By Pamela Price
The Next American City
In 1999, a twenty-something engineer named Bill Carson faced an increasingly common decision: to stay or go. Having moved to St. Louis seven years earlier in a job transfer, he didn’t have strong ties to Missouri. He toyed with the idea of returning home to Pennsylvania or venturing to a seemingly more exciting city like Seattle, but St. Louis had started to grow on him. When Carson finally decided to stay, he committed to forging deeper roots. He joined Metropolis St. Louis.
Formed as a non-profit civic organization in 1997 in part to address the city’s brain drain, Metropolis St. Louis strives “to create and promote an environment in the City of St. Louis that attracts and retains young people.” Today its over 1,200 members rehabilitate rundown buildings, sponsor architectural tours in the city’s urban core, and place members on non-profit and governmental boards. The organization puts special effort into involving and empowering young people. Carson, in fact, took the reins of Metropolis’s leadership development initiative within six months of joining the organization.
Carson’s story runs counter to political scientist Robert Putnam’s theory that young people are not interested in civic engagement. In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Putnam cited declining membership in community service groups nationwide as evidence that communities are facing a decline in “social capital,” the personal networks and channels of trust that individuals can draw upon as a resource. Yet while the phenomenon that Putnam documents may ring true overall, the popularity of groups like Metropolis St. Louis suggests that more traditional organizations simply may not know what young adults seek in civic life.
A Growing Movement
Consider the statistics: Young Leadership Council of New Orleans has almost 1,400 members, most between the ages of 21 and 42, and has raised over $14 million to support the community since its inception in 1986. Less than an hour away, Baton Rouge’s Forum 35 recently reached 600 members and celebrated its tenth anniversary. Meanwhile, Young Professionals Milwaukee, only three years old, has over three thousand members. “We never anticipated such success when we launched,” says Shelley Jurewicz, Young Professionals Milwaukee’s executive director. “Our growth rate is five to eight percent per month right now. They just keep coming.” In over twenty cities around the country, these new civic groups are expanding dramatically. While only about twenty percent of the membership is very active in the clubs, that still means that a significant core of young people remains heavily involved.
Most cities sporting these new groups face heavy population decline. Motivated by the need to retain young talent, these organizations serve as incubators for new forms of civic engagement centered on service and social outings. Activities typically reflect the needs of the community in which the organization develops, and include visual and performing arts shows highlighting local talent, volunteer opportunities with local charities, and group trips to athletic events.
Leading the charge to put a fresh face on civic groups are young people themselves. While a few such groups came from local chambers of commerce eager to attract and retain young professionals, most developed organically.
“Our organization was started eighteen years ago by a small group of young campaign workers,” says Gerald Duhon, executive director of New Orleans’ Young Leadership Council, one of the first of the new breed of civic groups. “They had just finished working on a mayoral race, enjoyed the experience, and wanted to stay involved with the community on a permanent basis.”
Since its formation, Young Leadership Council has inspired the launch of two other groups, Baton Rouge’s Forum 35 and Mpact Memphis. Similar organizations, including Metropolis St. Louis, formed independently in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Keeping it Local
Although these next generation civic groups vary in origin and size (Young Professionals Milwaukee is the largest), their similar missions, goals, and projects reveal a great deal about the attitudes of young people toward civic engagement. Each group is homegrown, rather than chartered through a national office like Rotary, and designed to help people capitalize on local assets and opportunities.
“Our model is to be a portal for individuals to engage with the city,” says Dawn Lopez, a founding member of Mpact Memphis. “We like to say that if you are from here, we can show you things about the city you’ve never seen before. And if you’re not from Memphis, we’ll show you even more.”
Homegrown groups appeal to the desire of today’s young people to be part of something that is obviously “alive” and “responsive.” “From my research, there is definite interest in civic life that is simply not going to play out in Rotary clubs,” says Carol Coletta, a consultant and host of the city-oriented public radio program “Smart City” who recently wrapped up a report on the migratory trends of young people. “It is simply not true that Generations X and Y are disinterested in civic life. They [just] don’t want to regard things as ‘done.’ When they see buildings being built [in downtowns], that suggests a dynamism, that there is a ‘role for me.’”
