Making Civics Sexy: Turning Millennial’s Opt-Out to Opt-In

Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University and author of The Gardens of Democracy, believes that U.S. citizens have given away their power to the few who remain engaged. He specifically calls out millennials for “opting-out and turning to volunteerism.”


Although Liu makes some insightful observations, he overlooks the connection of volunteerism with civic engagement. Volunteer service, specifically those that are long term with stipends, can be a classroom for understanding power and providing the fuel needed to fight the strong “concentration of clout.” More than focusing on how to manipulate power, we should focus on empowerment.  That means achieving for the greater good and making that achievement a priority.  Only with volunteers is that possible.


Lui identifies cities as a vacuum of civic engagement. “There is no better arena in our time to the practicing of power than the city.”  Isn’t that exactly what volunteers do when they dedicate their time to their communities?  Programs like AmeriCorps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Jewish Volunteer Corps occupy nearly every city in the United States.  They work with the sick, the poor and the uninformed.  It is our volunteers who work directly with those who are most disempowered and MOST dependent on decisions made by those in power.


In other words, in volunteerism, there are programs that support young, idealistic, recent graduates as they work with people neglected and disempowered by the system.


These programs lead to two outcomes:


1. Volunteers work to empower the underrepresented portions of our nation by providing housing, education, job training and access to food. These are basic building blocks that some may take for granted but will give those who are underrepresented the ability to sustain a life where they can get involved in civics and have a voice.


2. Alumni of these programs carry with them the understanding and stories of these disadvantaged populations with them through their careers and in turn, understand civic duty and how they can make the needed changes to best our communities.


Lui shares this definition of power: “Capacity to make others do what you would have them do.” That is scary, especially scary if you have lived and worked among those who are most controlled.  In my opinion, greater awareness is power.


How can volunteerism be used to re-engage millennials and spur innovations that address issues of social justice?


If young people understood these long-term programs as entryways to education in power would they be more likely to engage?


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Written by Anna Lenhart

Edited By Michelle Sousa