According to Etymology Online, the word engage comes from the Old French en gage, meaning to “make pledge.” The root word has been used to for love and war — for engagement in marriage to engaging in battle — and also to “attract the attention of” a person or group (“he was a very engaging speaker”).
What then do we mean by the term civic engagement? I am hearing this phrase countless times this morning at the ChangeCamp event in my city, and it’s apparent that there is no universal working definition. Does citizen engagement mean commitment to the governance of your city? Does it mean getting the attention of decision-makers to influence change? Is it an execution of tactical lobbying? Is it a pledge to your neighborhood and community collectively seek a better way of living? Is civic engagement inherently political or is it grassroots in nature? Or both?
All these questions boil down to what is, I think, the primary question: what does it mean to be a citizen? I’m convinced that citizenship does indeed come in many shapes and sizes: “civic engagement” happens whenever my doing, thinking, and being is contributing to my neighborhood, city, county, province, state, region, country, and planet. Citizenship is my pledge to living and acting responsibly in this social ecosystem; the individuals and institutions that make up my world.
Citizenship is, simply, the opposite of selfishness. And I, for one, need to become a better citizen.