“I mean I’d like to be more involved, but I’m not really sure where to start.”
I come across this question often, albeit said in different ways and with different reasons behind it. Sometimes its the middle school kid who wants to clean up their neighbourhood but isn’t sure where to start or how to get the boring adults to leave their comfy couches to help. Sometimes its the retired family trying to get out of their house more. Sometimes its the University student trying to make friends and enjoy their time at school.
Each scenario has the same underlying drive to it: a desire to, in some capacity, contribute to the community they exist in. While the frequency, intensity, and reasoning may vary, the goal is always the same. To be engaged.
If you’re reading this blog post, I’m assuming you’re a person who wants to (or maybe already does) contribute to their community. While there are many ways of being a more engaged person, I want to share five different methods you can start doing to foster engagement in your life and start developing the skill of being a more connected individual. The more we interact with our community, the stronger our communities will become. And it doesn’t require much: just a tiny bit of consistent effort.
A while back I was out for a walk by myself, clearing my head and enjoying some fresh air. I was on the left side of the street with a clear path ahead of me, and across the street, an older lady was walking her Shih-Tzu puppy that was way too intrigued by the signpost to keep up. I noticed her glance at me, so I looked over and waved. She waved back excitedly and stopped to say hello from across the street. Despite being on opposite sides of the road, we had a minute-long conversation: about the nice weather, her dog, and how nice it is to live in a city where we felt comfortable walking out and about closer to sundown. She said goodbye, tugged on her puppies leash, and we went about our separate ways.
It was a short interaction, but it left a positive impression on me. Despite being strangers, she didn’t hesitate to say hello and chat. It made me feel appreciated. It was also nice to have a casual conversation with someone for once.
Acknowledging people as you go about your day is a simple step in the direction of becoming a more engaged citizen. Rather than having our heads down, eyes glued to our phones, we can choose to keep our heads up and say hi to the people we cross paths with. You don’t need to have a conversation like I did, but saying hello is a great first step towards interacting with your neighbours.
The easiest place to start is to say hello to people in places you frequent. If you’re a regular at a coffee shop, say hi to the barista before ordering. I always make a habit of asking whoever I’m interacting with how they’re doing. From what I’ve gathered (especially having friends who are servers, baristas, etc.) having someone ask how their day is going can be all they need to turn a regular day into a good one.
I know the introverts here are kicking and screaming, and even the extroverts that aren’t interested in making new friends are turning their noses up at this blog post right now. I understand that it can be annoying to say hi to people all the time, especially on the days you don’t feel like talking much. Believe me, I’ve been there. But the more you build this habit, the less stressful it will be to say hello when you’re out and about.
I want to stress this suggestion isn’t to strike up deep conversations with people: it’s simply to acknowledge the other person is a person and establish a friendly connection with them. In engaged communities, that’s often the dynamic that the community functions on.
You don’t need to give a speech or attend their wedding. All you have to do is say hello.
Go For A Stroll
Walking is one of the simplest exercises we can partake in, yet one that few do. Not only is walking a healthy habit to partake in, but it also does wonders for mental clarity and aids in creative thinking (as does being in nature, so walking around nearby trails or parks can increase the benefits).
Walking, whether as a method of travel or for its own sake, can be a simple and beneficial way to engage more with your community. It’s on long walks that we often run into acquaintances, old friends, or learn more about our city. In my personal life, long walks have been the reason I’ve come to explore my town more, and gain a greater appreciation for the place I call home. It’s also been the habit that has contributed to my creative output: a good portion of these blog posts I’ve written have come from long walks.
The details of walking are up to you. Around your neighbourhood, walking “aimlessly” letting your feet lead the way, exploring areas you haven’t been, deciding on specific locations to reach, going for a jog (ew, cardio): don’t fret the details. Just walk.
Pro-tip: grab a garbage bag & some gloves, and pick up pieces of trash you see as you walk. It’s a great way to clean up your community and get a bit of sun (or, if you’re in a climate like Canada’s, at least from fresh air). On one of my walks, I met an older man walking his Beagle and picking up garbage along the way. His reason? “Well, I’m already out. Might as well clean up.”
Support Local (Or Ethical)
By now you’ve heard this at least once, so I won’t spend much time on it. Supporting local is a phenomenal way to engage with your community: the result is in the action. By supporting local, you’re consciously shifting your focus to the uniqueness of the city and what it offers. Rather than spending all your time at popular chains (which are great, but get plenty of attention), embracing your local businesses and organizations opens tons of doors for you: tales about the city you live in (like how this store stayed open for 70 years while businesses rose and fell around it), products that you might not find in popular chains (I’m referring to the odd flavours at my cities ice cream store by the river), or the tons of other stories that, since you watched that angsty teen coming-of-age movie, you’ve wanted to also experience.
Many local businesses also prioritize sustainability and community initiatives that are related to the city you live in (EG: a local bar hosting community-focused LGBTQ2IA+ events). Local restaurants typically get their food from local sources as well, reducing resource usage while further supporting local farmers (I know this section is about local but damn I’m using it so often it’s starting to not look like an actual word anymore). Whether it’s a mom-and-pop shop, a restaurant, or a city staple, local businesses have the opportunity to give back to the community more directly, and that’s a good reason to support them a bit more.
