A friend tells the story of a time he was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital. He was bedridden for a long time and was going to have to work very hard just to walk again. At one point, his doctors cleared him to try to move around. But they were concerned he might overdo it, or hurt himself. They gave him a pushbutton and said: “Use this to call someone if you want to try to walk.”

My friend is a grandparent, and the grandchild was learning to walk. My friend thought about the pushbutton and instructions he had been given, and compared his own situation to that of his grandchild — nothing was going to stop the child from learning to walk, and nor were his parents hovering over him to “support” him in this natural human endeavor.

The story came to mind when I read about recent research exploring a new concept, “civic deserts,” especially in rural America. The concept refers to “places characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement, and without institutions that typically provide opportunities like youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Underlying this concept, citizens are seen to need opportunities to learn and engage politically . . . which leads to a need for (often institution-delivered) programming. Such opportunities and programs are important and more are needed.

But there is another way to look at the kind of politics that takes place on a neighborhood, local level. This kind of politics is already happening, as people recognize shared problems and act. In thinking about improving the way politics in some local place functions, we might ask this question: How is it that people come to see themselves and act as citizens? It is the citizens doing the acting here. And about the worthy programs, we might ask to what extent such “opportunities” foster the insight in people that I am a citizen. (By “citizen,” of course, I do not mean “someone with documents,” but instead “someone who recognizes their shared role in solving local problems.”)

Of course, it stands to reason that if there are more such opportunities around, people in a community (youth and others) may potentially be more likely to act as citizens. But existence of such programs does not guarantee it, nor are such programs required. Many of the communities in whom one can see a robust community politics might in fact end up on the “desert” list.

I think of the difference between my bedridden friend, awaiting the delivery of “walking services.” What if he ignored the button, and got up and walked? That is what he did. “No one was going to stop me from walking,” he told me.

This, then, would be a study of citizenship: What spurs people to get up and start walking — and how is it that people come to see all the ways they already are and have been doing so all along?

Photo: Roberto de la Parra