Our Place in a Civil Society

Friday, December 1, 2006 (All day)

We’re blessed in America to have an arena in which people routinely join hands and act with profound freedom in the public interest. Though not always unfettered by the state nor unconstrained by market commerce, some of us working here refer to that arena as “civil society.” However, most often we substitute the terms “nonprofit” or “charitable sector” because they’re easier for most people to understand.

Civil society often refers to those aspects of the human enterprise not specifically fitting into the governmental or commercial mainstream. Civil society advocates and activists frequently seek to shape - and ultimately institutionalize - economic, social, cultural and policy priorities that favor big ideals like equity, justice, freedom and inclusion. They see themselves as community developers, believing things work best when the quality and character of community life is shaped with the greatest possible degree of human participation. They often affiliate with or form afresh organizations committed to things like advancing basic civil rights, alleviating poverty, fostering the arts and culture, facilitating local economic development, conducting social and policy research, organizing citizen involvement in self-government, insuring wide access to education, improving job opportunities and protecting the environment.

You’ve met these people. They are you.

An amazingly large number of people work in these endeavors. Employment in the private nonprofit sector, the formal organizational home to most community development enterprises, currently comprises around nine percent of the total American workforce, or approximately 12 million jobs. It is well known that no one gets wealthy tackling daunting societal problems by starting up or working in a nonprofit organization. Often, entrants into the field experience their decision to work for the broader public interest as a sort of “calling” akin to a religious or spiritual vocation. They usually end up devoting their lives to community development after a period of involvement early in their work lives or at some significant transitional point later in life. Eventually, they get hooked on an enduring urge for public engagement and action. Ask anyone who has made such a commitment to service and they will generally tell a story of an event or experience that blew some illusion they had about society to bits and moved them from a period of despair or intense self-reflection to a state of what I call “civic humility.”

Having achieved civic humility, they think no longer solely in terms of “I”, but establish a healthy alliance with a meaningful, often restive “we.” Sometimes they turn political. Most often they live life suffused with an infinite sense of obligation to humanity that grows stronger with exercise. They serve without subservience. And they do good better than they ever could alone.