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Q & A with Elie Samia, executive director of OCE unit

December 13, 2011—

What exactly is “civic engagement”?
Civic engagement has been defined in a number of ways. Scholars and practitioners of it variously invoke concepts of democratic participation, social justice, civic professionalism, public leadership and “social capital.” Others raise existential questions: is civic engagement a process for skill development, a lifestyle, a program, pedagogy, a philosophy, a strategy, or a set of values?

At times the semantic confusion can lead to strategic confusion, for example about how to create a civic engagement agenda or implement a concrete plan of action. But it needn’t be this way. Civic engagement can be many things at once. Despite competing definitions, we can say with confidence that it involves one or more of the following: accepting and valuing diversity, building cross-cultural bridges, participating actively in public life and community service, developing empathy, social responsibility and philanthropy, and promoting social justice.

What is its relevance in the region today?
This is a pressing question. How can we channel the energies demonstrated by Arab youth in these transformative times in ways that lead to a more democratic, peaceful and responsive Arab world?

We need to work to define the role of education in this Arab renaissance. Experts and activists alike should be engaging in vigorous discussion about the needs, skills and competencies that can enable effective youth civic engagement and about how to instill them. For this intellectual exercise to be productive and compelling we need to establish a canonical literature about the conditions, means and outcomes of youth civic engagement.

What skills and competencies does civic engagement entail?
First of all, self-mindfulness. This means listening to your inner voice, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and finding ways to connect with others on meaningful social issues. Openness of mind and heart go hand in hand, and foster relationships based on trust — which in turn form the foundation of civic engagement, and serve as a formidable tool for mobilization. Social awareness and sensitivity to justice are also key. Finally, organizational skills: the ability to set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound social objectives that can mobilize and motivate people.

In The Cornerstones of Engaging Leadership, Casey Wilson defines engaged individuals as leaders who “demonstrate commitment to their own development and success, the success of others, and the success of their organization.” Their empathy and self-motivation stimulate energy and enthusiasm in others, and serve as catalysts for positive change.

There is a consensus among colleges and universities that students need to be equipped with knowledge of human cultures so that they understand the diversity that characterizes human society. This knowledge needs to be coupled with critical thinking skills at the analytical, creative and ethical levels.

What learning outcomes can we expect from a civic-engagement education in the Arab world?
Civically engaged students will have a voice, and the confidence to espouse good causes, and they’ll have the strategic savvy to be effective activists. They’ll appreciate cultural diversity, be more broad-minded, curious, and passionate about democratic values.

In a broader sense, this civic culture will raise public morale, elevate capacities for planning and carrying out public action, and foster social entrepreneurship — the moral and political courage, that is, to take risks for the public good.

“Who shall guard the guardians,” asks Aristotle in his Politics. We need to train Arab youth to build leadership networks and create conduits of democratic change and liberal action. Educators, liberal thinkers and practitioners should take the lead in engaging youth in self-reflective methodologies. This work is crucial, as emerging leaders will either usher in a new culture of participation or perpetuate an old one of submission and apathy.

At the same time, in a spirit both ironic and creative, we can legitimately ask, “who shall lead the leaders?”

Elie Samia is executive director of LAU’s Outreach and Civic Engagement unit.


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