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Secretary of State seeking to boost Kentucky's civic health

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Roundtable at ECTC explores civic engagement, social media's influence

By Marty Finley

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes found a roomful of engaged and passionate students she believes could start a revolution for civic participation if their voices were heard across the state.

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Grimes joined a group of 14 local panelists Thursday, leading the Civic Health Initiative Roundtable at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. It is the 14th out of 15 similar gatherings Grimes has organized at colleges and universities across the state to discuss elements of the Civic Health Index, which measures the state’s overall participation in civic activities.

The report and the meeting focused on community engagement, social connectedness and political action and much of the discussion centered on social media and technology’s impact on society.

She encouraged those in attendance to write down one area where Kentucky is succeeding in civic mindedness while also illustrating how the state can improve.

Community engagement. Thelma White, president of ECTC, said community outreach is an integral part of the college’s mission. White recalled a group of trade students volunteering their time and labor to help rebuild a church destroyed by fire. 

“We mean it when we say we’re a community college,” White said.

Elizabethtown Mayor Tim Walker said he engages the community by interacting with industry, recounting his trip to India last fall, where he met with more than 30 businesses interested in the U.S. market.

Walkersaid the city also exhibits willingness to work with its neighboring cities in the county and Fort Knox, loaning equipment at no cost.

“That’s the way it should be,” he said.

Col. Bruce Jenkins, Fort Knox garrison commander, said the post contributes around $2.8 billion to the Hardin County economy and encourages soldiers to lead programs in local schools.

“We can’t close the gates and say we don’t need you outside,” he said.

One student said adults promote volunteering as a way to build character but fail to volunteer.

“They’re not leading by example and there’s no reason they should not be,” Grimes said.

Hardin Circuit Judge Kelly Mark Easton said jury duty is one way a resident can participate, an opportunity many ignore or refuse because they view it as an inconvenience.

“It’s just extremely important that people see jury duty as a civic duty,” he said.

Social connectedness. Easton also sparked discussion on social media’s role in modern relationships. Those who say they have no time for volunteer work could reduce the hours they spend on social media networks, he said.

“We’re more connected to the world than ever and more isolated,” he said. “It’s a crazy irony we have going.”

Aaron Vance, a senior at North Hardin High School, said the advent of social media has both helped and hurt society. In one regard, he easily can find updates and information on what is happening in other communities, staying in tune with the greater world around him.

But focusing on other cities too much causes a disconnect, he said.

“That pulls us out of our own community,” he said.

The impact of social media was mixed among students. Some said social media has improved interactions and allows them to stay connected with friends and family who live in other cities, states and countries. Others said social media has the power to desensitize users to those around them and regress their ability to carry a conversation with the person sitting next to them.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said technology is a double-edged sword and students should learn to think for themselves and use the new tools in their hands with caution.

Political action. Grimes closed by focusing on voter registration and participation, telling those in attendance their vote matters because elections in Kentucky have come down to five votes. Others have even tied and forced a coin toss to determine who will hold an elected office.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think elections should be decided by chance,” she said.

One student said she was apathetic during the 2012 presidential election because neither candidate availed themselves as the better choice. The stinging negative ads, she said, proved to be a turnoff and made Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appear undesirable.

Katrina Johnson, a social studies teacher at North Hardin High School, said she required her students to research both candidates and make an educated choice. She encouraged the audience to do the same because they will not find the answers in a campaign ad, debate or commercial.

Gary French, superintendent of Elizabethtown Independent Schools, encouraged students to get involved.

“You are the future,” he said. “You get to make the difference.”

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.