There is so much to do. Many of us are called to participate in community, family, and work-related activities on a day-to-day basis. It’s important as you take your commute to and from work – whether that be on the paved (and sometimes pothole-filled) streets in the urban and suburban areas or if your sojourn to work is a walk from the back door to the barn – to think about who you are interacting with; how you are interacting with them; and what the interactions mean for our society.
Back in 2015 Civic Nebraska released a Civic Health Index for Nebraska. Now as a social studies educator I had always considered civics in the most textbook of definitions: the functions and structures of a society that establishes governance. But clicking and scrolling through that index opened my mind a bit more about civic engagement.
The typical civic measurements were in there. Are you a registered voter? How often do you attend a public meeting? Have you ever contacted an elected official? The basics. That is not to say that those avenues of engagement are not important; certainly, they are. That’s also to not to say that I was batting 1.000 on each of those questions, either. I have improved in some areas, probably not to the liking of a couple of my elected officials.
What I wasn’t expecting were the statistics from respondents about who connected to their community by working with their neighbors on projects. I hadn’t considered that when my buddy from work helped me put up my backyard fence, that was contributing to our state’s civic health. When I was elected president of my fraternity, a proud organization focused on improving society, I could emphasize programming that was positive for my community and thus improving the state. My church has a global footprint that is highlighted almost every week, a fixture in the images in our hallway. It can be easy to overlook when we host our neighborhood back-to-school party to give out backpacks, school supplies, face-painting, foot massages, and grilled hot dogs, that too is contributing to our state’s health.
Since first reading through the report, I’ve taken on leadership opportunities and sought out ways to create change in my community. I have always had an interest in the NAACP, so I was happy to connect with the Omaha chapter as political action chair. I once taught my students the disturbing history of Omaha’s connection to the Red Hot Summer of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown. Over the last year, I have moved that lesson into the community in a partnership known as the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation. I’m proud that our work has brought about a community conversation about racism and its grip on our institutions and has also ensured that the legacy of Will Brown and his murderers will never be forgotten. The City of Omaha is establishing a historical marker outside of the Douglas County Courthouse, where Mr. Brown’s life was taken.
Recently, I was introduced to an activist named Dillard Delts. Dillard is hearing impaired and stands up for rural Nebraskans with disabilities who are impacted by the Federal Communications Commission. His efforts have made it so that you can text in emergency calls to 911, and also expanded the number of characters that you can use to do so. Dillard also has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for internet access for rural Nebraskans and Americans; he understands the complexities of access in small towns, coupled with the additional difficulty of being hard of hearing. Though he is a superhero in my book, on a typical day you might have seen him without his cape on, stacking inventory at Hy-Vee. That’s his day job.
All of our engagements with one another are meaningful. Every time we step outside our house, go online, clock into work, open the doors to our places of worship, or even simply answer the phone, we have an opportunity to improve our state’s civic health. No matter how broad the scale, every interaction we have with one another will either make our state better or hurt our civic health.
What do you prescribe?
Barry Thomas is the Director of Equity and Diversity for Omaha Public Schools. He is immediate past-president of the Nebraska State Council for Social Studies, a member of the Nebraska Advisory Council for National Geographic Society, and board member of the National Social Studies Supervisor Association.
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