Kevin Ferris: Citizens fully engaged

I wasn’t completely surprised to hear that Pennsylvanians aren’t active enough in their communities.

A report released last month, the Pennsylvania Civic Health Index, gave the commonwealth — and the nation — low marks in voting, volunteering, and activities such as visiting a public official, attending a political meeting, working with neighbors on a community problem, or taking part in a rally.

I get it. Between work and family commitments, people are busy. If they get a break, who can blame them for tuning out?

But while I was not surprised, the study gave me a new appreciation for my West Chester neighbors. There, civic engagement is a given.

There are the usual noteworthy suspects, such as robust Lions and Rotary Clubs, and programs for the homeless, such as the Friends Association and Safe Harbor. The borough’s excellent Recreation Department, backed by hundreds of volunteers, packs the town with art-gallery nights and concerts, restaurant festivals, and parades. A group of residents started an annual film festival. Almost weekly there are fund-raising 5K walks or runs.

And, of course, there’s politics, most notably our long-running, weekly rallies on the war at High and Market Streets, the borough’s main intersection.

An e-mail last weekend from one of the organizers notes: “Believe it or not, we enter our fifth year<TH>…”

That’s from the Support the Troops side, the Sheepdogs. Every Saturday, from 11 to noon, they take a corner, each person holding a U.S flag or a sign encouraging honks of support for members of the military. Every Saturday — since fall 2007. Sunshine, rain, snow. They are there. Sometimes a handful of people, sometimes 50 or more.

And they weren’t out there first. The Chester County Peace Movement started weekly antiwar vigils after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Again, every weekend. Small groups, large groups, always someone. In fact, that constant presence inspired Sheepdogs founder Rich Davis to get out on the corner with his message.

As more people joined Davis, tensions rose at the intersection. There was shouting, inflammatory signs, some jostling. One pro-troop blogger was smacked by a peace activist.

The police played ref and sent them to separate corners, one at the foot of the courthouse, the other across the street — they alternate weekly. Initially, that meant louder shouting, just to make sure the people across the intersection got the point.

It’s calmer now. Each side is focused on its own people and message. There’s less of a need to counter the opposition’s talking points. (At least in public. Blogs and letters to the local paper show they still have their differences.) For what it’s worth, one snowy Saturday last winter I watched members of each side meet in the middle of the intersection and shake hands.

Their dealings with each other are just a start. A number of these activists prove another point from the civic index: People engaged with neighbors are likely to take on other causes and issues. An example of that is my neighbor, 39-year-old Sean Carpenter.

From people he met at the rallies, he became active in groups such as A Hero’s Welcome and Warriors Watch, which greet troops returning from overseas or provide honor guards at memorial services. Still, he wanted to do more.

“It doesn’t make sense to just cheer if you’re not going to step up and make sure that what they’re fighting for over there is preserved here,” he told me last week.

He helped start the Pennsylvania Conservative Council, which, among other things, encourages participation in local elections. That led Carpenter to run for the school-board seat he now holds.

“You can’t just criticize candidates if you’re not willing to get up and do something yourself,” he says.

The last couple of years he’s also been active with the Independence Hall Tea Party, which often meets on that mall outside the National Constitution Center — where results of the Civic Health Index were announced. There, Gov. Rendell and the center’s chief executive, David Eisner, emphasized that education was key to developing the citizenship needed for a democracy to thrive.

I’d start the seminars this Saturday at High and Market.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or