By Stephanie Rudat
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” -Anne Frank
It is strange to think that Anne Frank, huddled in a tiny room with her family and some family friends, would have world improvement on her mind. She may not have had civic engagement on her mind. Hers was a mind that focused on the beauty of nature, on pouring your thoughts onto paper, which cannot judge you. But civic engagement is a sacred way to improve the world in the United States. Or, at least, it used to be.
According to Governing.com, local voter turnout has been steadily decreasing. Think about that. The places where we live and work, where our kids go to school…those are the places where we seem to have the least urge to engage. Those seem to be the places about which we have nothing to say.
Sammamish is our home. It is where we work and live. It is where our kids go to school. It’s an election year here. Now is the time to think about those things you wish we had as you wait in the carpool line. Now is the time to take a shot at improving things that you just know could be improved. You might be thinking, “Oh sure I have ideas, but doesn’t everyone?” You might be thinking, “I’d love to weigh in on the upcoming election but I can’t even keep track of the issues, not to mention the candidates.” You might even be frustrated about a thing or two and have no idea on policy or debate surrounding those issues in which you find important.
Here are some baby steps you can take towards an increase in civic engagement this year. If you still find that you are lacking personal motivation, work on these steps with your kids so that they are imbued with the desire to be active community citizens.
What are your neighbors “complaining” about all of the time? Maybe it’s a bus stop that you all feel is dangerous for your kids. Maybe it’s a school that is spectacularly overcrowded. Maybe you feel concerned about emergency preparedness in a disaster. Maybe you’re wondering what local officials are doing to build community resiliency to vulnerabilities like drug sales and related deaths. Check in on Facebook, Nextdoor, and actually talk to your next door neighbor. If the same issues keep coming up, it might be time to move on to step two.
Mix and Match.
It’s true that the number of candidates, from local elections to national, can be daunting. That’s why we recommend a game of “mix and match.” Now that you know what issues seem to be on your mind the most, and on the minds of your neighbors, investigate the candidates who are out there. Are any of them talking about these same issues? Are they talking about the issues the way you and your neighbors are, or are they taking another approach? You can do this with existing local representatives, too. Is the council seeming to take just plain wrong approaches to issues that are important to you? Maybe a councilman is rubbing you the wrong way. On the other hand, maybe a public official is absolutely nailing it. Checking their voting record is the best way to verify where you are and are not aligned.
Detectives collect information and evidence to find answers to questions. Sammamish may not be part of a Law & Order episode, but you can pretend it is! Important things to investigate positions of candidates and if their previous actions support those stated beliefs. Aside from voting records for previous members of council or commissions, you can see if they made motions about topics you care about. If they haven’t served in office before, looking to see how participative the candidate has been in local government may indicate their dedication and policy positions for the future. Lastly, ‘Follow the money!’ is a common term used in reference to politics. Looking into who is financially supporting their campaigns can be informative.
Add Your Voice.
Believe it or not, you have more power than any of those people we just mentioned in one simple way. You vote. Their leadership role is dependent upon whether you and your neighbors think they should have a seat at the dais, developing policy that affects you and future generations. Maybe it’s time to go to a council meeting and cheer on the people who are representing issues the way that best suits you. Maybe it’s time to visit online forums to reach a candidate publicly and ask them pointed questions to show that maybe they are not looking at the big picture. Chances are you’ll encounter a lot of other people who feel exactly like you do. They’re waiting for someone to speak their feelings. Maybe that “someone” could be you!
Be the Change.
Perhaps your journey of civic engagement will plateau (pun intended!) with being a vocal point of strength in local gatherings. There is a chance, however, that as you investigate more issues, as you start to talk to more people, as you encounter other people who seem to think like you do, you find that talking is no longer enough. You can lament that and feel that you are all a lost cause, OR, you can be the person you wish you had found. Run for office. Join the local government. Run for the Board of Education if schooling is your hot spot. Become a Council member. Apply for a Commission. Even if you don’t win, your issues, and the feelings of you and your neighbors, will get a hearing.
There’s no test on this like there was in your fifth grade social studies class. You don’t get an A for going to a city council meeting. You don’t get a gold star for reading more of the local news. However, you could have a much better chance of improving at least your corner of the world. As Anne Frank eluded, how wonderful it is that you have that opportunity.