“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs
We desperately need change agents at the local level. Here, Democracy means for the people, by the people. Who is better suited to be part of the process than yourself? I find there are many who blame others for the government’s shortcomings, but don’t look inward to see what they can do to change the situation. To help you find a path forward, I put together a step-by-step guide to becoming an active member of your community!
If you’re interested in getting involved, there’s never been a better time. City staff and elected officials need a hand - they know that they need new perspectives, and they want to hear from a diverse set of stakeholders. As a local resident-turned-change agent, you can offer sweat equity and insight that enables your city to do more with less.
Here are 6 steps that you can take to participate, and help your city or community make much-needed incremental change:
1. Start by talking to your neighbors
As a society, it seems we’ve lost the art of conversation. Connecting with your neighbors while they’re on their front porch, walking the dog, or watering their plants can make a real difference! Share your love and knowledge of city building, and ask them what they would like to see change at the local level. Face-to-face conversations may not be as easy as a comment thread online, but they certainly tend to skew sharper towards civility.
2. Share the good stuff
Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, begin establishing yourself as a voice within your community. Leverage your online network to repost and share positive news and happenings that excite you, and encourage your peers to do the same! Make an effort to stay informed by following social media accounts maintained by your local government, Chamber of Commerce, and community organizations. When appropriate, post supportive comments, and help to stop the spread of misinformation on topics within your wheelhouse when others unknowingly or knowingly share it. Just be careful not to start online arguments or be overly-negative about public initiatives on social media, as this kind of behavior can cause local actors to be dismissive of your ability to do good work and play nicely with others.
3. Know what’s happening in your City
Get informed! Make an effort to understand your city’s past, and where it’s headed into the future. As you learn more, you'll be able to tell the difference between community champions, uncaptured resident audiences, and the CAVE men (Citizens Against Virtually Everything)! Do your best to keep tabs on your municipal budget, upcoming infrastructure and development projects, community challenges, and your region’s vulnerable natural landscapes that could use an advocate. Beyond following along online, you can do this by regularly walking or biking throughout your community.
4. Understand the public process
Get the full local government experience! Attend a City Council meeting (virtually and in-person.) Find and review the minutes or agenda from a recent Planning, Zoning, or Landmark Commission meeting to get a sense of their process. As you attend meetings in-person, make an effort to introduce yourself to city staff and commissioners afterwards. If you’re worried about going alone, bring a friend!
5. Build relationships
Once you’re informed on the goings-on of your community and the perspective of local players, begin building relationships with stakeholders.
- Make an appearance on community clean-up days or volunteer at a local festival
- Ask a local organization that hosts a big annual event if they need volunteers or have space on the planning committee
- Thank public employees for their service and tell commissioners often that you appreciate the work they do!
- Make an effort to shop locally and befriend small business owners so they know that you’re a source of support.
6. Make it official
After it’s clear to the community that you’re invested, take your passion to the next level by getting involved in an official capacity. There are so many paths you can take, starting with one of these:
- Seek a role on a local commission, board, or task force. Many local governments list openings, and you can simply submit your name online or send an email to the listed address to indicate your interest in serving!
- Join the board of a community organization. If there’s a nonprofit you admire serving your region, contact them directly to see if they are seeking new board members. Nonprofit organizations are always in need of those with government relationships, finance experience, legal backgrounds, and a good grasp on technology. If you’ve got one of these, you could be a shoe-in!
In closing, I’ll leave you with a handful of quotes I think of to find motivation in my civic work:
“I may be only one person, but I can be one person who makes a difference.”
- Vadena Grace, Age 10, Bowling Green, KY
“The more a man knows, the more willing he is to learn. The less a man knows, the more positive he is that he knows everything.”
- Robert G. Ingersoll
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”
- Coretta Scott King
Sarah O'Brien is a Change Agent for Collaborative Development Collective. She is a cross sector community leader who calls herself an expert generalist. She is known for building consensus and practices nonstop collaboration. She has a strong track record of enhancing the people, places, and organizations she serves. After almost 15 years in various local government and NGO positions in the public sector, Sarah committed herself to affecting greater change from the outside. Collaborative Development Collective, her LLC launched this Spring and provides a variety of tourism, engagement, placemaking, storytelling, commercial district revitalization, local government, and community development consulting and interim staffing services achieved through collective impact.