In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, issues surrounding individuals’ ability to engage with their communities locally or nationally has come into question as societal inequalities have been exacerbated and people isolated from one another.

By: Ty Gamble-Eddington, Seriti Institute Volunteer

Date: 05 May 2021

How do we support people to be engaged in society and participate in civic engagement?

Civic engagement can, and for all purposes has, been defined in many different ways but it can be broken down into two spheres: the social and the political. Social civic engagement is characterised by behaviours like volunteering, working with others or donating resources to segments of the communities one is a part of (these are often communities of place such as work or a home community and other communities one is inherently a part of). Political civic engagement, on the other hand, refers to behaviours that influence the political realm through civic-driven action that engages communities such as political parties and networks. Civic engagement and civic-driven initiatives are, in both the political and social realms, essential tools for engaging individuals from a broad range of backgrounds to participate in the communities they are in. For marginalised communities, however, civic engagement can be a difficulty as a result of concerns surrounding basic survival and subsistence.

Several studies have shown that there is a gap in civic engagement for poor and minority individuals, even if they live in communities grappling with deteriorating socioeconomic conditions that would benefit from greater civic engagement. This means reluctance to engage in a community process persists. The engagement of poor communities in civic engagement is particularly vital in South Africa for two reasons. First, nearly half (49.2%) of the adult population of South Africa lives in poverty, according to the South African Department of Statistics. Moreover, poverty headcounts in rural areas are significantly higher than those of urban areas and women, especially in rural communities, are the most vulnerable to conditions associated with poverty. As a result, large portions of the South African population, especially those in rural communities, are affected by poverty in their daily lives and would benefit from increased civic engagement that increases access to communal resources, greater skill-based knowledge, and overall improvements in existing communal practices. The issue lies in helping people to realise the benefits of opportunities to work together and making them accessible.

Second, marginalised communities tend to face three other major factors that determine an individual’s willingness to be civically engaged. These are the availability of discretionary time, personal preferences, and available personal resources. Time is the primary resource that one “spends” or “forfeits” when engaging in civic engagement activities. Time, in and of itself, is a finite commodity that it is limited (especially in the case of many individuals living in poverty). To combat these shortcomings, civic engagement initiatives need to be developed for marginalised communities with clear intentions that increase the initial engagement and the retention of engagement with members of the community throughout the duration of the programme. To begin, activities related to civic engagement projects need to be conducted at periods during the day, time of year, the portion of the week when residents/community members are the most available to participate in said projects without compromising their other engagements; this is especially in poor communities where missing work could mean going hungry.

If a community engagement project is being developed in a rural farming community, for example, then activities where members of the community will have to come together should not be set during the peak harvest season or on days of the week where farmers tend to harvest their crops. Similarly, if a project is being developed for an under-resourced, low-income community in an urban setting where many of the participants work during the week or have multiple part time jobs during the week, or earn an income as an informal trader, then activities related to the project should not be planned for during the work day or possibly even during the week. Time plays a significant role in civic engagement and approaches that minimise the negative impact of this mediator can be considered when planning projects. Activities related to a civic engagement project should, in general, not be too time intensive so as to deter individuals from participating in the project all together. Instead, civic engagement projects must be developed to work around the time commitments of the communities they are intended for and maximise their impact, while minimising their time commitment/personal cost. Work demands, one’s willingness to give up discretionary time and familial commitments are major time conditions to account for when planning a civic engagement project.

Civic engagement initiatives in low-income areas needs to also account for the personal preferences of the individuals within the community. What does “personal preferences” mean? Personal preferences refers to an individual’s willingness to participate in a project based on its proposed outcomes, time commitment for engagement and various other factors. Educator James Hyman said: “Disadvantaged people have reasons to prefer problem-solving and meaningful, sustained projects that are aimed at serious issues that they care about. Therefore, programmes should be structured so that participants have real opportunities to define and select meaningful problems and then address them collaboratively.” To maximise a project’s compatibility with the personal preferences of people in a poor community, the projects should be based on concerns or problems that members of the community identify and be conducive to collective problem-solving; rather than a project imposed from above. By engaging with the concerns of communities that one is working in, projects can encourage participation from members of the community and sustain activism over a longer period of time, as well as among a greater number of people.

Working with poor communities to encourage community engagement, nevertheless, goes far beyond just addressing the problems they see as important. Poorer communities, on average, have lower levels of resources within them and they may lack the skills necessary to implement many community engagement/development projects. As such, civic engagement initiatives targeted at poor communities should have an engaging element (i.e., practical) to learning opportunities and provide the resources, at least, for initial start-up. Simply put, projects should be developed based on the needs of the community, be implemented by members of the community, empower all community members, and should aim to be sustainable beyond its initial implementation by imparting skills/knowledge onto said communities.

