Coro Fellow Says Civic Engagement Must Start Locally


For the past two months, the issue of low voter turnout has consumed public debate. It took 14 cartons of orange juice, six onions and several heads of broccoli to teach our group of 20-somethings possible reasons behind this growing political apathy. As participants in the nine-month long Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, the 12 of us explore the world of public policy and self-governance through a series of internships, interviews and seminars. But it wasn't until we tried to cook for each other that we began to understand the true challenge of democracy. Given the responsibility of preparing group meals during a five-day retreat, we quickly discovered that we had too much broccoli, not enough onions and barely enough orange juice. Was our group communication insufficient? Did everyone have enough input when we constructed our shopping list? Could we have better planned our purchases?

The problems of communication, participation and preparation are ones that every democracy faces. In America, these problems are magnified because of the sheer size and diversity of the populace. Detached from their representatives and skeptical of the government's capacity to serve their needs, many citizens simply choose not to participate. The Congressional quarterly reported that only 48.8 percent of all eligible voters participated in the recent presidential election, the lowest percentage since 1924. But participation is not the only problem: even those individuals who vote regularly have had a hard time keeping track of the issues and seeing through the political spin.

As Coro Fellows, we too have experienced the problems of democracy. Every group decision we make involves compromise, which can produce frustration and a belief that one's opinion does not count. Individuals sometimes drop out of the discussion, unwilling to participate. At the end of a long debate, we sometimes joke that we have "had enough of democracy" and would prefer to elect a dictator to speed our efforts.

In the end, what keeps our group motivated is a common commitment to the value of diverse opinions and a desire to add our individual voice to the decision-making process. We are compelled by a conviction that the best decisions are not arbitray or authoritarian, but are those that satisfy the greatest number of needs for the greatest number of people. Such collective decision-making gives us all a stake in the outcomes we produce, and creates for us a community in which our interests are being addressed.

Granted, governing our group of 12 is far from representing the American electorate of 265 million. However, our interaction as a small group has allowed us to experience the benefits of active engagement and gain a greater appreciation for the value of democratic participation. Which leads us to a suggestion: that all Americans become involved in some form of civic action on a small or local level, where they can more immediately see the fruits of their participation and begin to trust in democracy's potential for success. This could be as simple as becoming a member of the PTA or speaking at a local community board meeting. Seeing democracy work on a local level would then inspire people to participate nationally. And with such increased civic participation, our country, like our Coro experiment, could finally be a community in which the true range of people's opinions and needs are expressed and acted upon. --Jean Tom '96, for the 1996-97   Coro Fellows in Public Affairs,   New York, NY