Getting involved in your local government is simpler than you think -- and more impactful than you probably realize.
2019 is here, and with every new year come opportunities and even incentives to form new habits and do new things.
And while most of us have “get your butt to the gym” on our list of goals for the year, there also exist opportunities to exercise our rights as American citizens and get more involved in governmental processes.
For some, last year’s midterm elections brought about not only major changes in leadership but also a realization of how deeply individual lives are affected by lawmakers at every level of government. Local and state government may not the sexiest topics for — say — your conversation at happy hour, but when you realize your City Council can influence even what time your favorite bar is open until, you start to pay just a liiiittle bit more attention.
A lot of folks get confused by how government operates, and while some of it can get a little convoluted, you should know you always have a say in what goes down.
From issues of whether or not you can have chickens in your backyard (zoning) or how your city spends certain dollars (hospitality tax), there are a lot of ways for you to get involved where you are.
1. Join boards and commissions
There are boards and commissions (fancy terms for committees that advise local government) for just about everything. Here in Columbia, we have quite a few ranging from (my baby) the Food Policy Committee to the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) and the Citizens Advisory Council for the Columbia Police Department.
Boards and commissions are important because they convene regular citizens who share special interests to make recommendations and advise City Council on their decision-making. For example, the Food Policy Committee checks the pulse of the community and advises City Council on how food insecurity affects different neighborhoods across our city. The committee also provides a space where this group of local farmers, restaurant owners, city planners, chefs, attorneys and nonprofit leaders can give feedback on draft city ordinances as well as organize efforts on how to reduce food waste.
It’s essentially taking volunteering to a new level; boards and commissions are an organized and effective way of voicing opinions and offering expertise/background knowledge to those who make influential decisions. If there’s an area in which you are particularly passionate or knowledgable, see if your city has a board or commission for it.
2. Lead in your neighborhood
Every city has a number of neighborhoods that bring richness to its cultural identity. And — more than than — a neighborhood is a small(er) area of influence that many may overlook. In Columbia, there’s an entity called the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods (CCN) that convenes residents serving as neighborhood leaders and provides a space for those leaders to collaborate and voice their concerns and desires to city officials.
An organized group of neighborhood leaders not only wields leveraging power as it gains the ear of local leaders with a collective voice of nearly 100 different city neighborhoods, but it also creates a unified body of individuals who may live on different sides of the tracks but has the same interest in mind: improving the city for all residents.
3. Host a voter registration drive
Getting people registered to vote is a simple yet amazing way to engage with your community. If you’ve noticed that your neighbors, coworkers or friends at the gym (now that you’re going) aren’t voting, you may be interested in hosting a voter registration drive to make sure your voice and your friends’ voices are heard.
Decide if you want to do a digital or in-person voter registration drive, or what the mix of the two will be
Identify your target community
Find the right tools to ensure that community has access to your registration efforts, and work around that. It’s important not to impose your preferred structure on a community.
Connect with the leaders and structures in place in that community.
4. Join or help a local nonprofit
Whether it’s the Urban League, Junior League or Justice League (jk not that one), there are a number of nonprofit organizations — small and large — with which you can get involved. Do your research, of course, but there are likely hundreds of organizations in your city with important causes ranging from the arts and mentoring youth to animal advocacy and mental health.
Small and/or young organizations will likely need the most help as they are largely understaffed and underfunded. If there is a cause or interest of yours that pairs nicely with the mission and work of an organization in your city, you should see what you can do to assist in their efforts. That can look like anything from helping them post on social media to assisting in their fundraising campaigns because every little bit counts. When most people think of philanthropy, they think it’s only their money that can make a difference. But ask any nonprofit leader, and they’ll tell you that your money, time, gifts and connections are all desirable assets.
5. Attend City (or County) Council meetings
Simple, yet incredibly informative and effective. Council meets regularly and makes all sorts of important decisions about where you live. Check out a city or county council meeting to learn more about what’s going on in your area, how your elected officials vote on matters and the ways that those things affect your life. There’s also always an opportunity for public comment at the end of each meeting, so you can speak directly to your council members (on record) about anything you like.
And finally, of course, you can vote! Which you should be doing already but hey — it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder.