Bengaluru’s civic volunteers exhausted but not out

The masterclass 'is there burnout in civic activism?' highlighted the importance of youth engagement and modern communication skills.

There is a sense in our city that civic activism, which was once thriving with street protests and events and mass mobilisations like #SteelFlyoverBeda, is disappearing, particularly post COVID.

‘Is civic activism dying?’ – when we were asked to moderate a masterclass on this topic at the India Civic Summit, organised by Oorvani Foundation on March 23rd, it led to an animated discussion.

We agreed that while the masterclass title has to be provocative, the ultimate objective is to understand the trends, get more people to become active citizens by sensing citizens’ motivations and fears, and understand the role of the current political environment. Hence, we decided to anchor the masterclass on a slightly modified, yet equally provocative question – ‘Is there burnout in civic activism?’

We had no idea how many people would turn up as there were parallel sessions. We wanted to bring seasoned activists to hear their perspectives. Not surprisingly, our invitations were received with a lot of enthusiasm and many promised to turn up.

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The masterclass title itself caused considerable interest and we had a full house with more than 35 participants cramped in a tight room eager to go.

Selection of topics

How do we get so many people to share their views and make sense of it all in a short time? We figured the better approach is to split them into smaller groups and address different topics. Instead of prescribing topics to the groups, we decided to make a long list and conduct a snap poll in the room to see where the interest lies. This worked well as we got everyone to vote and prioritise the topics we had listed. The six most voted topics were selected for deeper group deliberations.

poll on 9 topics
Poll results of masterclass – Is there a burnout in civic activism? Graph: Srinivas Alavilli and Vikram Rai

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The next hour was spent in brainstorming, followed by sharing key summary points from each group. It was a lot of fun observing the groups have animated conversations, argue over priorities and finally come together and present their views as a group.

What did we take away as moderators?

Civic activism is alive and kicking. While there is clearly a feeling of burnout, no one is letting go of their passion for the city and better quality of life. Many feel young people should become more active on the ground and activism cannot be on social media and 10 second reels, while that has its importance. There is also a strong feeling that there is not a common forum or platform for civic activists to share their successes and seek guidance from others.

An excellent observation emerged that the groups that have been around for a decade or more do not have the resources or skills to generate communication and content of the new forms and formats expected by the modern day audience, and perhaps there is a need to help each other out as there are many groups that know how to do this effectively.

Restricting protests to Freedom Park has clearly broken the back of many civic groups that used to organise protests in their own locality to raise awareness about local issues. Unless this is fixed, civic activism will be confined to social media. The current government has promised to revoke this ban on protests but is yet to decisively act on it.

Knowledge of how the system works, understanding of the structures and processes, empathy for government staff and ability to work with local corporators are all seen as important elements of successful civic campaigns.

As moderators, we were convinced that civic activism is definitely not dying – in fact, we were also convinced that the answers and solutions to address any form of burnout in civic activism that can occasionally creep in due to various influences and reasons, lies within us.

As summed up aptly by one of the participants, Odette Katrak:
To tackle their burnout they met,
Their frustrations and woes to forget,
This hack did no harm,
Gave them a shot in the arm,
The whole room leaves having reset!

(We decided that the best way to capture the spirit of this masterclass and the wonderful discussions is to document it as short articles as part of reflections from #IndiaCivicSummit. This will be part 2 of the series)

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