Global Civic Engagement: Building an Ethic of Commitment to Service through Human Geography

Elizabeth Larson-Keagy, PhD, Executive Editor
The Journal for Civic Commitment

The Journal for Civic Commitment, Community college National Center for Community Engagement, Mesa Community College, Mesa, ArizonaContributors to the book Civil Society at the New Millennium state that we have a demographic imperative to educate youth with critical decision-making capabilities (Foster, Naidoo, Akuhata-Brown, 1999, 69). On average, 30 percent of the world’s population is under age 15 (Population Reference Bureau, 2000). The percentage rises if we count all young people under age 20, the same age as many of our community college students. It makes good sense to inform and educate this large population category in the area of civic responsibility, service-learning, and citizenship.

The conventional academic curricula not forgotten, wider circles acknowledge the need to include civic engagement and service-learning into the curriculum to enhance teaching, learning, and the practice of democratic citizenship. A recent commentary by Senator John Glenn and Martin Luther King III ([Scottsdale] Tribune, 2003, A17) applauds service-learning’s “spirit of volunteerism”, which prepares individuals from a young age to become productive citizens. Glenn and King state, “we must put this ethic back into every school in America, and make it as much a part of the curriculum as math and history.”

To instill an ethic of service we must not only be committed to serving the community, we must understand how and why it mattersto be committed to service. Every action we perform each day has a consequence, direct or indirect, somewhere on the planet. This paper is about using human geography courses as a way toward greater understanding of why commitment to service, citizenship, and our everyday actions matter. Whether a student in a human geography course is engaged in a service-learning project in a local school or human service agency, or a study-abroad experience in an international environment, an ethic of commitment must be established by recognizing the human connectedness of all things – local and global. This is the reminder that this new generation of American citizens in a globalizing world needs to have. Then a leap to civic responsibility on a global scale makes sense.

An ethic of commitment to global civic responsibility and service is based on understanding very well our planetary interconnectedness, and understanding that what we do everyday in our lives affects the relationship between each of us and the planet. Do human beings’ daily actions reflect a citizenry operating in enlightened self-interest,as Alexis déToqueville wrote about in Democracy in America(1969, 525-530)? In Ethics for the New Millennium (1999, 167-168), the Dalai Lama says that if we are honest (with ourselves and others) and can distinguish between appearances and reality, then we begin to “recognize that there is no ultimate difference between the needs of the individual and the needs of whole communities”. In The Wooing of Earth (1980), Rene Dubos, discusses how the global problems the world faces are essentially created by ourselves on a local level by the choices we make, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves every day. He believes that human beings learn from both our successes and our mistakes, and are fully capable of making the required changes in our actions to promote a balanced environment.

Human geography provides an exceptional way to understand the connectedness of all things, and to lay the foundation for that ethic. The topic areas, some of which include population and human migration, urbanization, development, resource use, world agricultural systems, and human impact on the environment, allow students to make the connections between individual actions as civic beings – both local and global – about the way the systems of the world work, or could work.

Author Scott Russell Sanders (1993) and Dan Kemmis (1990), former mayor of Missoula Montana, both write about sense of place. They agree that to really feel the connections to a place, to want to make that place the best place it can be we need to tell, or at least listen to, the stories of that place. They say it is those shared stories, the pains, and the joys of a place that give us what we need to commit to a place. So, human geography in conjunction with service-learning and civic engagement, allows students to explore (through study and/or experience) a starving village in sub-Saharan Africa, or a country recovering from the destruction of an earthquake or a flood. Then, it begs them to consider and reflect upon what brings them closer to those places and those individuals so that their commitment to service and citizenship on a global level is strengthened.

Academic and intellectual study of human geography topics promotes deliberate, critical, and holistic thinking about the role of the citizen on this planet, which leads us toward an authentic understanding of who we are, and how we want to be. Telling the stories of place, good and bad, connects us. Then, reconciling the tensions between learning about the state of the world from a human geography perspective, and engaged responsible, authentic citizenship on an individual level is a critical part of student reflection, and hopefully, action.

