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Martin School's Haist Wins National Award

by Jeff Worley

Photo of Meg HaistAs a girl growing up in Milwaukee, Meg Patrick Haist would sometimes find a stranger at the table when she came down to the kitchen for dinner. These occasions, Haist recalls, were always interesting and memorable.

"I remember one couple in particular, who were both blind; they became part of our family. My mother had met them through an organization called Art Reach, where she was a volunteer. Through her work, she was clearly making a huge difference in other people's lives—and in her life."

Haist, now a doctoral candidate in the UK James W. Martin School of Public Policy and Administration, credits her mother with being an excellent role model for the importance of civic involvement. "These positive experiences clearly influenced my belief in the power of individuals to change things for the better," she says.

This lifetime interest in civic involvement is at the heart of a research paper Haist wrote last year titled "Civic Engagement: Why Do We Get Involved? Motivation, Opportunity and Mobilization." Her paper, which examines the reasons behind the apparent long-term decline of civic involvement and the effectiveness of our political process, won the 2000 Pi Alpha Alpha Doctoral Student Manuscript Award. This honor is given annually by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration for the best paper written in the United States by a Ph.D. student.

Haist says she was "absolutely stunned" to win the award, and for a very good reason: she didn't know her paper was even in the running.

"Dr. [Ed] Jennings, my dissertation advisor, submitted the paper on my behalf—I didn't even know he had done this," she says. "I only found out a week before the luncheon where I was presented the award. It's a thrill to be able to represent the department, since they have done so much for me here in terms of research support."

Terming Haist's paper "a marvelously executed analysis," Jennings adds that her research focuses squarely on the effects of motivation and opportunity on civic engagement and helps point the way toward a diagnosis of the challenges to civic involvement and how to enhance civic engagement. Jennings is a professor of public policy and administration in the Martin School.

Haist is articulate and animated when she talks about the decline of civic involvement at all levels of government in the United States.

"Memberships in voluntary associations have declined by generation," she says, "and though Robert Putnam, the leading scholar in this area, believes the major reason is probably television watching, I wanted to look at other factors that have led to this decline." Specifically, Haist discusses the factors set out in her paper's subtitle: motivation, opportunity and mobilization.

"The motivation to be involved has to do with a person's family background, whether or not you were brought up in a home where civic duty and service were common. Opportunity has to do with constraints on our ability to be involved—such things as low income, a low-prestige job, lack of exposure to what it means to be involved, the amount of 'free time' a person has, and so forth."

In her paper Haist distinguishes between passive and active involvement. "Real involvement is a lot more than simply carrying around a membership card to some organization," she says. "Do you go to meetings? Do you spend time on a committee in some organization? Do you go door-to-door come election time and talk with neighbors about the candidates you're backing?" Such activities define involvement and are important, Haist believes, because they build norms of trust and reciprocity and cooperation between people. These norms have a positive effect upon the community and its relationship with local government.

Why should a person be civically involved at all?

"If all you do is sit at home and watch TV or play on your computer, I believe that clearly stunts personal growth," Haist says. "These passive ways of spending time don't promote the sense of us 'all being in it together.'"

Haist believes that the most impact we are likely to make is by working in our local community. "We obviously need government to do certain things that the private market doesn't do, but we also need individuals to fill in where government can't do that good a job," she says.

Haist, who is married to Steve Haist, a physician in internal medicine at the UK Chandler Medical Center, plans to work full-time on her dissertation in 2001 with the goal of receiving her Ph.D. in the spring of 2002.