Chapter 9: Active Participation


Democratic societies such as Canada require active participation of individuals to create a sense of community and belonging. Citizenship engagement, agency or active participation refer to the involvement of individuals in public life and affairs, as well as in identifying social injustices and systems of oppression, while considering non-violent alternative solutions and resources for action. In this chapter, we will discuss what citizenship engagement is, and we will explore how individual action can bring about and contribute to systemic and cultural changes that build community and civil societies.


Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Explain Conflict Transformation;
  2. Explain Citizenship Engagement; and
  3. Design a personal anti-oppression plan.



In his Little Book of Conflict Transformation (2003) Jean Paul Lederach envisaged social (conflict) transformation as a person on a journey, comprised of head, heart, hands, legs, and feet. Watch this short (03:40) animation that explains Lederach’s social transformation. The video transcript may be found at the end of this chapter.


Conflict transformation is “to envision and respond to the ebb and flow of social conflicts [including systems of oppression] as life-giving opportunities for creating constructive change processes that reduce violence, increase [equity] and justice in direct interaction and social structures and respond to real-life problems in human relationships”. (Lederach, 2004, pp. 26).



Citizenship Engagement and Active Participation Explained

Citizenship engagement, agency or active participation consists of behaviors, attitudes, and actions that aim to improve a community and, ideally, to challenge social injustices. To put it simply, individuals are ‘engaged’ when they play an active role in defining issues, considering solutions, and identifying resources or priorities for action (CIHR, 2010). This includes the more traditional political activities, including voting, understanding the government structures, societal services, functions, and processes, as well as our civic rights and duties that exist beyond voting and elections (Evans, 2006). Active participation also includes engagement in non-electoral political activities in areas related to social justice, anti-oppression, and anti-racism. This involves, for instance, understanding what associations, unions, community projects, NGOs, or social movements operate outside formal politics, as well as engaging in the active process of volunteering or participating in any group or organization that are currently addressing a problem of our concern.

Allyship is an instance of citizenship engagement and active participation. However, allyship describes “active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized [or equity-deserving] group of people” (the Anti-Oppression Network, 2021). Allyship requires engagement.

Citizenship engagement is confronting apathy, and indifference towards civic, social injustices and political issues. Unfortunately, academic research shows that many young people from marginalized contexts are unable, or discouraged, to constructively voice and defend their own interests, concerns and needs, which increases patterns of structural/systemic, cultural, and violence in their contexts (CEDAE, 2013). This barrier is connected to the insufficiency of educational opportunities to develop the critical thinking needed for understanding ways to actively participate in collective decision-making procedures (Quaynor, 2012; Reimers & Cárdenas, 2010). Thus, citizenship engagement or active participation requires us to learn, and develop a set of knowledge and skills that allow us to understand and act, for instance, against systems of oppression affecting equity-deserving groups.

Following Lederach’s framework (2003), Our head – that part of our body where our understandings of our world are developed— needs opportunities to learn multiple viewpoints and perspectives within our society (Hess, 2009), including the underlying historical, social, or economic root causes of social injustices and power imbalances existing in our context (Bickmore, 2008), as well as the structures, practices and policies that contribute to institutionalize systems of oppression. Within this framework, our head also requires spaces to develop our ability to analyze and synthesize information and arguments (Carretero, Haste, & Bermudez, 2016).

Our heart, the center of our human relationships, needs learning opportunities to question our unconscious biases, stereotypes, microaggressions, as well as learning spaces to exploring questions of unequal power and privilege.

Our hands require spaces to discuss, problem-solve and experiment with alternative perspectives that may oppose to oppression and transform local and global injustices, as opportunities to reflect on our own capacities and agency for social transformation (Bickmore, 2014; Diazgrandos & Noonan, 2015).

Finally, our legs and feet, or capacities to engage in active processes, requires us to learn how to organize, set goals and collaborate with others to challenge systemic oppression (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). Further, it requires us to know who is doing anything to address a systemic issue at the governmental, non-governmental or association levels. Further, we need to develop our capacities to voice our needs, as well as ensuring representation or participatory parity in political claims-making (Fraser, 2008; 2009).


Video: Citizen Participation

Watch this short video (3:57) from Zentrum fir politesch Bildung: Citizen Participation



Design a Personal Anti-Oppression Action Plan

What Can I Do?

This chapter is an opportunity for you to reflect on your own agency by designing an action plan to address any kind of system of oppression that you know is affecting equity-deserving groups.

To guide you through this process, think about one or two issues that concern you.

What makes you angry, frustrated, or sad?

What makes you hopeful or moves you to act?

What would you like to change? (In your community, university, or workplace).

Take a moment to reflect on these questions:

  • What am I doing to challenge racism?
  • What am I doing to challenge colonial violence?
  • What am I doing to end homophobia and transphobia?
  • What am I doing to end sexism?
  • What am I doing to end ableism?

Now, choose one or two topic(s) (i.e., Anti-Black Racism), and write down why you are concerned about the topic(s)?




Let’s brainstorm some ideas by taking the time to explore what you know, or what you need to explore further by doing your own research (adapted from The Mosaic Institute, 2020).




Create a Personal Action Plan

Now that you have taken the time to reflect on the problem(s) that most concerns you, it is time to start designing your action plan by following 4 steps (Adapted from The Mosaic Institute, 2020). When you have completed all the steps, you may export your input as a printable document.




