No matter the form – voting, volunteering, standing up for equal rights – civic engagement has and will continue to be an integral part of American democracy. Despite its importance, reports point to low levels of civic knowledge and engagement among Americans. Rachel Anderson, a professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law, suggests that civic education and engagement would improve if individuals’ differing interests and perspectives were taken into consideration.
What impact does diversity blindness have on civic engagement, and how can we address it?
School, college, and university campuses are increasingly diverse, yet many continue to approach civic engagement with a diversity-blind approach. Diversity-blind approaches by their nature exclude or undervalue categories of information from their analysis. This is akin to doing a cost-benefit analysis for a project but ignoring some categories of costs and benefits when doing the calculations. The outcome will be inaccurate and the project is unlikely to be successful or effectively achieve its intended goals.
Diversity mainstreaming is one way to address diversity blindness. Diversity mainstreaming is an adaptation of gender mainstreaming, which has a long history in international law and policy. Diversity mainstreaming builds diversity into all aspects of civic engagement and education as part of the “mainstream” rather than being excluded or treated as an optional add-on component.
Can you explain civic education and engagement a little further?
Civic engagement is an important part of education because it gives students the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills that will help them be successful now and in the future. It “refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future.” (Adler & Goggin, 2005)
Civic education offers students learning experiences in which they can acquire competencies that will help them achieve goals in all aspects of their lives. It allows them to learn how to problem solve, work in a group, and engage with others who are different from them, among other things.
Civic engagement is an important part of American democracy and culture. Over the decades, people in the United States have engaged individually and collectively in many different forms of community and political civic engagement to identify and address issues of public concern. Individuals volunteer in domestic violence shelters and write letters to their elected officials. Community groups collect school supplies for donation and organize voter registration drives. In the universal suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, people across the country participated collectively in numerous activities to promote equal rights and equal justice for all.
What role does education play in civic engagement?
Research suggests that there are important connections between civic education and civic engagement, including being able to integrate new information, increasing faith in the political process, promoting political participation, and understanding how individual and group interests converge. This understanding of how people’s interests may converge can be a key motivator for civic engagement because it allows individuals and groups to see what factors must be present for their efforts to be effective.
Civic education is part of the American educational landscape. At colleges and universities, civic education has received increased attention in recent decades. Civic engagement is also an important part of legal education. Law students learn about the unmet needs of the communities around them while participating in hands-on activities like legal clinics, externships, community workshops, and street law. Civic education is also a part of the traditional role of primary and secondary school in the United States.
Despite its importance and long tradition, study after study documents low levels of civic engagement and civic knowledge among Americans. This is also revealed by low voter turnout and students’ weak performance on civics and other standardized tests. There are many theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon.
Can you tell us about some of those theories?
One thing that we do know is that when students understand how what they are learning can affect them, the convergence of their outside interests with their coursework can increase their engagement with the material.
The omission from civic education of differentiated interests that speak to varied life experiences can occur when the programs and materials take a diversity-blind approach. That could mean that the materials do not differentiate applicable interests based on such things as age, culture, ethnicity, faith or beliefs, gender, race, physical ability, primary language, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, geographic influences, or others. Often when people omit other perspectives and interests, they may not even be aware that they are doing so.
This type of diversity blindness can be exacerbated by factors like housing segregation and cultural isolation. Housing segregation, in which people are grouped into living spaces with others who are predominantly from the same socio-economic class or the same ethnic background, continues to be a feature of American neighborhoods. Television and the Internet offer the opportunity to transcend segregated living spaces and cultural isolation. However, we often use these options to communicate predominantly with others with whom we have one or more categories in common. This can narrow one’s awareness of differing perspectives and interests.
How can diversity mainstreaming be promoted in civic engagement and education?
The questions that follow could be used to promote diversity mainstreaming in civic engagement and education. It is important to work through them with specificity and write responses; otherwise it is easy to skip over assumptions or analytical weaknesses.
How and why are diverse interests relevant to the focus of a specific civic engagement or education issue, goal, or activity? If everyone involved agrees there are not any diverse interests, someone should be assigned to learn and represent one or more diverse interests to ensure a rigorous analysis.
What assumptions about the groups, categories, or interests involved may be implicit in the way the program, issues, goals, or activities are defined? These should be specific and not general and may need to address the intersections of one or more categories.
What data or information is relevant to understanding the interests involved and clarifying any mistaken assumptions? This data or information would need to be obtained and analyzed and the program refined to reflect any insights gained.
What input has been sought from the interest-bearers and how? Often input from members of target groups, affected communities, and intended audiences is sought too late in the process to significantly influence the direction of civic education or engagement. Early communication and exchange of information can be an important factor in success.
Where do civic engagement and education fit in at the Boyd School of Law?
At the law school, civic engagement and education have been a part of the fabric of our school since the beginning. Our voter education program has included a series of events statewide together with our partners and sponsors. Diversity mainstreaming was incorporated into the voter education program from the beginning. As an example, the case studies used in the voting rights project use characters who are diverse in terms of gender and age and come from diverse racial, ethnic, language, regional, and socio-economic backgrounds. The Nevada Revised Statutes used in the project address the issue of voting machine language requirements, ability of employees to take time off of work to vote, and polling place accommodations for physical disabilities, among other issues.
The success of the program to date demonstrates the success of diversity mainstreaming on the ground in Nevada. However, it is likely that we will first be able to truly assess the full magnitude of these benefits only after these students have become adults, taken on leadership roles, and return to share their insights and experiences. I, for one, am looking forward to that day.
This piece originally appeared as a column in the 2016 issue of UNLV Law magazine.