Today I was referred to a fantastic interview with Peter Block on the content of his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging – highly recommended! Diving into Peter’s brilliant wisdom in this three part YouTube clip, I was reminded of the profound significance of citizenship and the role of leaders in engaging people to act on what matters most to them.

Reclaiming our citizenship

Much of my work around sustainability is exploring the barriers to change. As an environmental scientist, I used to believe that giving people more information – better, more targeted, engaging, simple, meaningful, practical information – would cause them to act to change their unsustainable ways of living, surely! After some years of disbelief, and thanks to some great teaching around behavior change from Doug McKenzie Mohr, I now realize that more information will not create change. If it did, most of us would have reason to be living in radically more sustainable ways. So why is it that so many people are disengaged from acting to make their lives more meaningful, as well as contributing to the wellbeing and survival of other humans, other animals, and all species into the future?

There’s probably not one simple answer ; ) But in the last few years, I’ve come to see that as well as the need to understand our interconnectedness, our understanding of ourselves as consumers rather than as citizens plays a huge role in whether or not we are impelled to act to work with others to create better ways of living.

So much of our lives are shaped around our assumed role as consumers, and this saturation becomes self-perpetuating: with the desire for more stuff driving longer work hours, making it less and less possible for people to interact, to see each other at community events, or volunteer their time. Sadly, as Peter Block points to in his interview, this cycle is dangerously addictive:

“Being a consumer is guaranteed dissatisfaction – looking to others to satisfy what you can’t satisfy yourself…This culture has become addicted to looking for things from the outside.”

So if a life as a consumer is dissatisfying as well as draining on the planet’s resources, and at hyper levels creating barriers to so many around the world being able to fulfill their basic human needs, what is the alternative?

Active citizenship

It sounds simplistic, but the shift in understanding of ourselves as citizens, as opposed to a consumer or client or customer, is profound.  To be a citizen “means that you’re capable of producing something, of diagnosing your own problems, of deciding what’s important to you (Peter Block 2009)”. To understand yourself as a citizen implies that you believe  you have the power to change your life, and to help shape the lives of others for the better.

Currently, those working on social, environmental, economic or political problems focus on creating high level solutions through science, funding, or policy creation. This macro-level work is essential. AND at the same time, I believe working on the micro scale to engage active citizenship is revolutionary, world changing and very necessary work.

“The most important contribution any of us can make now is not to solve any particular problem … What we must do is increase the proportion of humans who know that they can cause change.” ~ social entrepreneur Bill Drayton

“The idea that more programs, more money, better leadership, more expertise, is going to create a different future, it’s not – the only thing that’s going to create that is a deeper sense of connectedness, social fabric, community, citizens thinking this place is mine to create” ~ Peter Block

Leadership as hosting the conversations that matter

One of the most interesting parts of Peter’s interview, pitched towards public servants and elected local government representatives, was his challenge that the role of leaders is not to represent others. Democracy, and most leadership thinking, rests around the idea that we elect others to act on our behalf, and that those we vote for act as proxy for our best interests.

“I think the role of elected officials is not to represent citizens, but to confront citizens with their own freedom” (PB)

This is a huge challenge to our common view of leadership, that others can do public interest work for us (and if it doesn’t work, it’s the fault of that individual or political party, or the system itself!). This handover of responsibility removes us from our own sense of power and possibility, given we’re not in an official role with a mandate to ‘do good’.

Instead of representing others, or defending the city’s progress to citizens as if they were clients, Block advocates that the tole of elected officials should be to convene citizens to meet with each other and have the conversations that matter.

“The leader’s responsibility is to name the debate, knowing what we need to focus on, and naming the questions.”

“If you want to create a different future, you have to have a different conversation. And the conversation we’re having now doesn’t have the power or capacity to create a different future” (PB)

Just as importantly as offering meaningful questions, leadership is about having a “conversation about the possibilities, not the problems” – a generative lens through which positive action is much more likely.

Toasting to the profound promise of transformation through simple acts of active citizenship in service to possibility, everywhere….

Thanks to vivian Hutchinson, friend, mentor and leader in social entrepreneurship in New Zealand for sharing such an insightful piece, and for helping inspire active citizenship through the inspiring ChangeMakers platform.

ChangeMakers’ 5:10:5:10 tool for self-defined citizenship action is an inspiring but simple catalyst for supporting each other to step into more active citizenship, wherever we are and whatever we care about:

5 – spend 5% of your time on active citizenship tasks

10 – do ten actions in the next year on your personal passion for making a practical difference

5 – spend 5% of your income directly supporting the citizenship actions that inspire you

10 – join with ten other people to create a learning community to support each other’s work for change

What could your 5:10:5:10 be? And how could you help convene the conversations that help others awaken their citizenship action?