I can’t recall the exact moment or act that ushered me into the realm of civic engagement. I am not sure if it was at The Modern School in Harlem where I learned Lift Every Voice and Sing, (which I preferred over the national anthem at that time) taking it on as a personal anthem to use my voice in my community as an elementary school student.
Or maybe the weekly trips climbing the monumental steps of Morningside Park with my brother toward Columbia University to retrieve all three Sunday papers; a ritual that initiated a day of discourse with our mother on politics, law, and local current events. She only allowed us to read the funnies after reading the real news articles.
Perhaps it was the time my older brother, mother, and I marched across 135th to raise awareness and demand authorities to take action now! during the Atlanta child murders (1979-1981). Was it the march or the interview on CBS evening news in which the reporter asked me, “Why are you here?” My response, “I am here for the children. The killing must stop.” I, myself, was only 9 years old.
Undoubtedly it could have been the string of events from my early childhood to my arriving in Connecticut, raising a family, and graduating from the Parent Leadership Training Institute in 2004 that created a deep sense of civic responsibility and engagement. Whatever it was or is, it still drives me today.
I don’t think I’m special. My story may be similar to anyone’s story in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Torrington, New London or Stamford. I know there are many people out there like me – engaged, connected, taking action. There are also many who “do their part” when it comes to civic engagement. Before we go further, I offer this definition of civic engagement from Youth.gov:
Civic engagement involves “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.” Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service. Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement.”
People do their part. They register to vote, volunteer, attend school board meetings, some even protest or rally around a critical issue. Others write their legislators about issues important to them, while the truly brave run for office. I could list out hundreds of things residents could do to engage in society, to carry out their civic duties and to participate in this democracy but the most popular way to engage is VOTING.
But dare I say that civic engagement is more than voting. I already started with a good number of examples. I do believe that exercising one’s right to vote is important and necessary. However, there are many who do not have the right to vote legally. You can learn more here about voter eligibility in Connecticut and also here. Two of the larger groups of ineligible voters, outside of age in-eligibility are 1) those who are not citizens or ‘naturalized’ and 2) those who are convicted of felony crimes. Both groups are primarily people of color. I believe the former is more obvious and discussed more widely. But the latter leads me down a different path.
Black/African American criminal defendants in Connecticut are disproportionately represented among those prosecuted for felonies, according to a report by the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division. Another interesting fact, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, “Race and the Jury: Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection” (2021), black people and people of color are significantly underrepresented in the jury pools from which jurors are selected.
The report calls out racial bias by judges and attorneys in many cases. I would add that many people of color have more or use extenuating circumstances that prevent them from serving on juries including working multiple jobs, caring for small children, health issues, previous encounters with law enforcement and on the flip side are themselves attorneys, medical professionals/first responders, essential personnel including teachers. All of which are very acceptable reasons not to serve jury duty during a pandemic or any other time. One might say this is true for other populations as well. But right now we are focusing on people of color, who generally account for overrepresentation in the criminal justice system for felonies and under representation on juries. Certainly a quandary. Further, if we are honest, many people just don’t want to serve jury duty.
I recently served jury duty for a federal criminal trial. I must admit it was my first time being able to serve and being selected for a trial. I never thought I wanted to serve on a jury. As a very busy mother of four children working in corporate environments while my children were in their various stages of education – I never saw myself as a juror. I thought my responsibility was taking care of my family and ensuring that my husband and I were paying the bills. So, there were many times that I deferred or was able to get dismissed because of all the responsibilities. This is true for many who are eligible to serve. No judgments here. But the reality remains, as a Black woman, each time I did not engage in the process, meant that there was one less person of color as a possible juror. I didn’t realize until now how important representation matters when it comes to juries.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of criminal defendants: the right to a lawyer, to have a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to know who your accusers are, the charges and evidence against you and the right to an impartial jury (which infers a jury of peers). 28 U.S. Code § 1861 – Declaration of Policy adds “juries selected at random from a fair cross section of the community.” Jury duty is a national service. It is a way for citizens to participate in the judicial process. It IS civic engagement.
“A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.”
This excerpt from Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, edited by Thomas Ehrlich recognizes civic engagement as more than voting or any number of “check of the list” acts. It calls us to a higher level of connectedness to ourselves, community, state and country. We are the threads in this larger fabric of society, each of us providing our own measure of strength, commitment, and values that weave together a beautiful tapestry of democracy and civic responsibility. Civic engagement is more than voting, it is the life spring for change.
Melvette is a Danbury mother of four young adults and has over 20 years experience engaging families in communities through her various roles in corporate, government, non-profit and faith-based organizations. Growing up in New York City shaped her world views and continues to fuel her passion and commitment for racial equity, social change, and civic engagement. Melvette is the Director of Parent Leadership and Family Civic Engagement at the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity (CWCSEO) and leads the Parent Leadership Training Institute in Connecticut.