Presidential elections are sort of like the Olympics. Both are ratings-driven spectacles that occur on a four-year cycle and briefly capture the nation’s attention. They appeal to our patriotism, our team spirit, and our desire for human drama. Unfortunately, as soon as they’re over we’re back to playing Candy Crush and binge watching Netflix.
Want to test my theory? Who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 election?
Did it take you a minute? Did you have to look it up? I rest my case.
While national elections get the most media attention and the highest voter turnouts, I’m convinced that you can actually have a greater influence on issues that impact your day-to-day life if you participate at the local level. After all, this is where decisions that impact your neighborhood, your quality of life and the economic viability of your city will be decided. Whether you care about street design or schools, historic preservation or parks, transit frequency or food deserts—local government is about the things you see and touch on a daily basis. Unlike, say, the national debt.
Whether serving on a school board or city commission, running for city council, or simply volunteering for a local non-profit, you can make an enormous difference to your community by stepping up and engaging in civic life. At the same time, you’ll have the privilege of meeting some of the coolest, smartest and most interesting people in town. Why? Because kick-ass people don’t sit around watching reality TV. They are out working with real people to solve actual problems. Which, as it turns out, is a much more exciting and fulfilling way to spend your time.
Local government is where the rubber meets the road. And especially if you live in a small or mid-sized city, local politicians tend to be incredibly accessible. They actually reply to emails and phone calls. They attend neighborhood meetings. And because local elections are decided by a small number of voters—people they’re likely to bump into at the grocery store—city officials are highly motivated to resolve issues and respond to citizen feedback.
Which is why one of the easiest and most important things you can do is provide input to elected officials on the issues you care about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard city councilors say that if they receive ten letters on an issue, it makes a difference in how they vote.
Think of that. Ten letters!
Better yet, show up for meetings and share your ideas. But here’s the rub: you can’t just dip your toe in the water once every four years. Civic engagement is an ongoing effort. You have to stay in the game if you want to be an informed and effective advocate.
Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s never been easier to share information and become informed about the issues and opportunities--whether at the neighborhood, city, state or national level.
So pick a problem that bugs you. Find an issue that touches your heart. Get informed and get involved. Be part of the solution. It will change your life. And it will change your city for the better.