Politics, religion and the Ice Bucket Challenge: Why we engage

As we’ve discussed previously, measuring civic engagement is difficult. It’s safe to say, however, that many people are civically engaged in some way: according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, over a quarter of Americans volunteer their time, and over half of Americans donate money to civic causes. These numbers reflect volunteerism and philanthropy, and don’t include other methods of civic engagement, so we can surmise that there are higher numbers of citizens who consider themselves civically engaged.

Why do people become civically engaged? We are often quick to judge people’s motivations. A recent example is the onslaught of negative responses to the “Ice Bucket Challenge” for ALS, currently all over social media. In the Ice Bucket challenge, participants film themselves dumping ice water over their heads, raising awareness for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and naming friends who must either take the challenge or donate money. People have rushed forward with accusations of “slacktivism” and cries that participants are only taking part in this absurd challenge to draw attention to themselves.

Ultimately, though, the campaign has led to a 1000% spike in donations to the ALS Association, compared to this period last year. Does it matter why people participate, as long as they are helping to bring about positive change? We sometimes have the tendency to think that all civic engagement should be entirely selfless, and civic engagement doesn’t “count” if the engaged person is getting any benefit. However, I would argue that meaningful civic engagement almost necessarily results in personal satisfaction and growth.

This ongoing argument has made me reflect on my observations of engagement at Duke. Duke community members are motivated by many factors, whether or not they have filmed themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads in the past week. For students, civic engagement is undoubtedly beneficial for future career prospects – volunteering in the community, participating in international service projects, coordinating a political campaign, or creating a social innovation project, for example, all help students build skills and gain experience before graduation.

For our Civic Lives series, the DOCE has conducted 13 interviews. These interviews made it clear to us that two of the most common motivations for engagement are the two topics we were told never to discuss: religion and politics.

It may not be surprising that religion motivates civic engagement – most religions advocate service to others, alleviation of poverty, and community involvement. Several of our interview subjects noted that, outside Duke, their civic engagement was mainly initiated through their local congregation. For others, religious faith shaped what they chose to engage in – whether a commitment to children, to stewardship of the environment, or to advocacy for a particular cause. However, in an academic environment, religion is often a forbidden topic. But it’s an important one, and seemingly a factor that drives many people to become more engaged. Religious congregations often support and encourage various forms of civic engagement; for many people, religion likely provided their first civic engagement experience.

Politics is another touchy subject, particularly on college campuses – but it is also one that was frequently mentioned as a motivator for engagement. Some forms of civic engagement are clearly politically motivated – for example, participating in Moral Monday protests or advocating for human rights. However, a surprising number of our Civic Lives interviewees brought it up in less overt ways. For example, faculty members might realize that their field of research is relevant to recent political events, spurring them to become practitioners of public scholarship. Several people named North Carolina’s recent education cuts or concerns over student loan debt as reasons for involvement in educational efforts. For others, social innovation projects were spurred by frustration with government activities and entrenched attitudes, both in the U.S. and abroad.

People’s reasons for getting involved in civic engagement are often complicated. Some people have been volunteering or involved in various causes since childhood. Others were motivated by specific events or passions later in life. Others – perhaps – just want to participate in a popular social movement like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Everyone’s stories are different, and one of the most fascinating parts of my job at the DOCE has been to hear many of these stories and learn how and why people engage through Duke.