Doing Your Part to Change the World is the subtitle to Citizen You, a celebration of citizen activism. A new movement is rising, says Tisch, of people who are taking responsibility for making change happen, engaging creatively with world problems. Rather than waiting for government or traditional organisations, these engaged citizens are finding their own solutions, through social entrepreneurship and community action. The book profiles citizen activists, and invites the reader to join their ranks.
Citizen activism is a somewhat nebulous term, and it comes in many forms. It encorporates business and community intiatives, personal projects, charities, and Tisch dedicates a chapter each to a series of areas to watch. One is social entrepreneurship, business with social goals. Another looks at the new mass-participation social projects that the internet has made possible, one on volunteerism in New York. Each chapter is packed with interesting people and projects.
Some of the projects you’ll have heard of before, such as Grameen bank, Kiva, or Wikipedia. Others are newer or smaller, such as Many Eyes, which crowd-sources new ways of visualising data. One Laptop Per Child gets a mention, as do Engineers without Borders, the local reporting website SeeClickFix,and I was pleased to find one of my favourite little charities, SolarAid. There are good stories behind each one, with one or two passionate people who have built them up through their own sheer energy and imaginative networking.
Tisch has a bit of a legacy as a citizen activist himself too. He owns a chain of hotels that specialises in local food and local culture, and runs all kinds of community activities. He’s also involved in Tufts university – it’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service is named after him. That makes Tisch well qualified to write the book, but has also given him slightly too easy a ride – most of the activist profiles are from students at Tufts. That’s fine, but it means that a student’s theatre workshop programme at a local school gets lots of detail, while much more interesting cases just get a brief mention. That makes it a little skewed, with the most detailed stories being the most parochial, and the closer you are to New York and to Tufts, the more relevant the book will be.
The whole tone of the book is an invitation, constantly suggesting that everyone has a role to play, something to offer. It’s not true that American lives have no second acts, says Tisch, and plenty of people change careers midway through their lives to pursue something they are more passionate about. If you’ve ever wondered about doing something more useful with your time, this book is full of ideas and case studies, whatever stage of your career you might be at.
It’s also going to be useful to those seeking to build society and community. The chapter on New York is particularly interesting. Although it has a reputation for being a little cold and impersonal, over half of New Yorkers contribute some kind of volunteer time. The details of how the New York Mayor’s office has fostered a culture of volunteerism is quite educational, with ideas such as free public transport for volunteers, and a database of registered volunteers so that each individual charity doesn’t have to pay out for repeated background checks. All good, common sense measures that the Conservatives should make a note of if they’re still interested in building that Big Society.