12/08/2010 06:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chicago's Civic Health Needs Resuscitation

Our local democracy is characterized by a corrupt brand of politics known as the Chicago Way. While blame certainly lies at the feet of elected officials who have betrayed the public trust, culpability also rests with an apathetic citizenry complacent with the endemic corruption that surrounds us. We the people of Greater Chicago are failing on too many measures of our civic duties, including voting, volunteering, organizational membership, and connectedness with one another.

Voter turnout actually declined among citizens here in 2008 despite the historic implications of the election and the favorite son candidacy of then-Senator Barack Obama.

The Chicago region ranks 38th among the 51 largest cities in the United States for the volunteer rate among residents 16 and older. Chicago volunteers ranked even lower on volunteer hours per resident, slipping to 45th on this measure.

Although Chicago area citizens are slightly more likely to be members of voluntary organizations than their national peers, they are less apt to assume leadership roles and attend meetings. These organizations have long been viewed as the building blocks of American civil society, and appear threatened in the region where membership is heavily tilted toward older generations

Regional residents are also less connected with one another than the rest of the country. They are slightly less likely to eat dinner with their families at least a few times a week and to talk with and do favors for their neighbors.

Chicago area citizens are most likely to converse with friends and family via the Internet. However, even in the Information Age where technology is ubiquitous, a race-based digital divide is evident. Online discourse with family and friends is much more common among Whites than African-Americans and Latinos in the Chicago region.

Chicago's civic health is on life support. In a report to be released today by the National Conference on Citizenship and the McCormick Foundation, the 2010 Chicago Civic Health Index measures democratic participation among regional residents through voting, volunteering, working with neighbors to fix a problem in the community, expression of political voice, and financial contributions to voluntary organizations, and finds that the region is a sick patient in need of urgent attention.

Buried beneath abysmally low civic indicators are reasons for optimism. The following signs of civic life represent assets to be leveraged by statewide and local leaders. In 2008, turnout among registered voters was remarkably high, reaching 90% among Chicago area citizens, outpacing state and national averages.

Volunteerism also received a recent boost as Chicago was chosen as a "City of Service" last January, receiving a $200,000 Cities of Service Leadership Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to hire a Chief Service Officer. The city will use the grant money over the next two years to strengthen avenues to volunteerism within the city, targeting after school programs and economic development opportunities.

Schools have long held promise as training grounds for tomorrow's citizens, and the Chicago region has no shortage of institutions committed to their original civic mission. The Illinois Civic Blueprint, published by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition in 2009, outlines promising approaches to citizen development and provides models of their execution in local schools and through community organizations. It sets up a process where Illinois high schools document their commitment to these approaches, and those deemed proficient are conferred "Democracy School" status. To date, nine local high schools have been recognized as Democracy Schools.

The winners of this year's midterm elections should leverage the civic assets that the Chicago area boasts, and issue a call to action to take back our local democracy. Higher rates of voter registration, investments in focused, sustained volunteerism, and a renewed commitment to our schools' civic missions are ingredients in the recipe for civic renewal. A fresh start in state and county government represent a genuine opportunity for an apathetic citizenry to jettison the Chicago Way once and for all.