The Future of Civic Engagement

Profile: Camryn Wilson

Nevins Fellow Camryn Wilson is part of Penn State's Intercollege Minor in Civic and Community Engagement. This post is an adaptation of her capstone project for CAS 496, directed by Dr. Rosa Eberly. Camryn compared civic ambassador programs in Texas and Connecticut and created an outline of what a program in Pennsylvania could look like.

I like to define civic engagement as the connections people have with their communities and the ways in which citizens actively participate in making a difference in issues of public conern by using their education, values, and skills. Additionally, civic engagement can take many forms such as volunteering, service-learning, electoral participation, working in government, and activism.

A civic ambassadors program is an exceptional way for states and the communities to increase awareness, participation, and engagement among citizens. These programs allow ordinary people to be leaders in their own communities, while making the civic health of their state better. Implementing civic ambassadors programs in every state would be beneficial to participatory democracy across our nation.

Currently, Connecticut, Texas, and Nebraska have civic ambassadors programs. For my capstone project for my civic and community engagement minor, I chose to compare the Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program to the Texas Civic Ambassadors Program. I worked directly with the Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program during my Nevins Fellowship with Everyday Democracy.

The goal of each civic ambassador is to reinforce community connection through engagement, community dialogues, and beneficial projects. By organizing and participating in these activities, civic ambassadors also benefit personally.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the Connecticut and Texas programs to see what is similar and different about each and how successful each program proves to be. In doing so, I hoped to gain knowledge and insight on how a civic ambassador program could be implemented in Pennsylvania. Implementing similar programs in every state would be beneficial to participatory democracy across our nation.

Connecticut

The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors program was launched in 2017 by Everyday Democracy and Denise Merill, Connecticut’s Secretary of State. The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors become “non-partisan catalysts of change.” The ambassadors are people who want to “build a movement for civic renewal in Connecticut” and who care about and engage others in their community by creating opportunities for civic participation.

They engage with their own communities by sharing civic health information and ideas through speaking, organizing, and/or volunteering at events or at various institutions/organizations. The ambassadors are able to gain a better understanding of the issues that are affecting their communities from the residents who live there.

The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors also participate in workshops, webinars, and the annual Civic Ambassadors Summit where there are opportunities to “learn more about civic health, learn from one another, leverage and build resources/partnerships, share success stories and challenges, increase the visibility of each Ambassador’s work, and build a movement for civic renewal in Connecticut.”

The Connecticut program allows its participants to devote as little as one hour per week to their work as an ambassador, which makes it easy for an average person to be an ambassador. The Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program is “open to any Connecticut resident who believes that engaging others in their community and public life strengthens the civic health of the state and promotes community well-being.”

People of any age can be Connecticut Civic Ambassadors and they are able to remain in the program for as long as they like. Anyone can apply and all are accepted to become ambassadors.

Texas

The Texas Civic Ambassadors Program was established in 2016 through the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. This is a one-year program that focuses on service learning and leadership for college students. During the year, the Texas Civic Ambassadors will “help to enhance civil dialogue or civic engagement on their campus or in their community.” Although it is based at one university, students from any college or university in Texas are allowed to become Texas civic ambassadors.

Throughout the year, ambassadors are required to complete an independent educational outreach project, attend leadership development workshops, and conduct nonpartisan or bipartisan outreach activities. They also receive a plethora of information, opportunities, and support throughout their time serving as ambassadors, both from the Annette Strauss Institute and faculty at their respective university/college.

The University of Texas at Austin hosts a 3-day Texas Civic Ambassadors Leadership Summit in which they learn how to and begin developing ideas and draft plans for outreach and events. In order to be a Texas Civic Ambassador, one must be a college student in the state of Texas, attend the summit and other events, host activities, and complete journal entries. The applications are open from March to June and not everyone is accepted into the program.

Comparison

I compared the programs in the following areas:

  • application process
  • time commitment
  • responsibilities/benefits
  • types of projects
  • demographics


Both programs had some similarities and differences in these areas, which can be see from the above descriptions. There are also fundamental differences between the programs that I think are important to highlight.

First, the Connecticut program seems to be more informal, while the Texas program seems to be more formal. This observation comes from the different requirements for the Ambassadors and the amount of enforcement that is put on those requirements, as well as what the Ambassadors personally receive from being part of the programs. While the Connecticut program allows its Ambassadors more freedom and flexibility in what they are required to do, the Texas program is stricter with its requirements.

Second, the Connecticut program is more activist-based and the Texas program is more educational. This observation comes from the fact that the Connecticut Ambassadors become agents of change in the state, while the Texas Ambassadors focus on service learning and leadership, while completing an educational outreach project.

I think both programs are successful and powerful for their states in their own ways. The Connecticut Program has provided opportunities for people doing great civic work to have a title and recognition for that work. The Texas Program provides learning opportunities and life-long civic skills to its Ambassadors so that they can continue to do civic work after their time serving as Texas Ambassadors is finished.

Implementation in Pennsylvania

My vision for the Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors Program is a mixture of characteristics of both the Connecticut and Texas Civic Ambassadors Programs. I believe that following the example of Texas might be the best way to implement a civic ambassadors program in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors could do a number of activities. Since the program would be open to students in higher education only, the Ambassadors could work to get the student voting numbers up by hosting educational events about voting and tabling for voter registration. They could also work to institutionalize voter registration on their campuses.

Additionally, Pennsylvania Ambassadors could be involved in student government activities, host social justice events, and create materials for students about civics, government, and service. One final thing that I think would be important for Civic Ambassadors to do would be to participate in service-learning opportunities, such as alternative break programs and days of service.

Penn State could be the perfect university to be the hub for the Pennsylvania Civic Ambassadors Program. The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, The Center for Character, Conscience, and Public Purpose, and the Intercollege Minor in Civic and Community Engagement make the university a great host for the program. The size of the Penn State community, as well as the existence of commonwealth campuses also work to the advantage of Penn State.