County civic engagement project thriving
October 22, 2012
Most of us who live in western Nevada County are here because there's no other place we'd rather be.
What's so great about living here? Three years ago, the Center for Nonprofit Leadership of the Sierra decided to look beyond the obvious reasons — natural beauty, outdoor recreation, a vibrant arts scene, solid educational institutions and local governments — to identify other forces that help to make our community so attractive and functional.
The center's "Sage Leadership Project" was launched in 2009, based on the hunch that part of our community's success is driven by a relatively large and affluent retired population that is willing to devote time and resources to community endeavors. The project initially identified a sample of 50 "senior sage" community leaders (age 56 and older) and a control group of 50 "emerging sage" community leaders (age 55 and under).
Each of these 100 leaders then participated in a confidential, in-depth interview on 21 key questions about themselves and their community involvements. Early interview results quickly demonstrated that both the "senior sage" and "emerging sage" leadership groups were contributing extensively to the well-being of our community. Given this finding, the focus of the project expanded during 2010-12 to include not only sage leadership but the "civic engagement" of senior and emerging sage leaders.
We believe many other communities could benefit from learning about our project.
The project has broken new ground in several areas. There was virtually no evidence that anyone had ever before studied, in detail, what motivates sage leaders to become involved in the life of their communities, or the dynamics of how senior sage and emerging sage leaders work together, share insights, and assume appropriate leadership roles. It became clear that this important information should be shared with others who are interested in researching civic engagement, and that project learnings and participant insights should be documented.
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With co-authors Gary Quehl and William Bergquist, assisted by the 20 project interviewers, the center published in January, 2012, "The Sages Among Us: Harnessing the Power of Civic Engagement." The book is available from the Center for Nonprofit Leadership of the Sierra at http://www.cnlsierra.org, (530) 265-5600, and four local bookstores.
Following publication of the book, a group of participants formed the Civic Engagement Project Steering Committee to explore additional ways the project can benefit the community. As a second project phase, the Steering Committee has launched a number of activities:
Having personally felt the powerful impact of being interviewed in-depth about their life experiences and their civic involvements, many participants have begun interviewing additional leaders in our community. Others who haven't participated yet are invited to let us know if they are interested in being interviewed.
The Nevada County Digital Media Center is airing 10 hours of panel discussions about insights gained from the interview process.
A regular radio program featuring the civic engagement experiences of both senior and emerging sage leaders is under discussion with KVMR.
Periodic feature articles about civically engaged leaders are being considered for publication in The Union.
Speakers from the Steering Committee are available to make presentations about the project and what has been learned about civic engagement to service clubs, government organizations, and other organizations.
Quehl and Bergquist are in the process of writing a second, more detailed book that will document project methodology and conclusions for use by the nation's community researchers.
As these activities are completed, the Civic Engagement Steering Committee will initiate a third phase of the project: developing broader publicity efforts beyond Nevada County. We see two important reasons for doing this.
First, we believe many other communities could benefit from learning about our project. And in buying and reading the Sage Leadership book — and perhaps receiving consulting assistance through the Steering Committee — others might be inspired to replicate our project in their community.
Second, we also believe that featuring our extraordinary community through a significant outreach effort, such as a PBS documentary, could bring economic benefits to our community. For example, a potential employer might become aware of Grass Valley and Nevada City as great places to start a business.
We look forward to developing these and other creative ideas over the months ahead.
Keith Porter lives in western Nevada County.