Summary and Self-Reflection

Tip #9

Create a personal action plan to interrupt systems of oppression.

The change(s) you wish to see in the world begins with learning, unlearning, and questioning the systems of oppression that impact various individuals and social groups. Knowledge is key to understanding multiple realities, and active participation contributes to social transformation. Here is a little take-home message for you to reflect on:

  • Am I acting to challenge systems of oppression?
  • Am I willing to operationalize my designed action plan?
  • What do I know now that I did not know before?

Please know that individual actions can lead to meaningful personal, interpersonal, and even cultural changes, but only when we engage with people and systems beyond our personal lives, can we see transformations in systems and institutions. To create systemic change, we need politicians to listen, and we need to work collaboratively with advocacy, allyship and awareness groups.



Chapter 9 References

Bickmore, K. (2008). Social justice and the social studies. In L. S. Levstik & C. Tyson (Eds.), Handbook of Research in Social Studies education (pp. 155–171). New York: Routledge

Bickmore, K. (2014). Peacebuilding Dialogue Pedagogies in Canadian Classrooms. Curriculum Inquiry, 44(4), 553–582. doi:10.1111/curi.12056

Carretero, M., Haste, H., & Bermúdez, A. (2016). Civic Education. In L. Corno & E. . Anderman (Eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology (3rd ed., pp. 295–308). London: Routledge Publishers. doi:10.2753/RES1060-9393421034

CEDAE. (2013). Abstencionismo electoral en Colombia : una aproximación a sus causas. (F. Barrero, Ed.). Bogotá: Universidad Sergio Arboleda

CIHR. (2021). What is Citizen Engagement? Retrieved November 2021 from

Diazgranados, S. & Noonan, J. (2015). The Relationship of Safe and Partic­ipatory School Environments and Supportive Attitudes toward Vio­lence: Evidence from the Colombian Saber Test of Citizenship Com­petencies. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 10 (1), 79-94.

Evans, M. (2006). Educating for citizenship: What teachers say and what teachers do. Canadian Journal of Education, 29(2), 410–435. doi:10.2307/20054170

FRASER, Nancy. From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age. In. George Lawson. Adding Insult to Injury. Nancy Fraser debates her critics. Edinburgh: Verso, 2008

Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: the democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge

Lederach, J P. (2003). Little Book of Conflict Transformation: Clear Articulation Of The Guiding Principles By A Pioneer in The Field. Good Books. New York

Lederach, J P. (2004). Defining Conflict Transformation. Peacework, 33(368), pp. 26-27

Quaynor, L. J. (2012). Education, Citizenship and Social Justice. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 7(1), 33–57. doi:10.1177/1746197911432593

Reimers, F., & Cardenas, S. (2010). Youth Civic Engagement in Mexico. Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, 139–160.

The Anti-Oppression Network (2021). Allyship. Retrieved November 2021 from

The Mosaic Institute (2020). Next Generation Lesson Plan. Demoracy Education: Fostering Civic Engagement in Schools. Retrieved November 2021 from

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237–269. doi:10.3102/00028312041002237


Image Credits

Chapter 9 Banner: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic

Chapter 9 Divider: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic


Conflict Transformation Video Transcript

In his Little Book of Conflict Transformation Jean Paul Lederach envisaged social conflict transformation as a person on a journey, comprised of head, heart, hands, legs, and feet.

The head refers to the understandings and conceptual views of systemic issues affecting societies, which he describes as conflicts, as well as the attitudes, perceptions, and capabilities to envision alternatives to challenge such issues. In other words, the head includes how we think about systemic issues and the potential solutions we may imagine.

Our heart represents the center of our emotions, intuitions, and human relationships. Our heart is how we relate with others. However, the way we relate and perceive others is deeply influenced by our cultural narratives, beliefs, and social structures. For Lederach (2004) our feelings and humanness (heart) allow us to stop, assess, take notice, and self-reflect on our relationships, while focusing on the less visible dimensions of our inequitable interactions.

Our hands represent “that part of the body capable of building things, able to touch, feel, and affect the shape that things take. Hands bring us close to practice. When we say ‘hands-on’, we mean that we are close to where the work takes place” (Ibid, pp. 27). Our hands have the potential to build constructive and positive changes to improve relationships and to work on individual, cultural and systemic transformations. To build change we need to ask ourselves, for instance, how can systemic oppressions be transformed? How can societies move in a constructive, equitable, anti-racist and anti-oppression direction? A transformational lens sees “the generation of creative ‘platforms’ as the mechanism to address [systems of oppression], while also working to change social structures, practices and [cultural beliefs]” (Ibid, pp. 27).

Finally, our legs and feet represent what we do, it is the place where thought and heartbeat translate into response, direction, and momentum to address systems of oppression. Legs and feet refer to our capacities to engage in active processes at all levels of relationships: interpersonal, inter-group, and social-structural or systemic. Legs and feet mean identifying, pursuing, and creating change through individual and collective actions to increase justice and allyship. Thus, a transformational view believes that dialogue, active participation, and representation are necessary ingredients for addressing social injustices, which are based on the socio-historical construction of inequitable practices and procedures among institutions, structures, cultural narratives, and even human relationships.


Building Community: Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License, except where otherwise noted.

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