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Make Civic Engagement a Priority in the New Year

Many people view the New Year as a time for resolutions -- losing weight, exercising more, staying in better touch with friends, taking up a new hobby. Here's something you don't often hear of when considering New Year's resolutions -- devoting more time to civic life. Our nation has millions of runners, gym goers, bird watchers, collectors, sports fans and musicians. But one area that is often overlooked when it comes to one's free time and quality of life is the "democratic arts."

A practitioner of the democratic arts can rally others informally or through civic groups to stand up against the power brokers who act against the interests of local communities or national interests; a practitioner of the democratic arts will dedicate time and ability to watching over institutions such as Congress, government agencies and multinational corporations; a practitioner of the democratic arts will not just grumble at injustices, but rather seek out and challenge injustices. In short, a practitioner of the democratic arts is an active citizen.

Politicians of all stripes can promise "hope and change," but real change will only come when more Americans decide to try their hand at civic action. There is an old saying: "Eternal vigilance is the price for liberty." An update may be -- if you don't have a say, you'll pay, pay and pay.

Here are a few examples of the "democratic arts" in action:

Lois Gibbs lived with her children near Niagara Falls when news of the contamination of the nearby Love Canal made headlines. She learned that her children's elementary school was sitting right on top of a massive toxic chemical dump. After noticing symptoms of illness in her children and other local children, she wrote extensively on the subject of toxic waste to bring attention and awareness to the horrifying effects of reckless corporate pollution. Then, Lois Gibbs created the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (chej.org) in 1981 to help and organize hundreds of other communities which had been similarly exposed to the chemical wastes of callous corporations.

In 2004, Brian D. Schultz was a fifth-grade teacher at Byrd Community Academy near the infamous (and now demolished) Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago. Due to the dilapidated nature of the school building -- broken furniture, cracked windows, freezing classrooms, broken and dirty restrooms, a lack of lunch or gym facilities -- Schultz abandoned his lesson plan in favor of his student's suggestion to focus on the state of their facilities. The students devoted themselves to one goal -- to document the terrible disrepair of their school building and to build support for a new school. Their activism -- which they called "Project Citizen" -- taught them many useful skills about civic action and was able to garner local and national media support. Schultz wrote a book about his experience called Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom.

Barbara A. Lewis was a teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City. One day, a student in her fifth grade class announced the discovery of a nearby overgrown hazardous waste site just three blocks from the school. Ms. Lewis suggested a class project, to call attention to the dump site and to work to clean it up. They contacted the press and local officials and were even invited to testify at the state legislature. Inspired by her students, Barbara Lewis wrote The Kid's Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose-And Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action. (Read her story and view pictures of her class's project here: http://www.barbaraalewis.com/about/students-history/.)

Ed and Joyce Koupal, two "ordinary people," in their words, rose to prominence in the late 1960s as the leaders of the People's Lobby in California. The Koupals perfected the technique of signature gathering. They started by recruiting small teams of volunteers, which they dubbed "the fanatic fifty", and developed new techniques such as abandoning the traditional "door-to-door" method of collecting signature in favor of the "table method", which placed signature stations in high traffic areas like college campuses and shopping centers. While their first few initiatives failed to gather the required number of signatures, they remained vigilant and soon their found their stride. The Koupals won a case in the California Supreme Court that allowed them to circulate petitions and collect signatures in corporate-owned shopping malls. Later, they scored significant democratic victories that established the California Coastal Commission (http://www.coastal.ca.gov) and the Political Reform Initiative (http://www.fppc.ca.gov/index.php?id=57). At their height, the Koupals could marshal 10,000 volunteers in California almost immediately for a petition drive to get a measure on the state ballot. Their legacy is a testament to the power of the democratic arts.

As we approach 2013, take these inspiring examples of active citizenry to heart and mind (they're both necessary.) A practitioner of the democratic arts has power to affect change in our increasingly corporatized country.