Becoming involved in the civic life of one’s community is not just a matter of reacting. It is also a matter of being proactive in working with others to articulate shared goals and to find solutions to problems.
When people get mad about government, it isn’t long usually before someone invokes the phrase “We the people” as a way of making an aggrieved minority sound like a larger movement.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution, however, did not intend these words to be used to describe victims. Rather, they felt that these three words were adequate in their entirety to describe a sovereign people collectively taking responsibility for shaping the destiny of their nation and their lives.
It’s hard to beat the simplicity and elegance of “We the people.” That these three words continue to be cited so often is evidence of their enduring relevance.
Yet the responsibility part of the idea seems to have been forgotten by many, especially those who think their civic responsibility begins and ends in the voting booth. Voter turnout for local elections, for example, has gotten so low that some have suggested that the United States follow other democratic nations in making voting compulsory.
When people come together today to discuss or debate public issues, such gatherings are frequently marked by rants, raves, finger pointing and other forms of responsibility avoidance rather than by an effort to find constructive solutions to disagreements and shared public challenges. And that’s just the people who care to show up. When some of our own Hampton Roads cities and counties and regional agencies throw open their doors for public input, it’s not uncommon for the audience to include little more than the usual civic activist suspects. A friend of mine used to joke that if your barometer of the population of Virginia Beach is the people who show up for City Council meetings, you could think that everyone in the city owns a horse since horse owners, it seems, pack the house when any recreational issue comes up that might involve horses.
The point here is that elected officials listen to whoever shows up. If you’re not represented in that audience, you’re not being heard.
It’s always been easier to complain or let other people worry about things than it has been to take responsibility for seeking answers and solutions. People who only complain can rant to each other all they want in blogs, but complaining without offering solutions achieves nothing.
There are many ways citizens can express their opinions and work together to find solutions. Anyone who says there are no opportunities for input or that he or she doesn’t know what’s going on isn’t trying very hard. Local television and radio stations may give scant coverage to local government meetings unless there’s something dramatic going on. But The Virginian-Pilot, the Daily Press, the regional planning district commission and municipal web sites and cable channels are full of announcements, information on issues and coverage of major public meetings. Practically anyone can sign up to speak at a city council, school board, planning commission or any of dozens of other kinds of local deliberative gatherings. Recent mandates provide only greater encouragement to public agencies to make their meetings more accessible.
Becoming involved in the civic life of one’s community is not just a matter of reacting. It is also a matter of being proactive in working with others to articulate shared goals and to find solutions to problems. PTAs, civic leagues, neighborhood associations, churches and service and social clubs provide opportunities for involvement and influence. Public schools, libraries and churches and coffee houses routinely make space available to citizens interested in holding public discussions.
In this election season, it’s easy to get consumed by voting. But being a member of a community requires more of you. If you have an idea, share it. If something bothers you, suggest a solution or work with others to find one. Learn how government works so that you can work the government. It’s like that sign in the office kitchen says, “Wash up after yourself. You mother does not work here.”
Finding solutions to public challenges isn’t easy. It requires more than voting. It requires time and energy and a willingness to consider different points of view. It means focusing on the common good rather than self-interest. It requires showing up and not depending on someone else to carry the burden that each of us has to fulfill the legacy of “We the people.”
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