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Getting Involved Can Take Learning a New Culture


He let the consultant finish. They outlined the new elements of the park and the benefits of changes and additions. It would be walkable, incorporate green spaces and have a modern feel. At the end of the presentation, the chair of our board asked to go back to a specific page in the PowerPoint. He pointed to the baseball diamond, which now faced another direction in the plans.

"That'll directly face the sunset when kids are playing," he said. He was right. With a slightly chagrined vibe, the consultants said they'd take it back to the drawing board.

The drawing might have been change, for change's sake, a little more bang for the buck from the consultants. Or, it might have been just an oversight from someone outside our town, who had probably done an in-person tour with city staff but hadn't sat in the bleachers for hours over many evenings watching their kid play.

The mistake might have been caught somewhere along the process of a marketing sketch, the engineered design or heaven-forbid the build, but it was caught by one regular person who decided to volunteer their time on a board.

Unfortunately, most people don't engage with the city by volunteering on a board, attending a city council meeting or even attending a school board meeting. Still, local politics are where citizens have the most power in politics because access can be more immediate. I've found my city councilor in front of the dairy section at the grocery store.

If you're not sold on local power, and that can be understandable in bigger cities, look at Texas, where those at the state level are taking away municipal governing.

According to the website, The Hill, "House Bill 2127 takes large domains of municipal governing — from payday lending laws to regulations on rest breaks for construction workers to laws determining whether women can be discriminated against based on their hair — out of the hands of the state's largely Democratic-run cities and shifts them to its Republican-controlled legislature (claiming that it) cut costs by preventing the 'patchwork' of local and county regulations that govern Texas's sprawling cities."

How's that for democracy?

A lack of civic engagement is easy to dismiss by saying it's easier to complain about your city on Facebook, but I think that's too easy. The real answer is probably as complex as people's lives but chiefly comes back to what most people are short on: time and money. However, it might be a cultural barrier as well.

Even regular people, who are vital to crafting the city they want to live in with ideas that could work, must know their city's specific process to enact change. If you're someone who might question who is this Robert and why are we using his rules at this meeting, you might be mystified and turned off by the political process.

Cities sometimes have a guide for citizens; mine had the Neighborhood Leadership Academy. However, it was 15 weeks long, and we met for hours at a time. That's a massive amount of privilege to carve out that time. I'm lucky my husband and Mom pitched in with child care because they know I have nerdy hobbies.

And while civic engagement is sometimes taught at home, it's easier if you have a last name like Kennedy. (And learning it at schools is a toss-up currently.)

People know more about what their cities might need than they think, but they often do not feel they have a voice. I felt similarly, so I went to my city's website and found an application to sit on a city board. A question at the top: Why did I want to serve? I chewed on my pencil and decided on humor for the people shifting papers in the back offices.

"World domination..." I wrote and continued, "...but if not that, then I really want to be more involved in my community in the little ways that I can with the little time I have."

A while later, I got a call from a bemused city clerk who read my application. She introduced me to my city councilor via email and I also got to know Robert and his rules. If you can maybe spare an evening once a month, you too can use your voice for your city.

Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at cassie@mcclurepublications.com.