Volunteering and being an active citizen is about having a spark in the heart for changing the world for the better. Will to do good. Why do some people have it and some don’t? Where is the turning point, when the spark makes you act? Is there something that adult educators could do to light that fire in people and encourage civic engagement? We wanted to address these questions in our Nordplus-project “Alternative Active Citizenship” by doing a needs analysis in forms of desk and field research.
Frustration and happiness drive forward
The deal breakers in turning from passive to active citizen were most often connected to feelings and very concrete personal experiences according to our field research data. Some mentioned also specific type of politics that, for them, increases inequality in the society (cut backs in the economy or “wrong” kind of educational policies). Reading an eye-opening book was also mentioned as an eye-opener.
The experiences mentioned were, for instance, seeing and witnessing poverty or racism, or employers violating work laws and neglecting welfare at work. Some had experience of having a less-fortunate friend at school or bad care of elderly people with their own grand-mother. No-one mentioned typical topics taught at school, like learning about the democratic system or citizens’ rights, as a turning point in wanting to act, even though these are typically mentioned in documents, when describing active citizenship.
Emotions were very often mentioned by active citizens as an essential fuel to keep the flame in the heart burning. Key word technique was excellent in finding them in our field research data. Emotions mentioned were both positive and negative. Negative feelings, that were mentioned often, were frustration, disappointment, being mad, worrying, anxiety, being struck down and being crushed under too big burdens.
Positive emotions were for instance empathy, hope, belief in a better future, desire, happiness, courage, belief in yourself, day-dreaming, will to lift others up, altruism, love, goodness, empowerment, honesty, feeling that you are a good person, feeling competent and able, and a feeling, that my actions have an impact. Could we encourage these feelings as adult educators?
What was especially interesting, was that some active citizens used very strong terms when describing the moment, they realized they had to do something for the world – expressions such as “ecstasy”, “religious awakening kind of feeling”, “zen enlightenment kind of experience”, “having mercy” and “a strong sense of meaning”. Some people also felt a sense of responsibility or duty. One, obviously very honest, person wrote that maybe joining an activist group was just rewarding for his need to show off.
As humans, we need to connect with others
One thing, that came up in all the writings in our field research was a need to belong to a community after the “experience of enlightenment”. One person wrote, that their biggest mistake in the beginning was to think, that he could do things alone. A need to find like-minded people is strong, when you want to change the world. Especially in the beginning. The things that people get from belonging to a community are for instance increased knowledge (learning from others), (emotional) support, getting credit for one’s actions, learning to understand the world in new ways and getting encouragement. In community you have a feeling that you can make an impact and get things done. One person wrote, that others recharge you when the battery is running low.
What can adult educators do?
The emotional aspects of volunteer work really can’t be underestimated. Could adult educators give sparks to people during any class or educational activity? Something to make people think – and feel? Could we provide platforms for finding communities and connecting with other people? No matter what subject or topic we are teaching or training, we could probably always include some elements of active citizenship that can, if we are lucky, lead to volunteer work or other types of ways of changing the world for the better. Maybe right after the class, maybe two years later? We can give opportunities for developing empathy and dialogue skills. We can ask our students, what inspires them. We can ask, what worries them and let them express it, for instance in their art or handicraft exercises or an essay. You never know, what comes out of giving an opportunity for the sparks.
About our project “Alternative Active Citizenship”
We started our project with needs analysis of how active citizenship is described in EU documents and national documents, which concern our students (desk research) and compared the findings with the ones that we got from our students (field research). Our Norwegian project partner (a university college) made an analysis framework for us and taught us how to use a method based on finding key words. The results presented in this article are from the Finnish needs analysis.
In KSL Study Centre the target group were people, who are already very active citizens – our students attending the School for Politicians. We wanted to find out, what active citizenship is from their perspective and what it requires. They wrote letters to their young selves – to the time they became interested in societal issues. We asked them to write the letters answering these questions:
- What was the first thing that woke your need to act in some way? (this could be related in any area of life)
- What was the change that you wanted to achieve?
- What kind of means did you use?
- Was there anything you would have needed to help accomplish this change?
What was interesting in the findings was, that the aspects of democratic citizenship were always mentioned in the desk research documents, but our students, the active citizens didn’t really mention them.
KSL Study Centre is partnering a Nordplus Horizontal-project called “Alternative Active Citizenship”. Our coordinator is Jaunimo Karjeros Centras in Lithuania, and other project partners are Símenntunarmiðstöðin á Vesturlandi in Iceland and Østfold University College in Norway.
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