Sparking Civic Engagement – 10 Ways to Help Residents Get Started

February 18, 2019 by Jean Westrick

Jean Westrick, director of civic engagement and partnerships, The Chicago Community Trust

The Chicago Community Trust designed On the Table in 2014 as a unique way to elevate civic conversation and encourage collaborative action among residents. Year after year, we’ve been inspired by the results – specifically, the willingness of participants to make a difference in their community.

In fact, research conducted over the first five years of On the Table in Chicago found participants are highly involved and engaged in their communities (79% are somewhat/very involved, with 33% very involved), with a significant majority (87%) indicating a belief that they can make their community a better place to live (47% believe they can have a “big” impact). 

Many community foundations and organizations seeking to plan and implement On the Table in their communities cite increasing civic engagement as a key motivator. But, while becoming more civically engaged sounds great, what does it mean for the individuals and organizations you engage through On the Table conversations? How can we leverage the momentum and motivation that On the Table sparks to encourage participants to take action continue and increase their civic engagement? It could be as easy as sharing a few simple ideas!

The resources, opportunities, institutions are unique to your local context; consider this list of ideas as a starting point to creating your own list with specific examples from your community for your participants.

1. Talk with friends and family about issues that are important to you in your city, community or neighborhood.

On the Table provides a great model for this. Our host guide includes some ideas on how to start a productive conversation. Talk about what matters to you, but almost more importantly: be an active listener, practice curiosity and ask open questions. 

2. Make sure you are registered to vote…

Did you know the voter registration process differs by state? Check to learn details about how you can register and the date by which you must be registered in order to vote in your state.  

3. …and then go out and vote!

In every election, not just the “big ones.” Local elections can greatly impact your day-to-day life – make an effort to learn about everything on the ballot from the judges to local ballot measures. Your local newspaper and the debates hosted by the League of Women Voters can be a good place to start. There are also a number of great websites to help you get ready before you get to the booth. For example, BallotReady allows you to research candidates, issues and referendums and add your choices to a mock ballot that you can take with you.

4. Volunteer.

Get in touch with a nonprofit or civic organization, and explore ways that you can get involved in the issues you care about most. But, even more than that, volunteering can be personally satisfying, lead to new relationships and strengthen bonds with your loved ones. So, turn your personal interests in to more public good. For example, if you enjoy the great outdoors – seek out opportunities that bring you closer to nature. Do good together – volunteer with your children, spouse or friends. And, don’t forget your talents! Catchafire matches skilled professional volunteers with nonprofits.

5. Get to know your local elected officials.

Many decisions that impact your community are made at a local level. Get to know the people that represent you and what they stand for.

6. Attend city council meetings.

This a great way to stay on top of things happening in your community. It also provides a built-in opportunity for public comment where you can provide feedback.

7. Join your local neighborhood association and help spearhead a project to better the place you call home.

Plant a community garden, host a park clean-up, participate in a neighborhood watch – all while meeting new people and making your neighborhood a better place. Win, win!

8. Make your voice heard on the issues you care most about.

Write a letter-to-the-editor of the local newspaper, participate in local town hall meetings or start a blog – make your comments unique, fact-based and succinct.

9. Join, engage and step up.

There are lots of ways to be more involved in your community. Join a networking group with people who share your interests. Become a board member of a local organization you care about. If you’re a business owner, consider joining the local chamber of commerce. And, don’t be afraid to step up and lead. It doesn’t matter if the role is big or small – every little bit makes a difference, whether you run for public office or lead a committee for your church or the parent-teacher association.

10. Speak up and spread awareness of the issues most important to you.

Make your voice heard and mobilize others to take collective action. Connect and work with others passionate about the same issues you care about. You can start a petition using an online tool such as, organize a letter-writing or phone-banking campaign, create a Facebook group, connect with others online and spread awareness using a common hashtag.

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