Let’s Make ‘Citizen’ a Verb: This Is Civic Engagement

President Obama’s closest advisor, Valerie Jarrett, created and ran the White House Office of Public Engagement. Because democracy.

PUBLISHED MAR 19, 2023 5:48 P.M.
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Valerie Jarrett with the commander in chief in the Blue Room of the White House in 2010.

Valerie Jarrett with the commander in chief in the Blue Room of the White House in 2010.   Photo by Pete Souza   Public Domain

When someone at the gym or a bar asks me what I do, and I get to explain what California Local is, I tell them we are building a statewide network for local news—and a civic engagement engine.

I realize the meaning of that last phrase is not self-evident, and I’d like to take a few minutes here to explain what it is and why we believe it’s important. 

We use the phrase “civic engagement” so often around here, I forget that this lingo is not yet in the common parlance. But the idea has been around for at least a couple decades. Here’s a definition I found in the New York Times’ archives

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

That description pretty well describes our goal. 

On a CALocal Slack call this morning, I mentioned that I was writing (another) blog post explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Chris Neklason, my cofounder and our product/development guy, said he generally refers to the stuff we offer simply as “civic information.”

Here’s how that looks: We offer local journalism from a variety of trusted sources; an easy way to find out about local elected officials; and a comprehensive listing of local nonprofits and community organizations. If you think about it, this stack (as the coders say) of individuals and groups form every local community’s civic infrastructure.

California Local’s “special sauce” is that we are optimized to help you connect with these folks and participate in your local community’s governance—whether that means emailing a public servant, attending a local meeting, or volunteering for a community organization. 

That’s the “engine” part. Throughout this online portal, you will find links to click that help you engage with your county, city, town and the great State of California, and with local organizations devoted to everything from animal welfare to water. If California Local is a machine, it is designed to inspire and enable action.

Hence our three-word slogan: “Discover. Connect. Act.” And our motto: “We make it easy to citizen.” 

So that’s what we’re doing. And here’s a cool little story that illustrates why we’re doing it. 

The Woman who Brought ‘Engagement’ to the White House

The citizen-engagement idea found a powerful champion in the person of Valerie Jarrett, who served as President Barack Obama’s senior advisor for seven of his eight years in office. (Jarrett, you may recall, is a close friend of the Obamas who hired and mentored the young Michelle Robinson in Chicago.)

While at the White House, Jarrett oversaw the transformation of the moribund Office of Public Liaison into the Office of Public Engagement. A longtime community organizer, like her boss, Jarrett used this office to create a direct dialogue between the Obama Administration and its constituents, “and even more importantly helping their concerns be translated into action by the appropriate bodies of the Federal Government.

Now head of the Obama Foundation and board chair of the nonprofit Civic Nation, Jarrett showed up in the news a couple weeks back in a Washington Post article that touted a cause close to her heart, headlined “Obama launches leadership network focused on local civic engagement.”

She explains in the article that bringing people together to make a difference in the civic life of their communities can solve three of the biggest problems we face as a society. 

I'm in a different city almost every day,” Jarrett said,and what I hear is a feeling of disillusionment, social isolation and political polarization.” (Italics mine.)

I agree with the esteemed Ms. Jarrett that the simple act of coming together, each of us with the intention of bettering our community, displaces crippling cynicism and its symptoms. We’ve witnessed this first-hand while building California Local, as we've become familiar with the folks who are already hard at work in the trenches of local democracy. And we invite you to join us.

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