Two sides of civic engagement

10 Feb

Last week, I was called to jury duty. After spending two hours in a hot small room packed tight with stiff plastic chairs, all of us gathered there were sent home by the court judge. We were sent home because, although the attorneys, the witnesses, the defendant and the judge were all present, there weren’t enough reporting jurors to seat a full jury. Of thirty people who received summons for service, only nine showed up. I was shocked! I thought there were severe penalties for skipping out on jury service, but public sector budget cuts have made enforcement of those penalties nonexistent, at least in my town. The judge lamented that his court had frequent experience with not being able to seat a jury. Think of the money wasted, and more importantly even, the specter of a justice system essential to  democracy unraveling in a single generation. Though I hadn’t, as a self-employed person, wanted to serve on an extended case, I am not happy to have been dismissed. I’m worried.

The next evening, I attended a Dining for Women giving circle meeting for the first time.  What an awesome experience in civic engagement, and just what I needed! Dining for Women is a wonderful U.S.-based nonprofit through which groups of women share a monthly potluck dinner, learn about a vetted but not famous international nonprofit working on women’s issues, and make donations equal to what each would have spend on a dinner out. Still almost all run by volunteers, DFW raises more than $40,000 per month across a network of women breaking bread together in 250 different chapters.  The Nepalese food we shared was delicious, and the women I met were intelligent and caring and fun– and how easy is learning and fundraising in that atmosphere?

So I’m thinking . . . on the one hand, we’re letting many of our core public sector core functions atrophy– schools, post offices, and the justice system, to name a few.  On the other hand, new energy is percolating and amplifying itself in the civic sector. I wonder what happens to our society if both trends continue on their current trajectory.  Still thinking . . . still struck by the two experiences side by side.