Intentionality and Engagement

Today I am spending the day at Winter (X)po – a continuation of the CityWorks(X)po event that has been held annually in Roanoke for the past (X) years. For those who don’t know, the purpose of (X)po and its related events is to generate and foster community improvement through incredibly different means. A commenter following a speaker this morning made mention of events that had been held in the past at various locations in the community and that these events were successful. People from all parts of the city went out of their ways to attend these events and be active members in their communities.

There are a couple streams of thought that I have on the matter of civic engagement. One is access/capacity for engagement, which varies from person to person and that’s a matter for a completely different post/article/research. What I want to look at today is intentionality. The same commenter, along with others, noted that a significant amount of civic engagement in Roanoke isn’t being driven by people who are from Roanoke. Rather, many people who are driving change or engaging themselves are from places further-flung than Roanoke’s immediate environs.

Now, as someone who isn’t natively from Roanoke or Southwest Virginia, I would fall squarely in the camp of the outsider looking in, trying to be engaged with his community. This isn’t because I believe that I have something amazing to offer – I don’t, I just have ideas and feedback – but rather because that I believe in the power of being an agent of civic improvement simply by the act of engagement. This is an intentional decision I have made. When I moved to Roanoke last year, I made a deliberate and conscious choice to be engaged in the community at large because I want to make Roanoke home, a place where I want to be, where I want my family to be, and more importantly, where I want my family (when that happens) to want to be. I suppose if your family has been in an place for generations, it’s easy to lapse into the motions of simply being where you are. You do this, you go to that, because that what you’ve done. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t want to cast aspersions upon people who aren’t necessarily as engaged as I am.

But with that being said, their voices being missing from the conversation is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because, whether because of capacity or intentionality, they are the people whose lives are going to be impacted by the population who is engaged in civic action. A presenter at today’s event mentioned that many corporate bodies treat diversity as a box on a checklist that is merely meant to be checked off. Diversity isn’t that. To treat diversity as such is such an insult to the intelligence of the people who are being included in the name of diversity. If you want to treat diversity as lip-service, you may as well make no effort at diversity, because doing so engenders the same amount of change: none. True diversity includes the free flowing of ideas and perspectives – we are none alike and while we may have shared experiences, we experience those experiences differently.

There needs to be real and rational intentionality behind engaging communities – a true thought process that includes and considers perspectives from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, ethnicities, religious traditions – whatever. Because everyone brings a unique story and a unique perspective. And when you engage those people, when you in earnest ask them about their background and actively explore the opportunities, ideas, and passions they bring, your organization, neighborhood or community is infinitely stronger for it. Our differences are not weaknesses, but rather our differences define our strengths. They define who we are as individuals and guide us in our path to influence our communities. We are stronger because of how, together, we have unique views of the world around us and unique ideas to bring to our community’s table.

I posted previously about how I believe empathy is missing from society because of speed. Understanding diversity is absent for the same reason. To grasp another person and their story, you need to slow down and listen. And doing that requires intentionality. You must act intentionally to prevent an act from becoming habitual, a rote exercise that is done without thought. Anyone who has close friends knows this. You don’t become close friends with someone by merely passing hellos and goodbyes. You become close friends by acting intentionally to get to know someone. Solid relationships are developed intentionally. And such it is with civic engagement. People need to be intentional about their decisions to engage themselves or others within the community, for if you do not, relationships become transient and bonds can easily be broken.

A city of vibrant communities is NOT defined by broken bonds. It is defined by intentionality.

-R

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