Let's Circle Back to Put a Pin in Civic Engagement
Here's my confession: I'm a meetings nerd. I absolutely love going to random meetings, especially those where people have to behave professionally, when I know they regularly swear like a sailor. Also, I enjoy it if I know there's beef between people in the meeting that they try to salve over with corporate jargon. Love it. It's like a soap opera.
I didn't always like meetings. When I was younger, I used to abhor meetings that seemed to be only for meeting's sake. The older I got, I realized I was just in meetings where there were terrible leaders who didn't know how to run a meeting. The hapless person in charge would let someone who enjoyed hearing themselves talk blither on. Or the "leader" figured that a meeting would be the way to generate some sort of group cohesion and didn't necessarily have a reason, or outcome, that needed to come from that meeting. Dreadful experiences.
It's been nice to participate in, and attend, meetings now where things get done, but there are still so many non-meetings that could be an email. But even when there's less action, sitting on a board and learning how those operate, especially with local government, can teach you a lot. I should know. I sit on three boards and attend two others for work and fun. I know; I'm not normal. But let me at least share my experience with you, in case you want to try for an unconventional life too.
Being on boards has taught me more about civics, and civic engagement, than I ever learned in school. It taught me that the halls of power sometimes look more like a bunch of uncomfortable people in mismatched chairs with stale coffee. It also taught me that many people don't know there are others are working hard to move the wheels of change and can only scrape away a small bit of rust meeting by meeting.
I've read recent calls for civic engagement, especially for the younger crowd. But there is a failure in civic organizations to realize that the system as it stands does not encourage civic participation. (I'm looking at the boards and organizations that meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays.)
Let's face it: Attending meetings isn't sexy, but it is important. How do we get people there and engaged? We're not in college anymore, so it's not the lure of pizza.
One organization I attended years ago was thrilled to see someone young at their meeting. I went to a few more, but the meetings were staged at strange times, and the members continually lamented about how they'd like to get more younger people involved. It boiled over for me in the end.
"Hire a babysitter," I said. "If you have money for drinks or to rent a room, hire a babysitter. You'd get some more moms."
They did not like that idea. Nor the idea of changing the time from the middle of a workday to perhaps a weekend. Nor the idea of a more centralized or shifting meeting location. It makes me wonder if those options aren't a part of the system's design too — and why organizations don't fight that.
If you want to see change happen, dose yourself with a strong coffee or energy drink and come to a local meeting, even if you sit in the back, say nothing and wonder if this couldn't have been an email. Then, invest in another drink and come again, learn the names of the speakers, the topics, debate whether the official really likes the consultant, and realize that there's always one or two people who are sincere about change, whether they're on the board, in the government or on staff — and they need your help to push that wheel because they can't do it alone. No one can, so we meet to push together.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.