by Joy Ralph
Originally published in 1999 and revised/reissued in 2010, Soul of a Citizen is a nonfiction book written by Paul Loeb as an anodyne to burn-out among activists, and an encouragement to people looking for ways to get socially involved. Loeb is a scholar and lecturer focusing on patterns of civic engagement and what motivates socio-political participation, with a particular emphasis on hope. He has published a significant body of work examining a spectrum of political activism from collegiate campuses to neighborhood organizations and evangelical campaigns.
I picked up the book to read on seeing it praised by an activist friend of mine whose opinions I respect. The title piqued my interest, and the quoted material my friend cited was pithy and accurate. I was intrigued to discover Loeb resides in my native Seattle working with the Center for Ethical Leadership, as the city has a history of both encouraging and ignoring citizen input (for example, the Monorail development plans of the 2000s). Maintaining a commitment to participating against such a background is difficult, so I looked forward to Loeb’s insights. The ideas of both hope and conviction as a methodology for living can seem almost old-fashioned, as something lost but worth restoring, and I hoped he might suggest a possible course of action.
Most of what Loeb has to say is, in all honesty, simply good life advice: cut yourself some slack, and don’t hold other people to impossible standards; avoid cynicism for the energy-sapping trap it is; take small steps to work on seemingly insurmountable problems. His number one solution is essentially find and remain connected to a core group of supportive, like-minded people who can share the difficulties and frustrations, provide perspective, and balance the stressors that push people toward isolation and despair. He makes a good case for the power of the group to support and carry the individual during hardships.
While not strictly a self-help book, Soul of a Citizen does at times lean in that direction. The bulk of the volume is anecdotes illustrating movements and circumstances where other activists have struggled with and conquered discouragement and fatigue, or difficult odds of success. As Loeb is urging the reader to make and strengthen connections with other people in order to overcome similar obstacles to getting involved, choosing a narrative which encourages sympathy and connection is a sensible strategy. I would have preferred more analysis and fewer stories, since I wasn’t always clear on the processes people used. It might have worked better for me if the book was more explicitly a guide illustrating more of those specifics.
One of the more critical points made is how important diversity or cross-pollination of stances and ideas can be. Loeb is acutely aware of the very human tendency to surround ourselves with and listen most attentively to people who are most like us in identity and thought patterns, limiting both the effectiveness and the scope of any possible solutions we might devise as a result. He advocates effectively for reaching out to and working with people of different beliefs and positions on the political spectrum. Unusual connections can bring unexpected resources to the table, and it is more possible than it seems to make common cause with theoretical opponents in working toward a greater good. Here is where the anecdotal material shines, and is the most inspiring.
The ideas of both hope and conviction as a methodology for living can seem almost old-fashioned, as something lost but worth restoring.
I enjoyed the book but also found myself at a bit of a loss when considering its relation to my life and personal activism. Using his paradigms, it’s clear I’m not as connected to the community as I might be, so perhaps that contributes to my feeling overwhelmed when I consider various current social and political trends. Yet, as an introvert, part of what I find exhausting about volunteering or working as part of an organized social justice cause is the increased interpersonal interaction required for that very community support at the center of his model, making the remedy for my situation sound like more of what wore me out in the first place.
I found the majority of his other suggestions much more applicable, and they echo advice given me by professional and amateur analysts over the years. Loeb is an engaging and quotable writer with a deep insight into his experiences in the activist community spanning several decades. In spite of some ambivalent feelings about its structure, I recommend Soul of a Citizen for both its advice and its reinforcement of connection, which Loeb prescribes for long term success as a responsible and active civic participant.