AJ Ferguson, director of UpDayton, talks about the ‘civic shift’ -- and the volunteers who make things happen

On any given weeknight at the library or in the back corner of a brewery, you might find a small group of Daytonians huddled at a table with their laptops open and a lively conversation unfolding. They are likely just one of countless groups putting in an extra shift for our community. I’ll call it the civic shift

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After their day job ends, these volunteer difference-makers start their civic shift -- evenings and weekends spent advancing neighborhoods, events and causes all around our city and region. In this series for Dayton.com, I want to introduce you to a few of them and invite you to join this thriving layer of Dayton life. 

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UpDayton & citizenship

In 2008, a group of creative catalysts launched an initiative called UpDayton to confront our region’s “brain drain”: the exodus of young talent from the Dayton area. UpDayton’s early surveys showed a strong trend: people who were civically engaged as volunteers and leaders in the community were far more likely to see Dayton as their long-term home. 

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UpDayton quickly entered the business of providing on-ramps for community involvement. I’ve had the awesome opportunity to lead the charge for the last three years as UpDayton’s executive director. In those years, I’ve met hundreds of individuals working the civic shift. They are Dayton’s loudest champions, most thoughtful critics and most impactful citizens. 

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Citizenship & Dayton’s social fabric

The individuals of the civic shift are certainly motivated by service and purpose, and plenty of noble causes, but I would argue that the civic shift is sustained by friendships, food, beer and a deep sense of home. When the work of community change becomes frustrating or contentious, the social elements keep team members coming back. 

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Furthermore, I’ve watched individuals make the leap from being a lost new resident to being a thriving Daytonian, thanks to the civic shift. Shared causes and values are powerful foundations for new and lasting friendships. Civic shift meetings are some sometimes hard to spot, because they look a whole lot like a group of friends enjoying each other’s company. 

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But it’s still hard work…

Eventually, the event or initiative that your team has been working toward gets uncomfortably close. Somebody usually kills the mood with some version of “Okay everybody, we are ten days out!” Laptops open and the meeting’s end time comes and goes without notice. 

These all-star volunteers dig deep into their networks, professional skill sets, and creative talents to push a project over the finish line. The final sprint ends with a feeling many civic shifters have come to crave -- a mix of great relief, deep joy, and shared pride. Handshakes, hugs, compliments, and affirmations abound. The work goes on, but it’s always worth it. 

This is your invitation to join the civic shift. It’s the layer of Dayton life that we’ll highlight in UpDayton’s first Dayton.com series. 

About the author: AJ Ferguson is the director of UpDayton. To thrive in the 21st century, Dayton must convince highly talented and creative people to make our city home. Since 2008, UpDayton has been the community’s leading voice for talent attraction, retention, and engagement. Ferguson is the community builder and social innovator leading the charge. In his time as UpDayton’s Director, he has led the reinvention of the organization’s largest event, the UpDayton Summit, as well as the launch and continued growth of The Longest Table project. For more information about UpDayton, visit updayton.org.

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