The grassroots, civic orientation of these groups stands in contrast with the missions of their more traditional, chartered counterparts. Although local Rotary club members make significant contributions of time and cash to their respective cities, Rotary International is primarily a “worldwide organization of business and professional leaders” dedicated to humanitarian services, peace, and goodwill. Mpact Memphis, on the other hand, aims to “inspire, engage, and empower a new generation of Memphians to make their city a better place.”
Diversity, Dating, and Dinner
Just as important, the new breed of civic groups works hard to make all kinds of people feel welcome. Putnam never mentions in Bowling Alone that Rotary International didn’t open its ranks to women until 1987, when it was forced to by the U.S. Supreme Court. Although today many women are Rotarians, membership is often still offered upon invitation only and subject to review by current members. Some clubs even restrict membership to only one or two representatives from each industry or field in an effort to create a microcosm reflective of the larger community.
In marked contrast, the newer civic groups are openly—even aggressively—inclusive on all fronts, from professional occupation to sexual orientation. Seldom is more required for membership than a check—usually under $100 and often covered by employers eager to keep young talent rooted in place. Group missions reflect a commitment to inclusiveness, too. Among five focus areas defined by Mpact Memphis is diversity, with the goal of “a measurable increase in the number of interracial civic, political, social, and business relationships in Memphis.” Meanwhile, Metropolis St. Louis declares in its core belief statement: “We believe in a city, committed to its people, economically and racially diverse, that looks forward to the future without neglecting its history.” Ultimately, the inclusiveness these groups promote fits the definition of “bridging (social) capital” that Putnam argues is necessary to “generate broader identities and reciprocity” and yield constructive social change.
“We want our members to be intentional about diversity,” says Jurewicz. “And we define it broadly as ‘culture, profession, and lifestyle.’ Every once in a while, I get a call from someone saying that we’re too ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ When that happens, I point to our 2003 membership survey, which shows that our members are almost equal thirds Democrat, Republican, and Independent.”
This attitude of inclusiveness is also manifest in programming. In 2003, for example, Forum 35 assisted with the 50th anniversary of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, a significant event in the early Civil Rights Movement. More recently, Young Professionals Milwaukee hosted a six-part program series called “Mosaic Café,” designed, in Jurewicz’s words, to help people “live diversity rather than just talk about it.” Participants gathered around small tables, discussing topics such as segregation and education in fifteen-minute intervals before rotating to another group. Over 1,700 people participated in the entire series.
While innovative, socially-conscious, progressive programming is common to these groups, so is a more laid-back, casual approach to interaction. Many members are, at least initially, motivated to get involved by the frequent wine tastings, cultural events, and group dinners at local restaurants. Social activities provide busy young people with an easy mechanism for meeting their peers while exploring their respective cities. And naturally, more than a few love matches have been made, a fact not lost on 20- and 30-somethings interested in a safe atmosphere to find a mate. Ultimately, the integration of personal and professional networking opportunities with socially-motivated, locally-focused programming is the hallmark of these next generation groups.
Of course, how beneficial the groups are to their communities in the long run remains to be seen. Because the majority of groups recently formed, with localized projects and no national office collecting data or issuing press releases, the groups have generally flown under the national radar. It is not surprising, then, that Putnam did not recognize this growing trend.
Yet at a minimum, the membership numbers of these groups alone reveal tangible interest among young people in establishing a meaningful connection with their communities. If next generation civic groups continue to grow in size, number, and influence, perhaps Putnam—and Rotary—should take a closer look.
Gottleib, Paul. “Labor Supply and the ‘Brain Drain’: Signs from Census 2000.” Brookings Institution, January 2004. A PDF can be downloaded at:
Saguaro Seminar at the John F. Kennedy School of Goverment, Harvard University. Prepared by Robert Putnam et al. “The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey Community Highlight Report for East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana” 2000.
Forum 35 (Baton Rouge, La.)
The Memphis Manifesto
Metropolis St. Louis
Young Leadership Council (New Orleans)www.youngleadershipcouncil.org
Young Professionals Milwaukee