June 17, 2020

Civic engagement in a time of isolation

America has a long history of coming together to solve problems. Now, amid unrest and uncertainty, civic engagement and the pursuit of social justice is more important than ever.

Protesters calling for justice for the murder of George Floyd have renewed a sense of urgency in the fight for racial equity. Community organizers across the country, including Civiclab in Chicago, are working to enact change in their communities. Join them for a discussion: Register here for Civic Engagement in a Time of Isolation, July 18 at 10 a.m. CDT. Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1831 a 26-year old French Aristocrat named Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville—or as we know him, Alexis de Tocqueville—made a tour of the young American republic.

His observations, published in two volumes in 1835 and 140 are known as Democracy In America, and contain some profound observations on the American character.

One of his most interesting observations stands out to me now as we survey America in the time of COVD-19.

He noted that Americans love to associate. In fact, we were (and remain) obsessed with the experience of getting together to talk, complain, problem solve, and—most importantly—to do something constructive and do it right away.

Here’s what he said:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds—religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous, or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it.”*

What the young nobleman saw was that—when it came to civic life and civic problem solving—in France you would see some organ of the state at work. In England, it would be a man of wealth and rank. But in America, that was not the case.

In America our mania to “form societies” resulted in the folks (again, mostly white men of property at the time—but he also saw women in this space, as well) getting together on their own say-so to debate, propose, and act.

What is so relevant to us today in this time of turmoil, uprising, and isolation are two fundamental questions:

    1. Why are we so compelled to associate? You might as well ask, how we KNOW to associate, and what gives us belief that it is beneficial and, perhaps, even virtuous to do so?

    2. How do we get one another “voluntarily to pursue” these projects? Underneath this question is a host of hows—that is, what methods do we use to let people know about opportunities to associate and what ways and means do we USE to associate and accomplish our communal work?

As a civic educator and community organizer based in Chicago for over 40 years, I can tell you that I’m still seeking to answer those questions.

I’m particularly obsessed with understanding how to engage people in social change work—in looking critically at America and her ways—and in bringing people together to challenge power and precedent. You might say my work is about expanding civic imagination and then building or finding tools that will allow people to build their civic “muscles” to achieve results in the public space that deliver justice and democracy.

Now, in this time of fear and isolation, we face a huge set of obstacles around civic engagement and pursuing social justice. How much of what we have already done in the sphere of civic engagement will stand and what will we have to re-do or do newly?

I’ve started to delve into the literature and I can report back a few lines of inquiry.

    1. Isolation and dis-association. Much has been written about people in isolation—because of age or infirmity, self-isolation, or ostracization of one group by another.

    2. Resilience. COVID-19 is certainly not the first global trauma to disrupt and kill. What have we learned about people’s ability to stay strong and healthy despite enormous stress and toxicity?

    3. Effectiveness. As organizers we often identify “targets” for acting upon in order to achieve a public sector goal. We also lay out many short-term markers along the way to our desired “victory.” What does “effectiveness” look like in the age of COVID-19?

    4. Urgency and focus. As protests have mounted across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we may feel a renewed sense of time running out and the need to move swiftly and decisively together to work for justice. How can we best focus our work?

These were the areas we explored in a wonderful free online workshop curated by the CivicLab on Saturday, June 13, Civic Engagement in a Time of Isolation. Attendees were treated to a live performance of the song “I Can’t Breathe” by New York based artist Devin Marie. Participants joined small groups to explore, share, and exchange insights and go-to resources. The themes were isolation, resilience, effectiveness, and focus. We had activist/educators Jackie Baldwin of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs who presented on the Jewish concept of Tikkun-Olam, and CivicLab CEO Jonathan Peck present on the African concept of Ubuntu.

The amazing artists from the Ink Factory did real time visual note-taking, which you can see here.

We are repeating the experience on Saturday, July 18. There is no charge.

I can offer a few small observations about civics in a time of isolation. I have a strong feeling that the answers I’m seeking—we’re seeking—lie somewhere in the intersection of the heart and mind.

Register here for Civic Engagement in a Time of Isolation, July 18, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. CDT.

If you’d like to contribute to the knowledge base for this event, you can email me at tom@civiclab.us and share:

  • What strategies or practices are you pursuing to overcome isolation?
  • How are you keeping you and your loved ones strong and healthy and optimistic?
  • What tools are you using to help you be effective?

*Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 5, “Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life.”

Tom Tresser community organizer Chicago

Tom Tresser


Tom Tresser is a Chicago based civic educator and public defender. He is the co-founder of the CivicLab, a community-facing "do tank" dedicated to advancing and accelerating work around government accountability, civic engagement, and social justice.