Engaging the Active Citizen Continuum to Support Your Organization or Your Personal Growth

By: Aurora Schunk Assistant Director of the Civic and Community Engagement Office at Buffalo State College and YNPN Greater Bflo Board Co-Chair

When you hear the phrase “active citizen,” what comes to your mind? What do you think are the characteristics that make an “active citizen?” Can anyone be an “active citizen,” or do you need to be Ai-Jen Poo?

Active citizens are individuals who see the world through the lens of community.  They prioritize the community in values and life choices and take action on issues that matter to them. So yes, Ai-Jen Poo is without a doubt an active citizen. In fact so was/is Cesar Chavez, John Lewis, and you.

But how does one become an active citizen? Active Citizenship isn’t like the Birth of Venus, springing forth, fully-grown from the sea.  Break Away, a national nonprofit, created a developmental model, known as the Active Citizen Continuum, that they share with colleges and universities who host service immersion trip experience programs for their students (also known as alternative breaks). I’ve used this model with the students I supervise in SUNY Buffalo State College’s Alternative Break program, and my office has adopted much of the language into our academic community-engaged learning taxonomy.  This concept of an individual’s self-development and movement from one stage of the the Active Citizen Continuum is not only something that college students can follow through their engagement in an alternative break or community-based learning course. Rather, anyone can use the model to either motivate and encourage others’ movement along the continuum, or use as a guide as they expand their commitment to the community.

The Active Citizen Continuum is a model that provides language to describe an individual’s transition from mere existence to being a part of community-driven solutions to social justice and social issues.


So how does a nonprofit professional guide their volunteers, donors, board and staff members as they build active citizen skills to best assist the organization with capacity building, retention, and building a stronger network in the community?

Step #1: Identify placement on the Active Citizen Continuum

This can be done in different ways, but I’ve created this “pop quiz” to share with your target audience. You might incorporate these questions and create a corresponding rubric to evaluate board member or volunteer applications; or perhaps when surveying donors, you might similar add questions to better understand your donor active citizen IQ. Be creative in incorporating this into your role at your organization.  

Step #2: Thoughtfully create experiences

Depending on where an individual places themselves on the Active Citizen Continuum in Step #1, I’ve shared some ways you can incorporate to help them start their journey on the continuum.  


Invite them to participate in a low-pressure volunteer experience but one that gives them direct service experience (if possible)

Provide orientation and resources (mission/vision; ways the organization impacts the community/key social issue)


Provide orientation that identifies the way the organization individually and in collaboration impacts the community/social issue(s)

Create opportunities for service projects that clearly connect to social issue

Conscientious Citizen

Provide opportunities for strong direct service where they can realize the kinship they share with the community members they meet

Help them connect their service experience to daily life

Create ways for them to advocate for community issues

Active Citizen

Facilitate opportunities for them to engage and lead others in your organization’s mission (ie: board service, committee, fundraisers, team leaders for service day)


Step #3: Share Educational Resources and Inspire

It’s difficult to get involved or connect to an issue in the community if you don’t know anything about it. Furthermore, once you know something about an issue, you shouldn’t keep all that information to yourself; you need to share it with others to inspire them!


Expose them to social issues and service by identifying other ways for them to get connected and learning more


Focus education on the issue and what underlies the need for service (why service is needed to tackle this issue)

Provide education that connects the social issue to social justice issues

Conscientious Citizen

Share information on the intersectionality of social issues so they see beyond this issue + gain a desire to make a broader impact  

Active Citizen

Encourage their own continued education

Give them a platform for educating others, sharing their experiences, and knowledge to other volunteers, board, staff, etc.  

Allow them to share ways they incorporate daily changes into their life


Step #4: Facilitate Critical Reflection

Reflection is oftentimes where learning happens. It’s when you pause to think critically about your experiences, how they connect or differ from what you have learned or from other experiences that things become clear.  


Before they begin their service, board year, etc, ask them to articulate: Goals for this volunteer/board/ experience? Why this organization? What are they expecting (to learn, to do, to impact)?


Encourage them to ask “why” questions: why is this a need in the community; how will this provide assistance; why is the need greater than what can be provided; why is this an issue in the community, etc.

Conscientious Citizen

Encourage reflection to connect service work, daily actions, and education

Active Citizen

Ask them to reflect on their experiences life choices, education and the issue in a way that is promoted to others and serves as an example

Allow them to use their story to advocate


Thanks for sticking with me as I talk about the Active Citizen Continuum! Have other questions? Want to brainstorm some ideas for the role you have in your organization? Need an outsider’s perspective to help transform your own role on the continuum? Email me! Let’s chat! You can reach me at schunkam@gmail.com. Looking forward to hearing from you!


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