A Quick Guide to Getting Involved on the Local Level

In Society/Culture by Caris AdelLeave a Comment

My husband works in city government. Last week he was at a neighborhood meeting and a resident was complaining about cars that speed and run the stop signs in her area. She was upset that the police were never around, and said that maybe they should hire one officer just to do ticketing in the area. “And if he gave enough tickets, it would probably even pay for his own salary, so it wouldn’t cost the city anything.”

Now, you know that sometimes a person has an idea that sounds good to them but isn’t. They think, “I can’t think of a single problem with this plan,” while the person sitting right next to them who has some knowledge or experience in it is all, “I can give you 5 reasons right off the top of my head why this is a terrible idea”.

The problem comes when person A has a terrible idea and there is no person B with the knowledge to counter them. In this case, because my husband was aware of Ferguson and their practice of ticketing and fining and the subsequent investigation by the Justice Department, he was able to tell this woman, ‘yeah, we can’t do that’. And when she insisted that it was a good idea, he was all, ‘ma’am, it is unconstitutional. Police officers can’t fund their department on the backs of the citizens.” Problem, nipped in the bud.

But what happens if he didn’t know that? Or if he agreed with her? What then?

This is where people’s involvement in their local communities can make a big difference. Your city needs you to care and be involved. If you aren’t sure how, here are a few ways:

1. Know Your Elected Officials

Get to know your city council members. Read their bios and occasionally show up to council meetings. What do they care about? What are their pet issues? Do you have someone who is passionate about low-income housing? Someone who’s heart leans towards refugees? Educate yourself on it. How can you work with them on that particular issue for inclusion and equality? It is easier to make a difference if you work in a direction that they already lean.

2. Know Your Paid Staff

Who are your city engineers and your neighborhood planners? That is where a lot of policy actually gets made. Show up to their public meetings. Get to know them – They aren’t scary, I promise. These are the people who are getting paid to make your city better. Volunteer work is great and needed for sure. But look at the people for whom this is their job. How can you encourage them to create policies and neighborhoods that prioritize inclusion and equality? How can you help them to resist gentrification? How can you support them when they are trying to make a difference?

3. Know Your Codes

Know your city codes and policies. Be aware of what they are, how they can be changed, and when they are changed. Sometimes city codes only get rewritten ever 15-20 years, and if you want to really make lasting change, especially as it relates to development and gentrification, this is where you do it. What is your city’s comprehensive plan for the next few years? Those get revisited every 5 or so years. Where can your city be better at inclusion and equality? And remember, all codes and policies have to be approved by your city council. What is on the agenda for city meetings each week? Pay attention to what is going on and show up. Talk to your councilors about the codes they are passing.

4. Know the Budget

Where is your city spending its money? They might be a tad boring, but there are public documents and public meetings about your city money. What is the public housing situation like? Does it need more money? Who is going to be there to advocate for it? Check out your city calendar to learn when public meetings are. Follow local reporters on social media to stay informed. Get interested in how your city functions and get involved in making it better. And if you are in a city that is resistant to making things public and resistant to your efforts to help, the Freedom of Information Act is available to everyone. That’s what it’s there for. It probably should be used cautiously, but can be a powerful tool for transparency.

5. Join Your Local Associations

Join your neighborhood association. Usually the leader of the association is the one who goes to the city planners and engineers and says “this is what my neighborhood is concerned about”. Be there in the beginning to advocate for good policies. Get to know the other presidents of the other neighborhoods. How can you work together for the good of the city?

6. Show Up

This is important, because look, there are people in your city who are passionate about exclusion and inequality. They are showing up to council meetings. They email the planners and engineers. They will talk on the phone for an hour with the engineer, telling him all of their traffic and neighborhood concerns (60 minute phone calls obviously aren’t ideal, though!). They will advocate for more policing and less poor people in their area. Your city needs to hear that you value inclusion and equality. Call, email (which is preferable, and they read all of their emails), and show up to public meetings. I wish I could emphasize how important this part is, especially for middle-class people who have the time and means to educate themselves on a topic and show up to things. Show up, and show up as a group. You will make more of an impact if there are a few of you showing up before council. It is usually the same 15-20 people who actively show up to city meetings. So city council is only hearing from a very limited selection of people. You can make a difference by showing up.

7. Elect Good Officials

We have worked in a city where it was proudly a Southern old boys club, and we are in a city now that is proudly progressive, and the difference is night and day. But in both of these cities, the involvement is the same. Citizens need to be involved. And if you have council members, city managers, or mayors who are resistant to inclusion and equality, then get new ones! Work with minority organizations in your town. Who do they wish was in the government? How can you support them in making that happen? What do they wish the city policies were? How can you work with them and support them in their advocacy? And if you have good officials, let them know you support them, especially when they are advancing controversial progressive policies and ideas. They need to know the city is behind them.

8. Study History

Learn the history of your area. Learn the history of policing and gentrification and housing policy. There are so many issues to be concerned about. Pick one and start learning about it. Remember that city employees and council members have to abide by the laws. Help them create and change the laws to be better. Take your passion and show up as an informed, concerned citizen to help make your city a more just place to live.

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