Increasingly, we read and see that we are a society that is yearning for “reality” or “authenticity” (Madison, 1997, 55). If this is so, then building relationships with people and places across the globe is one way in which our perspective and vision broaden, trust grows, and we begin to see our interconnectedness as a human population. Almost twenty years ago, in The Role of Spiritual Discipline in Learning to Dwell on Earth, Michael E. Zimmerman (1985, 247-256) called upon the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to lead the way to a paradigm shift “that will lead to socio-economic behavior more compatible with both the biosphere and the spiritual needs of humanity.” Using this philosophy, Zimmerman argued that we are caught up in egocentric ways of thinking, and that we must become aware of, and open to others in order for us to arrive at some level of “authenticity”. Zimmerman says that “when it is authentic, human existence functions to serve.” Mohandas Gandhi (1999, 63-65) tells us that the “human body is meant solely for service”, and that service, conducted with humility, is a “most strenuous and constant endeavor, entirely directed towards the service of humanity.”

As we learn about global systems, resource use, trade, international refugees, shantytowns and other human geography topics, we move further from the perspective of a single individual, and gain an understanding of how “I” as an individual fits into the undeniable global scheme. We see the interconnections between ourselves and our local, national, and global politics, economics, the environment, and so on. This is the ethic of commitment, born out of everyday life. It is the way we interact and associate with one another, everyday, on all levels, in all realms of our lives. No matter how individualistic or isolated we might want to be, we are in some way, interdependent with, or connected to those directly around us, as well as those about whom we have not given a thought.

Citizenship on a planetary scale is an enormous task, yet the overall benefits are worthwhile. Service-learning and civic responsibility as part of a human geography curriculum teaches global interconnectedness in the interest of democracy, human rights and the dignity of humanity.

Students learn how individuals’ actions impact the human and natural environment, and are introduced to the notion of voluntary simplicity, whereby individuals act in enlightened self-interest, enabling them to deliberately and purposefully live in a less complex, less high tech, less materialistic, and less energy-consumptive way. It takes civic responsibility to another level. Dalai Lama writes about a universal responsibility:

“To develop a sense of universal responsibility – of the universal dimension of our every act and of the equal rights of all others to happiness and not to suffer – is to develop an attitude of mind whereby, when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will take it in preference to merely looking after our own narrow interests. We accept this as a part of nature and concern ourselves with doing what we can.This path helps us “become sensitive to all others – not just those closest to us. We come to see the need to care especially for those members of the human family who suffer most. We recognize the need to avoid causing divisiveness among our fellow human beings. And we become aware of the overwhelming importance of contentment.”

“Lack of contentment comes down to greed, and sows the seed of envy and aggressive competitiveness, and leads to a culture of excessive materialism” become the context for all kinds of social ills which bring suffering to all members of the community” (1999, 162-163).

If this concept about individual responsibility is tough to come to terms with, think about the concept of how one person’s vote can change the outcome of an election. It amounts to the same thing on a planetary scale – one person’s action in support of social justice, or human rights, or the environment leads to the collective outcome of human and environmental sustainability.

Human geography topics beg rich and profound academic and intellectual questions we must ask service-learning students to reflect upon. They are, unavoidably, both political and personal. First, we must ask students to ask themselves “at what scale – local, state, national, global – do I participate?” It is possible to participate effectively and authentically on one scale, say the local or national scale, and disregard what happens elsewhere on the planet, and fail to see the connectedness of my every action? The Dalai Lama (1999, 161) says that “our every act has a universal dimension.” We are so interconnected that we see clearly that serving the needs of others also benefits us, as in the story of the tragedy of the common whereby individual farmers on a communal parcel of land understand that it behooves all of them to maintain the parcel in a manner that sustains it over the long haul for the benefit of the collective.

Another set of questions asks: What do I do in my everyday life, what do I buy into as a member of America’s consumerist society? What inefficiencies and ineffectiveness do I tolerate in institutions because it is an inconvenience for me to take the time to actively work toward social transformation? The responses to these questions lead directly back to the individual responsibility of citizens in a democracy – students, faculty and administrators included. We are a nation of people who believe very deeply in the rights embodied in the Constitution. Yet, we must realize that the only way to preserve those rights we cherish is to ensure that all human beings enjoy those same rights. We are back to that balance between self-interest – our rights, and the common good – our responsibilities, our enlightened self-interest.

More questions to help us understand planetary interconnections and the ultimate level of civic participation, are: As a citizen and consumer, what is my role in the outcomes of international politics, and the promotion of democratic values on a global scale? As a citizen and eligible voter in this country, do I vote for or against officials who support policies and practices that promote sustainable democracy and human rights around the world? And, keeping in mind that the U.S. is often defined as a society of hyperconsumers, ask: How do my daily practices as an individual, and my civic practices as a voter have an effect on what happens in situations X, Y, and Z around the world?

A final set of critical and reflective questions students can be asked to respond to, thinking geographically and with civic-mindedness are: Just because I have the right to do something, should I? Do I? What is the difference between my rights, as I perceive them, and “human rights,” which billions of the world’s population lacks? Which of us is truly free when any of us is enslaved or is treated without human dignity? What have we humans done right regarding the way we live with each other on the earth? And, what have we done wrong?

Dalai Lama (199, 162) is quick to say that, for example, the poverty of a village ten thousand miles away is beyond the direct scope of the individual, and that we should not focus on feelings of guilt or hopelessness, rather reorient our hearts and minds away from self and toward others. In Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America, E.J. Dionne (1998, 5) says that maintaining a democratic and engaged civil society comes down to a social policy that addresses values and personal responsibility. At the end of the day, he says, we live neither in government nor in the market. Our sphere is really defined by friendships, loyalties, love and personal values. In Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, writer Stephen Carter (1998, 11) says that “rules of civility are also rules of morality: it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to.” Finally, former senator, Bill Bradley (1991, 108) says it well: civil society “is the sphere of our most basic humanity – the personal, everyday realm that is governed by values such as responsibility, trust, fraternity, solidarity, and love.”

Service-learning conducted through a human geography course affords a special opportunity for students to examine places and cultures for that which is beautiful and good and from which we can gain insight into the issues that the world faces today. In addition, students examine and compare cultural ways of dealing with diverse situations, from the most personal issues members of a society may face, to more encompassing regional, national, or global issues. We lack perspective when we look at and think about issues through only one worldview.

Faculty should remember that our students walk into the working world in many, many fields, all of which could well benefit from student experiences with service-learning and civic engagement. In an age of rising globalization we see the results of multi-national corporations run amuck in the developing world, treating the environment badly, and sadly, often the employees. It becomes incumbent upon us, as an informed citizenry, to demand that companies rooted in a global economy, support “community” both here and abroad. Imagine that if after graduation our students go to work in companies that had formerly operated sweat shops in Latin America or elsewhere in the developing world. With insights gained from service-learning and civic responsibility, former students, now perhaps business executives can take that ethic of commitment to service to her or his job. For the sake of civic development in countries from which a multi-national has benefited, a responsible multi-national company might then, for example, work with NGO’s to develop and manage an education fund for service-learning students to participate in “base organization” projects in local communities. In doing this, students would learn concepts of International Business, Geography, Anthropology, Sociology, Language, Tourism, and so on while they work with members of the part of society that has benefited the least from globalization. Solutions to poverty and mismanaged development do exist, and if we create an ethic of commitment we will begin to see changes toward social transformation, the ultimate goal of service-learning.

When we become aware of the inter-connectedness of all things, and the more in-depth we get to know an issue, the more informed our personal deliberation and thought-process about those issues will become. Thus the decisions we make will move from pure self-interest – is-it-good-for-me? – to an enlightened self-interest, which comes back to making responsible choices that reflect the good of the common.

In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama (1999, 167) says that the “question of justice is closely connected both with universal responsibility and the question of honesty,” whereby “justice entails a requirement to act when we become aware of injustice.” Human geography, service-learning, and civic responsibility melds these concepts into a wonderful process for deep and substantive learning and acting.

Victor Hugo said that “an invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” As members of a society so rich and powerful, and embedded in democratic values, it is incumbent upon all of us to be responsible for the sustainability of the planet – environmentally, culturally, socially, and economically. Let this idea’s time be close at hand!

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Larson-Keagy is the Executive Editor of The Journal for Civic Commitment. A cultural geographer, she works in the area of community dialogue, participation, and public deliberation. She teaches Geography part-time at Mesa Community College, where she received the Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award (2002), and in May, 2002 she co-lead MCC students to China on a Service-Learning trip. In 2002, Larson-Keagy edited a publication for Community College National Center for Community Engagement, Through Whose Eyes: Service-Learning and Civic Engagement from Culturally Diverse Perspectives. She was named the Arizona Humanities Council’s Distinguished Public Scholar for 2002.



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Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.