10 Questions with David Belgrave and Giles Dodson



 Q1: How do you define ‘active citizenship’?

We purposefully define ‘active citizenship’ broadly so as to accommodate a diversity of approaches and to demonstrate to students that just because you’re not an activist, doesn’t mean you’re not an active citizen. We define active citizenship as participating in and influencing the life of the community in order to improve things. Obviously, there are values at play here relating to what ‘improvement’ may look like, but that’s the central question for many academic disciplines and not one we are resolving any time soon!


Q2: Have there been changes in our engagement in activism over the years?

Our sense is that ‘active citizenship’ is always being expressed in a multitude of ways, from activism through to simply being involved in community or local kaupapa and many, many ways in-between. Whether or not we are seeing more or less activism, we certainly have much more capacity to communicate with each other these days and we do see vibrant examples of activism, such as the School Strike for Climate movement, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. At the same time, if we consider the scale and profundity of the issues being faced, we may also ask ourselves why are we not seeing more activism? As we explore in the book, there are limitations on active citizenship that did not exist a generation ago. Many do not have the time or skills to take part in significant civic engagement. Students must support themselves while they study, and unions do not have the membership they once did. Poverty, precarious employment, and the simple realities of family life make it difficult to be involved in the community to the extent we might want. So as the opportunities for new forms of activism citizenship develop, so to do new challenges that need to be overcome.


Q3: How are new technologies being used to effect change?

Certainly, the sheer weight of numbers remains the most potent democratic political weapon of the active citizen. We make the point in the book that 10,000 people on the steps of Parliament is more powerful than 10,000 emails. While it is clear that digital tools and communication are powerful means to connect people and to build networks, these must translate into concrete political action. The case of Ihumātao is illuminating here — the ‘day of action’ in 2019 was powerfully augmented by digital activism and created an event which squarely put that issue on the national agenda. Without the digital dimension it is not clear that Ihumātao would have had the resonance and impact that it achieved.


Q4: What will students get from this book?

Students will get a broad perspective on what active citizenship can and does mean in contemporary Aotearoa. They will also get a clear sense that any civic or political action needs to be built upon the strong foundation of understanding and critical analysis. As we have noted, there are many perspectives, interests and values at play, as well as many different approaches one may choose to pursue when it comes to activating one’s citizenship. So a broad, critically informed perspective is essential for making sense of how one may proceed as an analyst or activist within civic life.

Students should also get a sense of the importance of participation in democracy. Recent years have not been good for liberal democracies. The decline of traditional news media and the rise of fake news has disrupted public discourse and made it much more difficult for citizens to work through differences. While citizens have always had differing values, in the past those differences could be navigated because a commonly held set of facts grounded public debate. The internet has led to an explosion of media sources, including many with much less rigour than traditional media. This has led to the rise of anti-democratic movements driven by misinformation which pose a threat to democratic institutions in Western countries. New Zealand has so far avoided much of this toxic development, but the Christchurch terror attacks of 2019 show that Aotearoa is not immune to political violence. This makes active citizenship all the more important.

We hope this book will give readers the agency and inspiration to be constructive citizens who work to make positive change in their communities while also maintaining democratic values so others will also be able to make positive change in the future.


Q5: You have assembled a large team of writers over a wide range of disciplines. What were you looking for from contributors?

We saw the need to explore the possibilities for making change as broadly as possible. Active citizenship covers a lot of different activity for many different ends. We did not want to be too prescriptive in terms of what positive should look like, so it was important to ensure that readers have a wide selection to explore. Students looking to understand what they can do as active citizens need to see their own interests and aspirations in the text. A wide variety of topics helps readers find the issues, methods and disciplinary approaches that speak to the changes they want to make in the world.


Q6: The book talks about the complexities of active citizenship. Is this the same the world over, or are there particular challenges to/opportunities for activism in Aotearoa New Zealand?

We have specifically taken an Aotearoa New Zealand focus with this book and of course activism in Aotearoa will need to respond to the specificities of our society, its afflictions and our political culture. While there are parallels with other parts of the world, we are also unique. Other nations have similar challenges, but the context, language and priorities are specific to Aotearoa. Students can learn about engaging with environmental degradation, indigenous rights and mental healthcare from the experience of many countries, but this book connects New Zealand readers to how people engage with issues like those in New Zealand.

One thing we do encourage our students to do is to take a small-scale approach in thinking about their own active citizenship — starting small with communities that they are part of or that they know well. However, we also recognise that many of New Zealand’s problems are global, and that we are part of a global system and community of sorts too.


Q7: How important was it for you to include real-world examples?

Active citizens are often natural ‘doers’, but some don’t stop to reflect on the how and the why of their activism. Equally, some have the conceptual understanding of the change they want to make but little practical experience of active citizenship. Thorough conceptual writing on a topic sometimes comes at the expense of practical exploration of how to engage as an active citizen on that topic. It was extremely important for us to provide both research-based perspectives on active citizenship and examples from those who are actively making change in their communities. We want readers to be able to connect the arguments and concepts from the longer chapters to the real-world action described in the case studies. No book could be a complete how-to on active citizenship, but these case studies provide a sense that change-making is not all theory with no practice. Real people make real change every day and we wanted to highlight and celebrate some of them.


Q8: Was there anything that came as a surprise, or illuminated a particular aspect of making change?

Perhaps what was most surprising was how fluid the distinction is between traditional civic behaviour — petitions, lobbying and stakeholder engagement — and the more dramatic and creative actions — protest, strikes and artistic expression. Angry protestors will sit down with cabinet ministers, striking workers will petition for living wages, and teachers will radically turn the tables by getting students to design the course. Different aims require different methods and active citizens mix and match their activities to suit their situation. Even examples that seem dramatic and confrontational turn out to have conciliatory elements. Madeline Holden’s project reviewing unsolicited dick pics seems at first to be an attempt to shame the senders of such images, but this was not her intent. She did not want to body-shame the senders, but instead start a humorous conversation about the nature of art and to get senders to think more about their recipients. The tools we use as active citizens cannot be easily categorised as sensible or disruptive, the differing ethics and effectiveness of different methods in different contexts makes that far too simplistic.


Q9: The book covers a very wide range of topics, but what are areas that are of particular interest to you?

The area that most interests me (David) is the relationships between the state and citizens, and between differing groups of citizens. There are endless different and conflicting desires in the community, and I am interested in which desires are realised. As I note in the book, there are many more opportunities for citizens to engage with government on policymaking than in the past. However, some groups have more ability to engage than others. I’m interested in how government navigates these pressures and inequalities and to what extent they affect outcomes for the community. I am also interested in why different individuals choose one engagement method over another. Why choose a social enterprise over a charity? Why choose confrontational direct action over a silent protest? Ideology and aims are clearly factors, but this question needs further exploration.


Q10: What are you reading/listening to/watching at the moment?

David: I’ve been binge-watching Parks and Recreation lately and I really wish I’d seen it before I started working on this book. There is no more committed active citizen than the irrepressible Leslie Knope!