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by Lauren Stott
Civic media represents many things to many people. Stories of artful interventions in urban spaces, the intentional use of open data for storytelling, and disparate communities working together to solve problems are just a few examples of the way civic media can enhance public life.
But what about civic media in the hands of the so-called gatekeepers of the public sector? Just as community organizers, journalists, artists, and numerous others can harness the power of civic media, bureaucrats are critically obligated to recognize, welcome and judiciously appropriate its use in their jobs as public servants.
I spent a rewarding and educational five years in local government before joining the Emerson College Civic Media: Art and Practice (CMAP) master’s program, and I’m optimistic about the ways civic media can enhance strong communities. There are two forms this can take: citizens can employ civic media practices as active community members, and public servants can utilize civic media practices in their facilitation of democracy.
I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many public sector initiatives and projects that require a passionately engaged public, and one of the most pervasive challenges I’ve experienced is the engagement component.
Working on a 10-year strategic planning effort in DeKalb, IL, we had incredible success reaching some communities to gather input and ideas for what they hoped to see for the future of the community. More than 400 people turned out for public planning charrettes, and the ideas gathered at those meetings shaped the document as it exists today. In the same project, however, we have incredible challenges reaching more transient populations (such as students studying at the public university in town) and community members who speak languages other than English (a significant segment of the diverse population).
Paul Mihailidis, the Director of CMAP and Professor at Emerson College, and Eric Gordon, the Director of the Engagement Lab where CMAP is housed, define civic media in their book *Civic Media* as, “any mediated practice that enables a community to imagine themselves as being connected, not through achieving, but through striving for common good.”
The opportunity to connect my previous experiences with the purpose behind that definition is why I temporarily left my public service career. It has been eye-opening to learn about the theories and research behind civic media and the more nuanced measures of engagement.
I want to bring the same level of success that we found in the DeKalb charrette groups to all populations. I’m learning now how to reach those harder-to-access communities, and my thesis will focus on providing a voice to those who previously haven’t had one.
I’m looking forward to employing some bold, intense concepts when I return to the public sector after graduation. CMAP is the place to test your imagination and creativity. What if you could use cartoons in a public meeting summary, or play games to advance democratic participation? The possibilities for innovative engagement are endless, and the public sector is only beginning to realize the true potentials of civic media.