OPINION: Together we can remove barriers to civic engagement
As a working parent to two young children, my desire to be deeply engaged in civic activities often rubs up against the realities of juggling household needs, employer commitments, a pandemic puppy, and elusive self-care aspirations. The recent return to in-person learning for my second-grader only further complicated routines, now that drop-off and pick-up no longer take place in our kitchen.
That said, I know (albeit in the back of my mind) that civic engagement is vital to the sense of community and belonging that I want for my family. When engaged residents use their voices, knowledge and energy for activities like voting, issue activism or volunteerism, networks are built and strengthened, and with them come positive change.
Yet barriers exist for many Oregon families, much like mine, to fully participate. While 38% of all Oregonians say that work and family life are one of the top four things that keep them from being more civically engaged, this rate jumps to 54% among Oregonians with school-age children. These findings come from a July 2021 statewide survey of Oregonians' values and beliefs, conducted by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center and included civic engagement questions elevated by Our Children Oregon.
Other barriers also exist. While work and family priorities top the list for Oregonians with children as a barrier to civic engagement, 39% named a lack of trust in the public process, 38% said they were too limited on time and 26% did not know how to get involved. Luckily, Oregonians with children offered many solutions to reduce these barriers so that more families can engage with and invest in the civic process.
Civic engagement needs to work for working families.
I am regularly juggling competing demands during the day, meaning the time I do have available for outside activities is often at odd hours or spare moments here and there. Community participation at civic engagement events can be fostered by intentional development that is considerate of the where, when, and how. Flexibility and a variety of pathways to engage, including continued virtual options, are essential.
"Having (the) opportunity to be involved outside of the specific public meeting times is great," said a Jackson County caregiver. "It offers flexibility to submit/participate when I have the time."
Let's ensure interested working families and caregivers have the options they need to get involved.
Pathways to civic engagement need to be accessible and welcoming.
An important first step among organizations, governments and elected officials can be a commitment to regularly providing families with accessible, plain-language information. Mindful of format, access, and language needs, this approach can ease the knowledge burden that may sometimes feel necessary for civic participation.
"Explaining step by step what would need to be done" would be very helpful, according to one Washington County parent surveyed.
Civic engagement opportunities need to include the whole family.
Research links civic involvement among children and youth to positive academic, health and life outcomes. This makes the benefits of creating more inclusive opportunities for children and their families a win-win for caregivers and children alike. It can make a world of difference when an event is not only family-friendly but intentionally family-inclusive as well.
A Lane County mom asks for "some way for my kids to be involved at the same time, too. I work full time and want to prioritize time with them."
I want this, too. When my children are both welcomed and engaged, I am more likely to attend and seek out similar engagement opportunities in the future. Other concrete supports to aid participation can look like providing childcare or age-appropriate play-based activities.
These proposed solutions reflect the top insights of Oregonians with children and offer a blueprint towards a more civically engaged state. As steps are taken to implement these solutions, barriers will be reduced so that families feel able and welcomed to participate in the public process. When Oregonians are able to show up in civic spaces on behalf of their communities, at both the local and state level, decisions are made and changes are sought that reflect the values and perspectives of our communities.
Our Children Oregon recently launched the All Children Thrive Collective, a statewide engagement opportunity rooted in shared values. ACT brings together families, alongside committed organizations and advocates, to improve child well-being in Oregon through civic engagement, education and advocacy opportunities. Oregon — when we ACT together, all children thrive.
Michelle Luedtke is mama to two young children and the communications and data integration director at Our Children Oregon, a statewide advocacy and child-abuse prevention non-profit organization. OCO works to advance equitable policymaking and whole-child advocacy in support of a just and fair Oregon where all children thrive.
Oregon Values and Beliefs Centeris an independent, nonpartisan charitable organization to provide voice to all Oregonians in statewide and local policymaking, planning, and communications.
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