Civic Engagement & Service

As an international leader in research on civic engagement and service, the center seeks to understand, inform, test and expand opportunities for civic engagement and service worldwide.

At CSD, civic engagement is defined as social action that makes a difference at a local, national, or international level. Contributing to the life of a community, such as building houses for Habitat for Humanity or serving on an association’s board are examples of civic engagement. 

In an electoral democracy, voting is a core act of civic engagement, and the center’s efforts on civic engagement include research on inclusive participation in voting. CSD uses its expertise to assess and test practical innovations that remove barriers to voting and enhance voter participation.

Civic service is a particular type of civic engagement, defined as formal volunteering in a structured program (Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are well-known examples of civic service programs). Civic service can be viewed across the life course. A young person today may be involved in a service-learning program during secondary school, in an international service experience in college, and in national service following college graduation. This person may then focus on career and family, returning to service in later adulthood and in retirement. A long-term perspective to global demographic changes suggests that older adults will be an important vehicle for social change through service programs. In this view, a lifelong ethic and practice of service may become common. ​

The center’s research on service across the life course concentrates on voter access and engagement, community and national service, international service, and productive aging.

Voter Access and Engagement

A strong democracy depends on a guarantee that all Americans have the right to vote. However, a legacy of social injustice and voter suppression challenge the votes of countless Americans, particularly Black and Brown populations.

The Voter Access and Engagement (VAE) initiative at the Center for Social Development aims to redress these disparities and ensure the right to vote for all Americans, not just a few. Through an intentional focus on the fundamental rights of citizenship, deliberate dialogue, and citizen action, VAE works to create a culture of voting.

VAE’s body of work aims to strengthen democracy, voter education, and research on interventions that facilitate or hinder voter engagement. Through this work, VAE imagines an inclusive democracy wherein racial equity, electoral reform, and full voter participation are realized.

Community and National Service

Research suggests that community engagement and nonmilitary (or post-military) national service, such as AmeriCorps, may have great potential to foster civic engagement and employability. In some cases, national service may provide employment for underemployed youth and may be a career path, especially for disadvantaged youth. In addition, it may be used to bring people from different groups together to promote understanding, tolerance and cooperation.

International Service

International service is defined as service across borders. In an era of increasing globalization, international service may have significant potential to contribute to international peace, cooperation and development. The Center for Social Development’s research explores how to create avenues for participation in international service and to ensure that it provides meaningful and long-lasting value to both sending and hosting communities. 

The Center has collaborated with the Brookings Institution to further a global research agenda on international service, and with Duke University on the role of higher education in international service learning (summit on International Service Learning at Duke University, 2015). 

Productive Aging

The world is in the midst of a demographic revolution. Globally, those age 60 and above will comprise 13.6 percent of the population by 2020 and 22.1 percent of the population by 2050. In the United States, these numbers will be even higher. As the aging population grows in the U.S. and around the world, it will be necessary to develop policy and programs that support active engagement in later life.

In its work on productive aging, CSD seeks to advance national and international research and policy innovation to actively involve older adults in employment, volunteering, caregiving, education and other productive activities. The imperative to change policies and expectations about aging in America is based on evidence that ongoing productive engagement produces positive outcomes for older adults, their families, communities and society as a whole.

“Advance long and productive lives” is one of the 13 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

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