What is Civic Reflection?

Civic reflection broadly defined means reflecting on our civic actions, values and commitments.

Discussion participant looks at image and notes in a civic reflection discussion
The photograph, "First Day of School Desegregation" by Jimmy Holt is one of many objects that CCR uses to spark dialogue and reflection.

Civic reflection in the broadest sense refers to any activity that engages people in thinking carefully about their civic choices and commitments. At the Center for Civic Reflection, we use a specific approach that relies on the practice of group reading and discussion. These “civic reflection discussions” are a unique way for participants to think—and talk—with other people about the beliefs that underlie their civic engagement, using short but resonant readings or other objects of reflection (such as images, songs, and short films) to add depth and complexity.

Civic reflection discussions can help us talk more comfortably about values, think more deeply about choices, and respond more imaginatively to the needs of our communities. These discussions are now happening all over the country in service programs like AmeriCorps and VISTA, civic engagement pro­grams at colleges and universities, high-school service-learning initiatives, charitable foundations, social service agencies, non-profit boards, and among educators, healthcare providers, and other civic leaders.

Civic reflection discussions have three elements – a group of people, the civic activity they are involved in, and an object (usually a short reading, image or video). We begin by talking about the object in front of us, the thing we share and have in common, and gradually open up into larger questions of civic engagement and the work we do in the world.  

What makes civic reflection discussions different from other discussions you may have been involved in is that they are...

  1. Reflective. We ask open-ended, exploratory questions that focus less on "When is this going to get done?" and more on "Why are we doing what we're doing?" and "What does it mean?" We value reflection for its own sake.

  2. Deep. Civic reflection goes deeper to explore our values, choices, beliefs, assumptions and commitments. We focus on questions that rumble around underneath our work but that we may not know how to discuss comfortably with one another. 

  3. Object-driven. The object—whether it is a reading or an image, a video or a song—serves as an anchor, as the thing that creates a shared experience. The object is thought-provoking, complex, and raises foundational questions about our action in the world.

  4. Questioning. We explore questions, together, in order to deepen understanding, build relationships, spur creativity and imagination, and get everyone involved. 

  5. Inclusive. We believe people are thoughtful by nature and want to be heard. But we rarely ask people to be thoughtful in their roles as citizens. Civic reflection discussions are about listening to and learning from all voices, not just the experts.  

"

Civic reflection has been instrumental in improving our retention rate. It’s a bonding tool that helped reunite our group.

"

--AmeriCorps Program Manager, Ohio

"

The reflection and critical thinking that happens in these discussions creates a richer, deeper, and more meaningful experience of service.

"

--AmeriCorps Project YES! member, 2011-2012

"

Civic reflection helped me process and think about my experiences on a larger scale, not just as day-to-day service -- helped me see the bigger picture.

"

--AmeriCorps Project YES! member, 2011-2012

"

I think it’s just the simple ability to kind of slow down and take a step back, because the... idea I’ve taken from this is about just disengaging from your standard mode of operation which is “what is the next task, what is the next task?” and using one side of my brain the entire day. It forces you to switch to that other side of the brain and take a step back to reflect on things.

"

--Social Worker, Hospice

"

I think [civic reflection] allowed me to solidify my values and beliefs. It helped me see other points of view rather than being stuck in my own thoughts. It helped me to be more open-minded. I also think it was one of the catalysts of continuing service another year and remaining committed to service in the future.

"

--AmeriCorps Member, Texas

"

If you have an activity that helps open your mind and your heart and your emotions, as well as intellectually, with a group of people whom you care for and respect, it spills over into your raw satisfaction with your job. We looked forward to [civic reflection] each time.

"

--Nurse Practitioner, Community Hospital