July 4, 2023
– By Cristin Brawner –
Independence Day: A Civic Holiday
Independence Day brings a lot of memories and images to mind for many of us. Fireworks. Patriotic music and speeches. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and barbecue. Time with family and friends. Escaping the heat and humidity in the closest creek, lake, river, or pool, especially here in the South.
The holiday also reminds us of our rights and responsibilities as Americans. Rights and responsibilities some of us struggle to understand and fulfill. It can be particularly difficult in a civic environment of increasing distrust and polarization. Americans today often feel their voice and actions don’t matter or won’t have an impact.
Additionally, many Americans live in “communities without opportunities for civic engagement.” The National Conference on Citizenship defines these spaces as “civic deserts.” Civic deserts have limited formal and informal means for engaging civically. Civic engagement means activities that address issues of public concern, that protect public values or makes a change in the community. A civic desert often means a lack of civic groups and limited volunteerism. It also means few opportunities to discuss issues and work together to solve community problems.
Civic Involvement: An Example from the ENI Community of Dadeville
So, what should be done? And where can we start? Especially if getting involved seems intimidating.
We sat down recently with Dadeville ENI Community Liaison Teneeshia Goodman-Johnson to talk about civic involvement. She shared practical tips for cherishing civil rights and fulfilling civic responsibilities in our communities as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day. Ms. Goodman-Johnson serves as a city councilperson for Dadeville, Alabama. This role gives her a frontline perspective on the importance of every person getting involved in their community.
“I was always outspoken” from a young age, relayed Ms. Goodman-Johnson, when asked how she first got involved in her community. Her pastor noted this strength and encouraged her leadership skills. Ms. Goodman-Johnson ran for city council in Dadeville and was elected in 2016. “It was fun” and “I met so many people, and long-lasting relationships were built,” Ms. Goodman-Johnson said. “I’m just an average person, but I saw a need.”
As a new city councilperson, Ms. Goodman-Johnson spent her first two years in office “listening, learning, and asking a lot of questions.” After that, “I jumped in,” she shared, and became “the voice for the people who feel they’re voiceless.” Ms. Goodman-Johnson tells Dadeville residents that “it is so vital that we hear your thoughts and have your presence” in community affairs.
“Look at me. I was there…and I didn’t think they cared about what I had to say. Now I’m a leader in my city… I’m here because I care – I care about every single citizen.”Teneeshia Goodman-Johnson, ENI Community Liaison for Dadeville
As a young Black woman, Ms. Goodman-Johnson champions “representation from every citizen” in local government. She elaborated that “I want the citizens to know that they are so very important.” Ms. Goodman-Johnson’s goal is “to make sure we create an environment that is safe, that is comfortable for all” to participate in the community.
For those who feel their voice and opinions don’t matter, Ms. Goodman-Johnson shares her story: “Look at me. I was there…and I didn’t think they cared about what I had to say. Now I’m a leader in my city.” She drove the point home by sharing “I’m here because I care – I care about every single citizen.”
When most folks think of civic involvement, they think of voting and contacting their elected officials. Ms. Goodman-Johnson recommends those important civic activities. She also recommends participation beyond the ballot box.
How can folks take the first step to get involved? Ms. Goodman-Johnson encourages community members to start by attending city council meetings and sharing their input. “If you would just attend a meeting, you would see that we’re just common people coming together with our ideas and if all of us chip in…we’ll come up with such a great plan” for our community, said Ms. Goodman-Johnson, “I guarantee it.”
Elected officials, according to Ms. Goodman-Johnson, “want to know how we can keep you involved [in the community] and what would pique your interest.” Volunteering for community events and serving on municipal committees are great ways to get involved around what you’re passionate about. “We’ll put you to work, if that’s what you would like,” said Ms. Goodman-Johnson.
Ms. Goodman-Johnson has seen firsthand the impact of civic involvement in her community. For example, Dadeville has a thriving beautification board thanks to the efforts of the city and engaged community members. The result has been increased beauty, cleanliness, and pride in the town.
The impact on individual citizens has been huge as well. Ms. Goodman-Johnson shares stories of community members transforming as they come to understand the important role they play in their community. Folks who started out afraid to speak in public meetings are now serving on municipal committees and making an impact every day in their town.
Civic Participation & the Health of a Community
So why does a health equity initiative like ENI care about civic participation? Is there a connection between civic participation and health improvement? According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, yes! Joining civic groups, volunteering, and voting are linked to improved health and well-being. Civic groups foster a sense of purpose, contribute to one’s mental health, and are associated with higher rates of physical activity. Volunteering can improve emotional and mental well-being. And those who vote report higher rates of health than those who do not vote.
Your role may be minor to you, but it means so much to us…it’s a win for everybody.Teneeshia Goodman-Johnson
Not sure how to get involved in your community? “Come and join ENI,” invites Ms. Goodman-Johnson. ENI provides a host of volunteer opportunities for improving health. Residents can also give regular input on improving health by joining an informal civic group: ENI Advisory Groups and Youth Community Councils. Learn more by contacting your ENI Community Liaison if you’re in an ENI partner community.
The Equitable Neighborhoods Initiative team wishes you a safe, happy, healthy Fourth of July! We hope you’ll celebrate this Independence Day by considering ways you can get involved in your community. Doing so might improve your health and mental well-being AND will impact your community for the better! As Ms. Goodman-Johnson encourages, “Your role may be minor to you, but it means so much to us…it’s a win for everybody.”