02/08/2013 09:31 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Civic Engagement 101: Your Go-to Guide

Since the rise of the Internet, plenty of Americans have taken to the Web to express their political views and discuss solutions. Driving political, economic, and social change requires adequate discussion, no doubt, but increasingly we are seeing an overall lack of civic engagement in the public sphere among Americans -- and this guide hopes to change that.

Addressing issues of public concern at the civilian level is important for anyone who hopes to keep government accountable. Civic engagement helps to ensure that citizens are ultimately the ones who are deciding which policies, attitudes, individuals, or institutions are not serving the public good -- and taking steps to effect change. Here's how the American Psychological Association defines civic engagement:

... individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy. Civic engagement encompasses a range of specific activities such as working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighborhood association, writing a letter to an elected official or voting... an engaged citizen should have the ability, agency and opportunity to move comfortably among these various types of civic acts.

Civic engagement takes many forms, and it's important to assess which strategies are best for your cause. Here are a few steps to get started on the path to being an engaged citizen:

1. Self-educate. This is absolutely the first step you must take to affect change -- you have to know what you're talking about. If there's an issue you think deserves time and attention, be sure to research it from all angles, including fostering open and honest communication with those who see the issue differently than you. Remember, knowledge is power!

2. Start talking. While civic engagement can certainly happen at the individual level, gathering support from others is paramount for effecting change on a larger scale. Don't be afraid to discuss issues that may be seen as controversial with family, friends, professors, community leaders, or anyone else who has a stake (read: everyone!) This will help you to find like-minded individuals who are either interested in learning more about your cause or want to help with efforts to drive change.

3. Use the Web. We've seen regimes toppled after concerned citizens took to discussion and organization using Twitter and Facebook -- like during the Arab Spring. And Internet activists were the driving force behind efforts to curtail highly criticised Internet legislation like SOPA. But remember, while online activism is important and the Web is an effective tool to organize for change, it shouldn't be the only approach you take. Taking your concerns to the public sphere is just as important for being heard.

4. Contact your legislators. Learn who represents you in state government and Congress (Googling "find my legislator" will turn up useful tools for your geographical region), and don't be afraid to make some calls, leave messages, send letters and emails, or visit their offices. Encourage your friends and family to do this, as well. Remember, your legislators are there to represent you. Keep them accountable by following how they're voting on bills and letting your voice be known.

5. Organize in public. Brainstorm ways you and others dedicated to your cause can take your issue to the public sphere. Maybe it would be best to hold a rally with signs. Maybe you'll organize a critical mass, speak at a local government meeting, or pass out informational brochures. Whatever the case, activism works best when it moves out of the shadows and into a visual, public space.

6. Know that money isn't always the answer. Too many people think that throwing money at an issue is the best way to affect change -- it isn't, though you can often find many willing recipients for political donations. Often, problems we see in the public realm are due to structural problems in our institutions or ideas. Trace your issues back to the root of the problem and tackle it there. Money often just serves as a bandage that doesn't heal deeply enough to effect real change.

These are all concrete steps you can take to get started on the path to becoming an active and engaged citizen and encouraging others to do so, as well. As historian Howard Zinn once said, "Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy, it is absolutely essential to it."