(Note: even if they don’t do local events, they probably have a very intimate history with your town, which is cool to experience as well. Chances are they use more local products regardless, so that’s always nice to prioritize.)
Before we continue, I do want to say that if a bigger business or a chain engages with the community directly, that’s a great place to support as well. Also, you don’t need to boycott restaurants entirely if you’re focusing on local more: going to a local pub for your monthly squad hangout is good enough (in University, our campus pub was my go-to spot for 4 years. My home away from home). You can enjoy the big chains still. The goal is to put local & ethical options back on the radar for more people.
Another detail: many businesses are shifting to more ethical practices (such as Beyond Meat products, or sustainable resource usage) to reduce environmental impacts, embrace responsible management of materials, or improve employee wellbeing. Along with supporting local businesses, choosing more ethical products is another method of becoming an engaged citizen, as supporting ethical practices is both an indicator and a method of being a conscious and informed consumer. So the next time you’re grabbing a burger, try out the Beyond Meat option!
(EG: If you’re Canadian and love ice cream/gelato, check out Righteous Gelato. They aren’t a sponsor. I just really like their stuff. And they’re a b-corp. Win-win.)
Be An Attendee (Or A Participant)
When I think about my time during University, I often gravitate towards my time attending or participating in the hundreds of events that took place: pep rally’s during orientation week, recruitment days, basketball games, organization events, or speaker sessions to name a few. Regardless of my status at the event (was I randomly attending with some friends, or behind the scenes setting up?), I remember those experiences fondly. Each one had the same theme: I was there, enjoying it.
Attending or participating in events is a major step towards citizen engagement. Community events are the basis of citizen engagement, as they offer the public an opportunity to interact and enjoy themselves.
What’s amazing about community events is that by attending (or participating) in them, you’re contributing to a positive feedback loop: The more you attend, the more you get out of the experience, and the more likely events like the ones you’re attending continue. Your attendance may also encourage people around you to also attend more, thus furthering the feedback loop and slowly growing the impact of your community. People like attending events with friends and family and people love going to places that everyone else seems to be going to.
I acknowledge that in some communities there aren’t many events (*cough*smalltowns*cough*). We can address this by a slight shift: instead of defining an event as a large gathering’s by an organization, we can expand it to include other methods of social connection: fishing trips, board games nights, community clean-ups, long-distance bike rides, displaying a movie with a projector on the side of a church… The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. So let your imagination run with it.
Part of engaging in your community more requires you to know what’s actually going on. Being connected with what’s going on in the lives of your friends & family, an awareness of what’s important to your community, and what’s happening in your country and world are integral parts of being an engaged citizen. But how do we do this? With the onslaught of the modern media cycle, social media platforms designed to distract, and the negativity that has a tendency to permeate both, it seems hard to determine what is important and how to make time and space for those.
Thankfully, being an engaged citizen doesn’t require being glued to the TV or the radio, and it definitely doesn’t require ingesting every minute of fast-paced media or scrolling on Twitter for hours on end. You can build the habit of being informed by answering a few questions and starting the process of implementing those answers in your life.
- How does this affect me? (Other variations on this question: is this relevant? Is this important to me and my interests? Is it important to someone I care about?)
- How do I determine if this is 100% true?
- If this information is biased (which is likely) how do I remove bias and get a more objective view on the subject?
By filtering information through these questions, we gain much more clarity on the purpose of what information we’re consuming and reduce the amount of news that doesn’t play a major role in our lives. Instead of complaining over the stupid tweet politician A or celebrity B said, we can filter that out and make time for what we can actually use (like what’s happening with the quarry just outside of town), or determine if a subject is skewed by bias and purposefully misinterpreted/communicated differently. For example, I often media-bias check news outlets to see how they rank and evaluate what I read based on that (there are some media outlets I REFUSE to read because they rank so high on bias and information skewing). If there is an issue I want to familiarize myself with more on (such as the spread of COVID-19) I’ll check a few different reliable news sources.
Another simple method of staying informed is conversing with friends, family, and the general community. While people paint information with their own bias (like many media outlets do), getting perspectives from different people allows you to better learn about what’s going on in the world and your community. It also lets you see the thought process & priorities of the people around you.
Just take everything you say with a grain of salt; the same grain of salt you apply to the news. Don’t take everything you hear as the truth right out of the gate, no matter how compelling it sounds. Do your research!
Regardless of how you approach staying informed, filtering information through relevance and truth is a solid approach to learning you need to know in order to be a more engaged citizen.
Being an engaged citizen is a lifelong process. Thankfully, it doesn’t require much to start: with small changes in our habits, mindset, and actions, we can begin shaping ourselves to positively contribute to our communities; and in turn, shape our communities to positively contribute to our lives. So put on your running shoes, and go build a better community.
And, as always…
Carpe Diem, kids.
P.S. If you enjoyed this, leave a few claps or a comment letting me know what you thought! If you want to stay up to date with me as I write about life, leadership, and communications, make sure to follow me :)
Resources & Inspirations
- 10 Easy Ways To Be A More Engaged Citizen by Citizen’s Lab
- Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday & Mastermind by Maria Konnikova (both argued for the value of walking and its role in mental clarity)
- My own experiences as a University student
- That random dude I saw picking up trash while he was walking his Beagle
- The TV Sitcom Community, which taught me the value of embracing the opportunities on my campus in a humourous and entertaining manner