We have all gotten worked up and motivated to get out and vote, especially with the national candidates this cycle.
But in the face of the excitement over Wall-Builders-in-Chief and the Cruz hot potato and Berning sensations and the Pantsuit establishment candidate (wasn’t there another one from Ohio?), we see, yet again, the perennial apathy toward the local political scene.
While it’s shameful that not many of us even know who is running, much less what they’re about (try looking up information about them online and you won’t find much; assign blame accordingly), it’s even more shameful that we feel we did our civic duty after we voted on the local candidates.
Does anyone really expect a vote to help a city? Even if it’s for a good candidate, who wins? When your street floods, will you be thankful that you voted for your favorite person? When you see dilapidated parks and crowded classrooms, will your representative be the person to fix it? Does your representative even see what you see? And can your representative steer money and resources to your problem if there are 10 or 15 people asking for help in a city of 246,000?
You do realize that most of the advocacy and activism in this city is the work of a few dozen groups of 10 to 15 people, right? While you were at home watching TV or out watching a football game, a small group of people gathered at about 6:30 in a church or a school or a meeting room somewhere and discussed riveting things like: “Handicap parking spaces: Are they too far from your apartment?” and “This walkable brewery wants to open up on a crappy road no one actually uses, but it might increase traffic, should we let’em?” Welcome to a Civic League meeting, where well-meaning retirees and wonks go to ensure their neighborhoods are heard and maintained.
The Civic Leagues, Neighborhood Associations, and Business Associations are the first places the City will direct you to if you want to make an improvement or ask for changes. Want to add some chess tables to a local park? Better talk to the Civic League – and be prepared to explain that adding whatever amenity it is won’t somehow benefit the homeless. That’s a concern in this city (see: benches and water fountains. Or rather, you don’t see them).
These are the unofficial extensions of the city. They’re meant to be the first point of contact between neighborhoods and city services. Civic Leagues are great avenues for getting to know the people in your neighborhood, catching up on what’s happening in the area, and expressing community values to the city. (For example, that yet a third location for a national coffee chain with a drive-thru is not an ideal way to protect a charming, walkable neighborhood with character and local ownership.)
So while other people made decisions about your city and neighborhood behind open doors, publicly, at regularly scheduled meetings within a few blocks of wherever you live, on an idle Tuesday evening, what the hell were you doing?
The challenge issued here is to attend a few of your Civic League or Neighborhood Associations this year. Think about how your neighborhood could be better. Think about how the City could help. And go with questions. Trust me, there will be at least three people there with shockingly precise knowledge of every single bit of neighborhood minutiae you could ever ask about. It’s worth noting here that many of the local office candidates come out of the Civic Leagues and Neighborhood Associations. These are the first testing grounds for candidates to see if they can gain traction and get community organizations to support them. If you attended the Vote Local event at O’Connor Brewing Company on April 27th and had a good time talking to candidates, there is no excuse not to extend that enthusiasm to community organizations. Take your friends. Invite participants out for drinks. Get to know your neighbors and the issues, and be active participants in your communities. This is how vibrant, resilient, strong communities are created and maintained.
If you know the name of your Civic League or Neighborhood Association, the directory is here, where you can find their website or contact information to get meeting times and places.
But maybe you don’t know if you have a League or what its name is, even if you do. Fear not. An extremely valuable resource is Norfolk AIR, the place you go to find real estate tax and sales records and building ownership. It also has other useful information like your government representatives and, pertinent to my point, your Civic League information. Just enter your address, click “show data,” and then it’s at the bottom of the Civic tab.