1. The green shoots of a new civic activism

The name “CIVICUS” is inspired by the Latin word relating to community. Today, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of our alliance, community is more important than ever. Whether it is to solve local issues or tackle the biggest global challenges, we need people to come together to speak out, organise and take action. We need to adopt a more collective idea of humanity and more sophisticated view of solidarity. And we must deploy every means we can to promote social justice and sustainable development.

The present might feel like a dark period in human history. Even a quick glance of the  CIVICUS Monitor provides a stark reminder at how civic freedoms – the basic building blocks of functioning community – are under attack almost everywhere.

Yet, looking at the work being done across our alliance leaves me inspired. From established NGOs to activists, from civil society coalitions to social movements, from voluntary bodies to online campaigning platforms, from faith-based groups to trade unions, from philanthropic foundations to youth leaders, our members and partners work tirelessly on a broad range of issues. And in this work, I see can already see the green shoots of a new civic activism.

Take, for example, the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. Very few of us who have been working for gender equality within traditional institutions and with familiar tools for decades in some cases would have predicted the current momentum behind the global campaign for gender equality. This hasn’t just resulted in new debate in the Global North. In Senegal, where sexual violence is pervasive, it was reported that some women said the movement ignited the first ever conversations they’d had about the issue.

And this has been done not just through activists handing out leaflets and sending press releases but also by employing new means; through a hashtag, through celebrities, through public mobilization.

Then there’s The March For Our Lives rallies in the United States, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. History was made in El Salvador, when it became the globe’s first to outlaw metal mining. This took years of advocacy by civil society. A surprising and rare display of judicial independence in Kenya was witnessed when the country’s Supreme Court ruled the presidential election must be re-run. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico and struck the Caribbean, it was civil society’s first responders who sprang into action. Protesters mobilised in South Korea in huge numbers against corruption – and won.

These are all moments, among many others, where you can see that despite, what governments and others are doing to stifle citizens’ voices, new forms of organising and mobilising that are having untold and unexpected effects are emerging. That has to give us some hope that we can push for and achieve progressive social change on a number of issues in many different ways.

The onus is now on those of us who care about citizen action and community to reclaim what civil society is for. Many see our job as simply delivering services, quietly filling in gaps left by the state or market. That is important, but not good enough. We need to protect and invest in civil society’s role in building democracy and driving systemic change. This may require new civil society organisation business models, need us to be more ‘political’ or that mean donors must fund core strengths of civil society organisations. This is about seeing civil society as a good itself, not as a means to other ends.

To mark our 25th anniversary, we will today be launching 25 Years: Reimagining Democracy, a 25-part collection of voices and perspectives drawn from CIVICUS leadership, staff, partners, and members, reflecting on various aspects of civil society as we look forward to the next quarter of a century. Each piece will reflect on a specific theme, drawn from CIVICUS and civil society over the last two-and-a-half decades - what’s been learned, how things have and have not changed, and the challenges for the next 25 years.

Thank to you to our members, partners, Board members, and colleagues – past and present – who have shaped CIVICUS over the last 25 years. And here’s to many more years of strengthening citizen action across the world.

Danny Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS. This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS 25th anniversary, and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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