“The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”
This phrase kept coming back to me when I was reflecting on my experience in the United States. The quotation, etched in the entrance of Nebraska’s State Capitol in Lincoln, sums up all the learnings I had in October 2016.
I spent 5 weeks as a Civic Engagement Academic Fellow at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) under the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative of the US State Department. Throughout my stay, I – along with 20 other leaders from Southeast Asia – were immersed in Omaha’s civil society and local government.
We learned about civic leadership, racial and religious diversity, and local governance. We were shown democracy in action through the various events we attended, and experienced firsthand America’s Mid West culture.
It would take me months to write about all the experiences I had as a YSEALI fellow in Nebraska – and I would do that when my schedule permits. For now, here is the summed up version of my learnings in 5 key points.
1) On civic leadership: Focus on strengths not weaknesses
One of the first things we did when we got settled in UNO was to take Gallup’s Strengths Finder and Entrepreneurship tests. Through the processing sessions we did afterwards, we were able to learn more about our strengths as leaders, and what we can do to utilize them in our organizations.
Throughout the meetings we had with Gallup, one key learning really stood out: focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Leaders, in whatever field and industry, have a tendency to focus on their people’s weaknesses. We focus on what doesn’t work and how to change and improve it. We rarely see the other side.
While that might achieve short term success, it is not healthy for engaging people, particularly employees. Civic leadership is about people because people are at the core of any advocacy. It is important to focus and capitalize on people’s strengths to create bigger impact and make sure they grow in the process.
This is a learning I find useful, especially because I handle citizen journalists and activists for Rappler. This is a leadership perspective I am using now as we restructure our communities.
2) Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
In the development world, we always say that solving an issue takes a whole-of-nation approach. This is true for the projects on poverty and hunger, and disasters and climate change that I’ve been part of. But I have never seen a better example of this in the non-profit organizations I met in Omaha.
During our second week, we had a panel discussion with different non-profits. During the discussion, the Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP) presented about how they were able to get conservative groups to join their campaign and effectively lower the rate of HIV transmission in the state. One of their key achievements was getting public schools in Omaha to pass changes to their sexual health curriculum.
In the same panel, Project Harmony, a non-profit that takes care of abused and neglected children, talked about how they were able to establish 850 child advocacy centers and serve the two biggest counties in Nebraska.
The two examples showed very important points for civic engagement. First, for any advocacy to succeed, it is important to tap all sectors involved. Government is a crucial partner, although even in the US, bureaucracy is a big challenge and takes time to catch up. It is important to include even those who are initially opposed to certain projects and make them understand the advocacy. As in the case of NAP, they really pushed for meetings with conservative groups to help them better understand the issue. Once they understood HIV/AIDS, NAP found it easier to get the groups to participate in the advocacy.
Second, it is important to target both structural and behavioral change. Behavioral change ensures that the project was effective because people changed their habits and actions. While structural change ensures that the project is sustainable and it will continue because the policy and laws needed are already in place.
Collaboration also ensures that there is one solid push to solve an issue instead of different strokes and approaches. As a presidential candidate said, we are “stronger together.”
3) On race and class segregation: Healing takes time
This was an issue I was looking forward to learn about the moment I found out I was accepted in YSEALI. I didn’t know though that Omaha was a great place to understand this issue.
Omaha is a very segregated city. Races – white, black, and hispanic – live generally on separate parts of the city. Going through the different parts of Omaha, you also see the class divide – white neighborhoods have beautiful and spacious houses, while most houses in the North, where most black people live, look impoverished.
These class and ethnic divides, though started in the 1900s, are still apparent. Many efforts are being done to fix the problem but integration is still an an ongoing process.
Healing takes time and concerted efforts from all sides to succeed. As in the case of north Omaha, many organizations are making great strides to help develop and bring back livelihood to the neighborhoods. But there are still high rates of poverty and petty crimes in the area.
This is an especially important concept to understand if you look at the insurgency and racial divide in Mindanao. It cannot be solved under one presidency but must take continuous rebuilding.
Some of the organizations I really love are the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and the Boys Town – organizations that are helping the youth achieve their potential and facilitate interracial engagement. The Heartland Workers Center works with the Latino community, making sure their rights are respected and their voices are heard in the city.
4) Participative governance can work!
One of the highlights of my 4 weeks in Omaha was attending the county board and city council meetings. Coming from a developing country, I have never seen people so involved in their local government’s meetings.
Both meetings were open to the public. Private citizens were raising issues that matter to them and airing their grievances to their local leaders. There were heated debates but the sessions remained civil.
We were also able to attend one of the mayor’s town hall meetings. She goes around to the different districts of Omaha to talk about the city government’s initiatives and learn the public’s concerns. This is a unique experience for me because in the Philippines, most constituents only see their local politicians when it’s election season.
“The perspective here is,” one of our mentors said, “that politicians are there to serve us, not to rule us. We must be part of governance and its processes.”
I really hope that we can make participative governance work in the Philippines in the near future. I want to see this kind of openness in government and this level of engagement among Filipinos.
5) ASEAN on the rise
The main reason YSEALI exists is because of President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia.” Obama believes in empowering Southeast Asian leaders because the region will help balance the power of China. It’s part of the State Department’s multi-track diplomacy efforts.
I have been to many youth conferences and workshops in Asia but I must say that YSEALI is the best one I’ve attended. I have never been part of a group of young leaders who are committed to change and who are making huge impacts in their countries at such a young age. I certainly believe we will become our countries’ leaders in the future.
The time for creating partnerships in Southeast Asia is now. For young people, it is crucial to create networks within the region, especially because of the economic integration that will take full effect in the next few years.
The economies of Southeast Asia are booming and now is a good time to expand businesses and development advocacies. It is relatively easy to find partners because of the similarity of cultures and the ease of travel.
This is definitely the most important lesson I will take home from YSEALI – to always have a vision that spans beyond my country, a reminder that I belong to a regional community whose potentials and promises are limitless.
Civic engagement is needed
The reason why it took me this long to write about my YSEALI experience is because of the results of the recent US elections. I found it hard to write about my learnings on US democracy when the country elected a seemingly autocratic and divisive leader.
It took me a while to realize that now more than ever, civic engagement is needed in the US and in countries like the Philippines who are experiencing authoritarian regimes. This phase in our history will set the tone on how we engage with our governments and other sectors for the decades to come.
Civic leadership is crucial to guard our democratic institutions and make sure our advocacies and the voices of the marginalized are continuously heard. It won’t be easy for sure, as we are already experiencing this difficulty in finding a language for engagement with government in the Philippines.
The challenge is to continue being watchful of our governments and for our countries. Democracy, after all, is hinged on how much we participate in the process of governance and how much we care on the way we are being governed.