Applying a Racial and Ethnic Equity LensCaptures a Broader Analysis of Civic Life
(CHICAGO, August 2, 2022) – The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago is releasing a report that challenges past narratives suggesting Chicago’s civic life is precarious. The report offers a broader analysis of civic life using a racial equity lens. According to the analysis, race and class differences in civic engagement disappear or reverse when including a wide range of less formal activities and forms of collective organizing practiced among Black, Latinx, and working-class people in Chicago.
Since the 1960s, traditional measures of civic engagement have shown declining rates of civic health. These accounts of civic decline often focus exclusively on voting and donating one’s time, talent, and income to traditional nonprofit organizations. The report provides new ways to assess civic life in Chicago, including participation in social movements like the immigrant rights movement, the growth in the number of nonprofits established, and social cohesion as captured through the hosting of block parties.
“The report highlights the importance of understanding what drives people to become civically engaged and how to address the barriers that prevent participation,” said Maritza Bandera, program manager for the Building Collective Power strategy at The Chicago Community Trust, which supports community organizing, networks, and coalitions leading grassroots change in their neighborhoods. “The more residents are involved in civic life, the healthier our democracy, the more vibrant our communities.”
Racial inequities and the practices and policies that reinforce them shape how Black and Latinx communities choose to engage in civic participation. For example, the report highlights an interview with a student who was inspired to get involved in politics by his social studies teacher running for City Council. Once the campaign ended, the student continued to work in his community, initiating an immigrant defense network and, after graduating, ran for an LSC community representative position at his high school.
“Over the last seven years, our work has allowed us to collaborate with a host of community-based organizations deeply invested in driving action that meets the needs of their communities,” said Iván Arenas, associate director at the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “By incorporating the voices of community organizers into our analysis, we hope to broaden the discussion of what counts as civic engagement and better understand how to encourage it.”
Key findings from the report include:
Racial disparities in civic engagement can partially be understood as a consequence of data collection. The U.S. Census Current Population Survey, a prominent survey used to measure civic engagement, defines volunteering narrowly, creating a bias against counting volunteering activities disproportionately practiced by Black, Latinx, and working-class people, such as informal support networks or public meetings attendance.
What is or is not included in definitions of civic engagement can have significant consequences on patterns of racial disparities. For example, if the Current Population Survey considered attending public meetings a form of volunteering, racial gaps in volunteering rates would diminish or even reverse. The white-Black gap would shrink from 11.9 percentage points to 2.6 percentage points. The white-Latinx gap would reverse, from 12.3 percentage points to a negative 1.6 percentage point gap.
Black and Latinx communities in Chicago have disproportionately experienced the adverse effects of a range of public policies that increase residents’ sense of marginalization and create barriers to civic engagement. These include school and mental health clinic closures, layoffs in public sector employment, long-term disinvestment, and punitive policing.
Despite structural barriers to civic engagement, interviews with grassroots community organizers and analysis of nonprofits in Chicago offer evidence of widespread community investment. Whereas the U.S. Census data showed declining rates of volunteering in Chicago between 2010 and 2019, an Internal Revenue Service data analysis shows a significant increase in the number of new tax-exempt nonprofits in Chicago during that time.
Including a more comprehensive array of measures of civic engagement challenges the often-repeated perspective that people of color and working-class people are disengaged or don’t care about their communities. The report documents broad patterns of engagement that suggest many Chicagoans are creative and deliberate political actors working to help their communities and advance the public good.
Through interviews and analysis of nonprofits in Chicago, the report captures the perspective of organizers, academics, and funders who provide their unique perspectives on the state of civic engagement in Chicago. By framing civic engagement through a racial equity lens, the report provides a broader view of civic participation that can be used to catalyze and drive action.
Recommendations to inspire action include:
Civic engagement metrics need to pay attention to how seeking justice, and racial equity drives the civic participation of Black and Latinx communities. As the report shows, there is extensive evidence of activities that are not counted.
Public institutions often fail to see the public as partners in finding solutions to the city’s problems. Investing in community organizations and local movements that can rebuild trust between the public and government agencies is one of the most important ways to protect and strengthen the vitality of democracy in Chicago.
Government officials and politicians looking to increase voting in Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities should prioritize policies that address the root causes of inequities in communities of color. Addressing inequities in employment, education, housing, health, and community safety will increase confidence in government effectiveness, heal civic trauma, and encourage greater voter participation in Black and Latinx communities.
“Changing the Frame” was commissioned by The Chicago Community Trust to assess the state of Chicago’s civic health a decade after the 2010 Chicago Civic Health Index report. For the complete analysis of civic engagement, the institutional inequities, and government policies shaping these patterns and insights into the vibrant and resilient forms of engagement practiced among Black, Latinx, and working-class people in Chicago, visit: Changing the Frame: Civic Engagement Through a Racial Equity Lens.
About The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy (IRRPP) at the University of Illinois at Chicago promotes and coordinates engaged research to increase society’s understanding of the root causes of racial and ethnic inequities and to provide the public, organizers, practitioners, and policymakers with research-based policy solutions. IRRPP’s State of Racial Justice in Chicago reports provide a comprehensive picture of the inequities and changing conditions that racial and ethnic groups in Chicago face in the last half century. These reports provide accessible data and analysis on how racial and ethnic groups in Chicago are faring in relation to housing, economics, education, justice, and health and are meant as a resource for the development of new engaged research projects and policy solutions.
About The Chicago Community Trust The Chicago Community Trust is a community foundation dedicated to strengthening the Chicago region by creating equity, opportunity, and prosperity for all people who call it home. For more than 100 years, the Trust has united generous donors, committed nonprofits, and caring residents to effect lasting change. Following creating a new strategic plan in 2019, the Trust stands committed to addressing Chicago’s legacy of systemic inequity and closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap while responding to our most vulnerable residents’ critical needs. Thanks to our generous donors, in the fiscal year 2021, more than 7,000 organizations received more than $1.4 billion in funding from the Trust and affiliated donor advised fund programs. To learn more, visit www.cct.org.