By Dr David Civil, Research Fellow, and Joe McDowell, Engagement Officer, The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
We are often told that we live in polarised times. Citizens with different political views and communities with different ideals are often regarded as enemies to be vanquished rather than as fellow citizens with legitimate perspectives to be deliberated with regarding the public interest. It is clear that to overcome these divisions will require repairing the social fabric and building stable civic relationships; spaces where citizens from a variety of backgrounds, with different identities and political outlooks can come together to deliberate in the interests of the common good. Volunteering serves to build these civic relationships, connections and partnerships by helping us to develop and express civic virtues.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues defines civic virtues as the positive and stable character traits that enable citizens to participate in the public life of their communities, whether locally, nationally or globally. The formation and expression of civic virtues in pursuit of the common good are vital for both individual and societal flourishing. These virtues – including neighbourliness, community-mindedness and service to others – are a core part of an individual’s character, but are also vital for the active, informed and responsible engagement of citizens in a variety of community, civil or political organisations.
In order that volunteering and social action become habits, it is important that they are not disconnected from notions of good citizenship, the common good, or the social needs of those it is intended to serve. The ‘double benefit’ – referring to the benefits which accrue from volunteering to the individual and the recipient of the action – should therefore be placed front and centre of any voluntary service.
Being provided with the time, skills, confidence and opportunity to participate in social action in accessible ways can be transformative, particularly for university students who are often building a connection with a new place and engaging in truly independent civic engagement for the first time. In order for social action and volunteering to be meaningful we would highlight three important considerations for student volunteering week, showcased in our recent report ‘Educating for Civic Virtues and Service’:
(1) Start local.
We must all be aware of the global challenges our world faces, but starting with a need that is local can create the most impactful and social ‘good’. Context is very important to civic virtues and service to others, with local connections and relationships offering a tangible, stable and beneficial basis for engagement for both the volunteer and the recipient(s).
(2) Be curious. Be adaptable.
Developing civic virtues is not an endeavour carved in stone. Being aware enough to learn from fellow citizens is an important starting point. Identifying and responding to a particular social need, and knowing which virtues to use at particular moments to ensure that volunteering is a co-operative and respectful activity, will require innovation and adaptability.
(3) The importance of role models.
Developing civic virtue is something that can only be achieved as part of a community. Learning from role models is a key driver of positive character development as it supports habituation. By the example of others, and by connecting with fellow citizens from a variety of backgrounds and with different outlooks, volunteering can inspire others to engage in acts of service.