abyss — taking a chanceEd O'Malley
The way we engage the community is changing, as well. Social media, and even advancements as simple as automatic garage door openers, have contributed to different levels of engagement across a community, driving us to be more independent and less likely to reach out to those outside our social circles.
Dr. Scott Wituk is the director of Wichita State University's Community Engagement Institute, which offers a wide range of services, from assisting self-help support groups and nonprofits to promoting leadership and public and mental health.
"Some of the factors about life and how we live our lives have changed over the past 30 to 40 years," he says. "All of these things are driving us to be — allowing us to be — open only to those [who] are like ourselves, or open to no one."
Regardless of how we engage in the future, the depth of connection will certainly play a role in how our city is perceived by outsiders and locals alike. But what other benefits lie in committing to civic engagement?
WHY SHOULD WE ENGAGE?
There are two significant beneficiaries of increased civic engagement: Individuals and the community at large.
Last year, the Kansas Health Foundation published the Kansas Civic Health Index, which found that Kansas groups that are least politically engaged experience the poorest health outcomes and struggle to access health care. It also found that volunteering can positively influence both physical and mental health, as it can boost confidence, provide a stronger sense of purpose and prevent depression.
Dr. Wituk says civic engagement can also expand the networks of those who choose to participate, leading to overall better economic outcomes, as well.
"Typically, what you find is those [who] are more involved in their community and are giving back in all the different ways and shapes we just mentioned, typically have better health outcomes, have better economic outcomes," Dr. Wituk says. "It does make logical sense. If your networks are broader and you go to hand out water at that event ... you run into folks that may say, 'Oh, I didn’t know you were looking for an accounting position.' ... So that expanded network, especially when there’s a depth of a network there, like you really have a relationship with the individual, probably are going to help you in economic and other health ways, as well."
For Wichita as a whole, strong civic engagement can lead to a stronger sense of community, attracting individuals and businesses to a sense of connection among Wichitans.
"That can be such a lifeblood of the community when somebody comes here or a company thinks, ‘OK, is this the place where we want to have our folks work?’" Dr. Wituk says. "It’s those types of things that can separate ... Wichita from any other mid-sized community."
Dr. Wituk also says civic engagement can lead to more tangible outcomes, as well, such as lower crime rates.
"I think you start seeing other kinds of ills of society going down," he says. "If more people are out there knowing each other, that's going to be good for the community."
HOW WELL DO WE ENGAGE?
Not as well as we could, according to Chung's research, and the Kansas Civic Health Index.
Despite Wichita's reputation as a warm, friendly city, Wichita has a long way to go to become anywhere close to nationally recognized for civic engagement and community cohesion.
Coupling with what Chung found in his research, the Kansas Civic Health Index found that Kansas as a whole ranks 41st in voting in local elections, and still performs badly in talking with, and doing favors for, neighbors.
Despite these indicators, O'Malley is optimistic about Wichita's future when it comes to civic engagement.
"My sense is civic engagement in Wichita is on the rise, and I still think it’s pretty nascent, you know?" he says. "We’re seeing a number of things that are just happening, some of which are going to be wildly successful, some of which are going to fail — and that’s OK."
One area Wichita has been particularly active in is rallying the entrepreneurship community. 1 Million Cups, Startup Grind, e2e and GroundWork have been active in putting together events, discussing issues and promoting Wichita's growing group of entrepreneurs.
Despite this activity, O'Malley says we could be doing more. In Johnson County, he says the community at large works tirelessly to support K-12 education.
"I don’t sense that same level of commitment here and that same level of engagement when it comes to an issue like K-12, for example," he says. "So I think there are pockets of really emerging engagement, and there are other areas where more is needed. But something is definitely happening."
The only way to improve how our city engages is to get involved ourselves. We all know of ways our community could improve. All it takes to make that improvement happen is a willingness to sacrifice for that greater good.
Here are a few places to start for those looking for volunteer opportunities, or for the opportunity to dive deeper into true civic engagement. If you see a need not being met, create new opportunities for yourself and others to address new issues. Contact the WSU Community Engagement Institute to explore options on creating your own support groups and nonprofits.