What comes to mind when one thinks of an “active citizen”?  In the center of society’s political spectrum, perhaps an individual speaking at a town council meeting about a neighborhood concern.  Or a group of political volunteers canvassing before a close Congressional election.  Or members of a church delivering a hot meal to a homeless center.


But society’s extremes also provide images of active citizenship.  On the left, the young and hirsute activist in Seattle, Genoa, or some other gathering place of world leaders, calling for change and justice and opposing what is seen as the latest corporate or governmental atrocity.  On the right, the skinhead in the streets of Paris or Budapest, railing against the capture of political and economic advantage by “Jews” or “Muslims”.


Contemporary societies engender citizen action from the frustrations experienced in their every corner—left or right; young or old; educated or unschooled.  In Italy, for example, the new film “A Casa Nostra” (Our House) depicts the moral bankruptcy of daily life in Milan.  Director Francesca Comencini observes that “Today money is at the heart of …Italian culture, and people think that’s normal.  But with that comes an inexorable barbarization of everyday life”…and the loss of values that “may be difficult to recover once they’re gone.”


While Italy may be not unlike the United States and other so-called “developed” nations in the alienation and anger felt by many of its citizens, it is also the location of a remarkable organization, “Cittadinanzattiva”, formed 28 years ago and now supported by  100,000 individual members, 250 local groups and 120 federated associations as members. 


In a recent visit to the U.S., Teresa  Petrangolini, General Secretary of the organization, explained that it would be a mistake to see Cittadinanzattiva as belonging either to the left or the right in the ferment of Italian political life.  Rather, she observed, it seeks to encourage proactive citizenship from an organizational base willing to work with the widest range of interests in Italian society.  It finds wide support for its mission statement: “Acting as a citizen is the best way to be a citizen.”


The organization counts among its most recent victories a remarkable bill  it conceived, now moving toward legislative approval in Italy, which impounds the financial gains secured by the State’s anti-corruption activities for the use of social purposes.  Since corruption is widespread in Italian corporate and political life, this legislation, introduced from the political right, will provide significant funding for Italy’s citizen sector.


Cittadinanzattiva leaders note that prior to the adoption in 1948 of Article 118 of the Italian Constitution, which favors the development of “autonomous initiatives of citizens individually and in association”, citizen participants could be fined for “Excess of Citizenship”. 


Director Petrangolini notes that her organization “gets people together for the common good.”   Successful campaigns mounted by Cittadinanzattiva have involved patient rights, access to facilities by disabled persons, education and organization for active citizenship, advance of consumer rights, and the monitoring of school safety.


Funding for the organization comes for its specific projects, which often receive governmental support from European Union sources.  Corporate support is accepted when there is no connection between any product or service of the corporation and the purpose of the Cittadinanzattiva project.


The Italian Active Citizens’ Network seeks to move beyond what it sees as “the traditional vision” of participation, with its focus on protest, “problem making” rather than “problem solving”, and dependence on the power of others.  Its “new vision” brings citizens together “to self organize in a multiplicity of forms, to mobilize resources, to exercise powers for the protection of rights, and to achieve caring for and developing of common goods.”


Cittadinanzattiva charts four ways in which it works to defend and advance citizen rights:  1)  Direct action (charters of rights, advisory services, monitoring and generating data, symbolic actions, awareness raising, conflict management, delivery of new services); 2) Resource mobilization (mobilization, fund raising, petitions, education, creation of associations, civic use of the media); 3) Technologies of Interlocution (agreements, round tables, participatory planning, partnerships); and 4) Techniques for the Activation of Institutions (claims, enforcement of procedures; legal actions, lobbying).


Nonprofit organization leaders in the United States who are searching for new goals for their organizations might look carefully at the Cittadinanzattiva example.  By claiming the whole field of citizen action as their own, this organization moves nimbly from one opportunity to another.  Not confined by a single interest—for instance, drunk driving, smoking, or drug excess—Cittadinanzattiva is able to mobilize its members quickly and flexibly to influence the changing public agenda and the inevitable shifts among policy concerns.  It need not pay the heavy entry costs that face single interest groups in the policy arena.  Nor is it plagued by the difficulties the The Civic Renewal Movement in the U.S. faces in coordinating its actions, a problem noted by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland in their recent book of that title.


Bucknell University sociologist Carl Milofsky put it well in summarizing the accomplishments of this citizen network:  The Active Citizens Network is a remarkable personal effort by Giovanni Mora (son of the assassinated political leader Aldo Moro) and Teresa Petrangolini over twenty-five years to create a civil society sector where one did not exist in Italy.  They taught people how to organize, linked local organizations together into a national movement, and made political connections with the government a reality…  Because they developed their methods as part of a single movement there is a coherence to their way of working that you do not see in other countries.”


Cittadinanzattiva provides a challenge to, and a model for, U.S. based citizen initiatives.  Our nonprofit sector has much to learn from this experience, which actualizes concepts like “strong democracy” and “active participation”, ideas which too often remain unrealized in our privatized and ego-driven corner of the world.