This post originally appeared in the June 4 2012 Palladium-Item as a guest editorial. Many who might read this are already very "civically engaged" and so may find it overly simplistic, but there are also many in Richmond who are asking what's being done about our challenges - crime, the economy, etc. - and so I hope this offers at least a starting place for broader recognition that we all have a role to play in answering that.
2012 is a big election year, at the local, state and national levels. The votes cast this fall will shape the government policies and leadership that will, for better or worse, affect our lives for years to come.
It seems like a good time to remind ourselves that putting our chosen candidates in their elected offices is not the endpoint of civic engagement. In fact, it's just the beginning.
Yes, who we elect matters, and what they do after they're elected even more so. And we sure do expect a lot from them: fix our economies, create jobs, be good stewards of tax dollars, fight crime, clean up our streets, make sure our children are educated well, inspire pride, and much more. But no matter how much power or vision a government official might seem to have, they are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building thriving cities and vibrant communities.
The other pieces of that puzzle? You. Me. Our neighbors, friends and family.
It's easy to slip into the mentality of waiting for help to arrive, whether in the form of new legislation, new employers or new leaders. But if we look closely, we might find that we already have much of what we need right under our noses.
What we do in our own small corners of the world has great power to shape the direction of our neighborhoods and cities. I think we owe it to our elected officials to make sure that showing up at the polls isn't the only time of year we're engaged in improving our own condition.
If you need ideas for what new kinds of civic engagement might look like, try these:
- Join (or form) a neighborhood association. When we know more about the people we live around, we can tackle challenges and get support a lot more quickly and easily than when we live in isolation.
- Volunteer for a local not-for-profit. Find an organization that is working on an issue you care about – from housing to education to sustainability – and contact their office to ask how you can help in the time you have available.
- Show up at a government meeting. Watch how decisions are made that affect your life. Ask questions and provide feedback to officials to let them know you're tuned in. These meetings can be intimidating or even boring, but they're being conducted on your behalf.
- Stay informed. Whether it's by reading the paper, visiting the library or researching online, knowing the facts about the issues that we face locally and nationally means we're in a better position to contribute in meaningful ways to addressing them.
- Challenge apathy. When you see or hear someone express hopelessness about the future, start a conversation about what they see now, what they'd like to see happen, and how we might get there.
It's easy to stand by and blame others for our problems, but I think it's more rewarding and effective to ask how we can be a part of the solution.
We ask this question of our elected leaders all the time, so let's make sure we ask it of ourselves too: what are you doing in your household, workplace, classroom or neighborhood to brighten the future of our community?