To understand how to create sustainable civic-driven programming one must first understand the participatory process for members of the community who choose to engage. There are 3 stages to the participatory process: (1) understanding/researching your community, (2) imagining a better future, and (3) taking action together. The participatory process gives insights into how individuals in a given community envision and approach problems in their community. It also, however, provides valuable insights for planning programmes. Projects need to highlight the possibility for change, rather than depress people by focusing solely on problems within the community. Additionally, projects need to avoid imposition from above or saviour mentalities in order to engage the community in taking communal action and push for an asset-based community development approach that builds off of existing support efforts or infrastructure.

Poor communities provide a particular challenge to promote community engagement because of the scarcity of their time, a lack of resources, and various other factors. However, through intentional project development that is centred on the needs and situation of marginalised groups and communities, civic engagement can be supported and result in social impact. In any given community, a practitioner’s job must be to listen holistically to the different interests, perspectives, or challenges within a community and help them decide which projects will have the largest impact. The process of civic-based programming must reveal “differing sources of power” and aim to provide inclusionary projects that prioritise the most important communal needs based on community feedback, contextualising the root causes of current conditions, encouraging communal solidarity, and helping others to imagine something better for themselves.

The Seriti Institute, a South African non-profit organisation, which is a development facilitation agency, helps communities and social partners reach their goals by delivering innovative, sustainable, and comprehensive solutions to enhance socioeconomic impact.

Seriti Institute offers a good example of civic engagement and community building initiatives centred on the needs of communities, by employing its participatory methodologies to obtain local buy-in. Here, facilitators listen to the personal opinions of participants and conduct a 3-5-day immersive training programme that allows them to not only be an integral part of the discussion about how to improve their communities but gives them the skills to do so. Through capacitating primary caregivers, improving community food security through community agriculture, and building social partnerships across civil society organisations, Seriti Institute aims to facilitate local development where beneficiaries, participants and community champions and community-based organisations drive the work on the ground.

At the base of this approach is the use of community mapping that is action oriented and consists of wellness practices intended for community participation and is meant to trigger experiential group learning on a large-scale. To begin, Seriti Institute creates a timeline that looks to past action/events that contextualise current conditions and then they move on to physical mapping of current conditions by engaging with locals to see/understand the problems. In the initial stages, Seriti Institute makes use of many warmups and other trust building activities or icebreakers to form bonds with participants. Subsequently, Seriti Institute looks forward to programme design by mapping out community strengths, the resources available to address the problem, and the probable problems that would be encountered. In each stage of planning, Seriti Institute intentionally incorporates feedback from relevant stakeholders and community members. Following on from initial start-up phase, programme implementation is strengthened with ongoing support and a mentorship relationship that encourages the sustainability of projects long after they have begun. Through their community-first approach and community mapping, Seriti Institute provides a good framework to involve marginalised communities in civic engagement work and overcome the barriers they may face due to their socioeconomic status.

With their community mapping and community-first approach, Seriti Institute has successfully developed a number of civic-driven programs to meet the needs of marginalised communities in South Africa. In the wake of COVID-19, for example, Seriti Institute worked with local stakeholders within their network to identify community organising and food insecurity as priority areas to work with local stakeholders on. As the organisation participated in the creation of an umbrella organisation called the “C19 People’s Coalition (C19PC)” that worked with local, regional, and national organisations to mobilise communities and form volunteer-based Community Action Networks (CANs). C19PC helped 35 South African communities, deliver 18,282 food parcels, preparing 5,180 meals, and handing out 25,000 educational pamphlets. Another example of Seriti Institute’s work can be found in their “Work Learn Grow Programme” that promotes access to local food and healthy food that is produced by households, small-scale farmers, and fishers in ecologically sustainable ways. Additionally, the “Work Learn Grow Programme” promotes rural and peri-urban grassroots farming activity and sustainable agri-business development in marginalised South African communities. Each of Seriti’s projects focus on working within marginalised communities to meet the needs of said communities, fostering solidarity and trust with participants as they work towards improving their own community. As one develops civic-driven projects they should keep in mind the Seriti Institute’s approach to project development and encourage action to be taken, realising that this is a learning process and initial failure can give way to more sustainable projects in the future if they are developed with intention.

*Tawreak “Ty” Gamble-Eddington is currently a History & Political Science student at Union College, Schenectady, New York, USA in the Honours Programme; and a Seriti Institute Volunteer. In the coming year, Tawreak will be a George J. Mitchell Scholar at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland where he will read for a MPhil in Race, Conflict, Ethnicity.

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Issued by:
Refilwe Pico
Communications Officer
Seriti Institute
Tel: 011 262 7700