Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On being an active (local) citizen

Being an active citizen is important. This is our community, these are our schools, and our local government is supposed to, within reason, work for us. But we need to work for us, too. We have to do what I call, “earning our right to complain.” Issues of local government often get the least attention and local election often have the lowest turn-out, but these issues and elections actually affect our everyday lives the most. They are not glamorous, but they matter.

First of all: Get informed. This will take some work. But the good news is, there is a learning curve. If you invest some time up front, it will save you a lot of time later. Subscribe to your local paper. Read publicly available government documents. Watch your local news reports. Observe. Ask questions and listen.

Second, be present at meetings. This will take a lot of time. But it’s part of getting informed and it’s also a signal to your local decision makers that you are watching and that you care.

Next, speak up. This will take courage. One place to speak up is at the meetings of local governance I just mentioned. You can also write your local appointed and elected officials letters, e-mails, and you can call them on the phone. You can write letters to the editor or post your thoughts on a local on-line publication. Your local decision makers want to know what you think and if you don’t speak, they will act upon what everyone else who speaks tells them to do. If you do speak and they don’t listen then help get someone else elected who will listen and who will act. As much as possible, include anecdotes, data, research, and evidence to help support the case you’re making.

Finally, be respectful and don’t burn bridges. This will take perseverance and it will take diplomacy. You will not make one phone call or write one letter and get your problem fixed. You have to keep at it. Also, you will not get everything you want. These issues are often complex and democracy means that we have to compromise. For democracy to work, we have to accept that we live in a society of “we,” not a society of “me.” On that note I will leave with a quote from the English writer, R.H. Blyth:
Perfect does not mean perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate actions in an imperfect one.

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