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IU Northwest hosts forum to address state’s civic health

Former U.S. Rep, Indiana Supreme Court justice field questions, remind citizens that apathy can have dire consequences

Indiana University
Former U.S. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton

Former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton reminded an audience at Indiana University Northwest recently that “countless small actions that you and I can take, and our friends and neighbors can take, are the wellspring of democracy.”

This was the predominant message at a recent forum hosted by Indiana University Northwest.

Getting involved in implementing change at the community level and recognizing how much it matters to the country as a whole, Hamilton said, is what ultimately will drive the improvement of our civic health, something that is of growing concern in the state.

“If we become a nation of spectators,” he said, “we will surely fail.”

The campus invited Hamilton, who is also the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, and Randall Shepard, chief justice for the Indiana Supreme Court, to talk about the 2011 Indiana Civic Health Index (INCHI), a project spearheaded by the Indiana Bar Association.

INCHI came about in large part because of a disturbing trend of disengagement among Hoosiers, said Andrew Homan, director of Civic Education for the Center or Law and Civic Education at the Indiana Bar Foundation. Project partners on the inaugural report wanted to compile a report card of sorts to measure the state’s civic health using such indicators as voter turnout, volunteering and staying informed through media.

As Hamilton put it, “the path to improvement starts with an honest look at where you are.”

Summarizing the findings, Shepard reported that Hoosiers do fairly well in the area of volunteering. The state ranks 21st in the country with 36 percent of Indiana citizens saying they actively volunteer – higher than the national average. The report also revealed a high level of connection to family in the state, Shepard said, with 91 percent of Hoosiers reporting they regularly sit down with each other for family meals.

The report discussed the correlation between civic engagement and education, as there seems to be a cause-and-effect relationship between level of education and the extent to which citizens are committed in their communities.

The areas in which Indiana lagged, Shepard said, were voting and political discussion. Only 20 percent of citizens said they regularly discuss politics, the report said, putting Indiana near the bottom of the U.S. ranking in that area.

Hamilton discussed the dangerous ramifications of voter apathy and disengagement and emphasized the importance of helping citizens get off the sidelines.

“We have to show people how to engage in their community,” Hamilton said. “I think that engagement is the surest anecdote to cynicism or apathy. If a citizen is involved in trying to improve something in his or her community, they are not apathetic, they are not indifferent, they feel a part of the community and they want to make it better.”

Chancellor William J. Lowe said that IU Northwest has an obligation to be a full, active partner in advancing a healthy civic life in Northwest Indiana. Forums like the INCHI discussion are a means of redoubling the university’s commitment to that partnership.

“It really does start with individuals and their commitment and their interest in whatever particular issue might be of concern to them in their communities. From there, it grows,” Lowe said. “As a university, we look for ways to not only connect civic engagement with our students’ academic experience but also enable them to start getting in the habit of identifying the issues they are interested and the groups and processes with which they can engage in order to make a difference.”

The Indiana Civic Health Index is drawn from data in the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The Indiana report is sponsored by the Indiana Bar Foundation, IU Northwest and the Hoosier State Press Association, working in conjunction with the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonpartisan, congressionally chartered organization that tracks and promotes civic and political participation, supports history and civics education, and encourages community and national service.

A copy of the Indiana Civic Health Index report can be found at

 “I do not have a surefire formula for success in civic participation. I do have a surefire formula for failure and it is to back away, to disengage from our civic responsibilities,” Hamilton said. “If we become a nation of spectators, we will surely fail.”


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Indiana University
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard