Civic Engagement and Civic Representation in the Culture of Health

RWJF Culture of Health rubric

In 2005 Stephanie and Chris Chambers, an African-American couple in their 50s, finally achieved their long-cherished dream of buying a home. But because the home they could afford was miles from any job that would pay well, they found themselves commuting 4-6 hours a day—each. After three years of waking their 3 kids at O-Dark-Thirty for the long haul to a school near where they worked, Chris finally found work locally and Stephanie managed to cut her commute to only 50 miles each way.  A dream partially achieved.


The Robert Wood Johnson foundation is going all-out for a Culture of Health, which they describe as “a movement taking on one of the most pervasive challenges of our time: improving the health and well-being of everyone in America.” They’ve done some amazing work defining what concrete steps this ambitious goal will require, and their website is worth spending some time with. As an RWJF grantee I think this stuff is the bee’s knees.

One of the drivers of success—the long-term national and local priorities in the RWJF action framework—is increasing civic engagement. But civic engagement is not the same as civic representation.  And it’s going to require a careful distinction between civic engagement and civic representation to make any real difference for people like the Chambers.


RWJF measures civic engagement by volunteering and voting. Those things are great, but when it comes to local decisions neighborhood pressure is often a lot more important than voting. Neighborhood activists who take the time to flood city meetings for or against some change have an enormous influence on how cities end up looking.


Neighbors tend not to like urban density, any kind of transitional housing, safe streets , or transit. Activists in wealthy areas like Santa Monica have shut down virtually all housing growth.


Paying too much attention to a small number of vocal activists is an enormous departure from the principle of one person, one vote. It’s planning by pitchfork, not true democracy.  The rationale for this deference to the loudest voices is that we imagine those who care most deeply about an issue will be most motivated to show up. But this process breaks down completely around neighborhood issues.


Those who show up to city council meeting, planning commissions, and so on, are those who have the time and resources to do so, and that’s not a representative group.  It’s usually those without kids, and those who are retired, who have only one job, or a working spouse. In short, those who can participate in civic engagement are the wealthy and the old. Civic engagement is not civic representation.  Those of us with full-time jobs and kids have about 8 minutes of free time a day, which doesn’t even get us through the first agenda item of a city council meeting, and we’re locked out of the process. Sometimes a charming and articulate 11-year-old will show up to speak some common sense, but generally it’s a very narrow process.


If we are serious about civic representation we need a much better way to take the pulse of all citizens in a community than mere civic engagement. No theory of democracy should put such heavy weight on such a narrow slice of the population.


All this certainly has a racial dimension, perhaps not by accident.  In LA, as in most of the country as a whole, the wealthy and the old tend to be much whiter than the middle-income and the middle-aged, not to mention the young. The Chambers were displaced to the remote reaches of their city by just this sort of process.  Whether there is racial animus operating in planning by pitchfork or not is beside the point.  African-Americans—and Asians and Latinos and those with low incomes—are being systematically shut out of the most desirable neighborhoods by those who don’t want any new neighbors.  This is not only wrong, it is bad for public health.


That’s why it’s great that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is making the connection between democracy and health. Thomas Edsall speculates on whether African Americans will revolt against the Democratic party, and it’s telling that the issue he highlights more than any other—more than welfare reform, free trade, or coziness with Wall Street—is housing.  In their systematically poor treatment in the housing market African Americans are the bleeding edge of growing inequality and a breakdown in workable cities.


Anyone who cares about democracy and public health should work hard for a better form of civic representation. What we need is not more civic engagement, but rather more structure to turn civic engagement into true civic representation.


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