(Photo by Julie Zeglen)
A beautiful thing has happened since last Tuesday’s election results: People want to get involved in their communities.
People who have never made a charitable donation in their lives are now monthly donors to the ACLU. People who are usually head-down-headphones-on say “Hello” to every person they see for solidarity. People are asking, “What can I do?” “How can I not feel powerless?”
Getting involved with my community is second nature to me, because I believe the adage, “If not you, then who?” I am a block captain in Point Breeze, a committeeperson in 36 Ward, the member of two public education focused nonprofits (Neighbors Investing In Childs Elementary and Friends of Neighborhood Education) and serve as machine inspector on my election board.
So, to help those who want to get involved but don’t know where to start, here’s my citizen’s guide to taking action:
1. Meet your neighbors — all of them.
Issues like permit parking, tree clearings and alley gates all need the cooperation of neighbors. This is your chance to organize people, despite your differences. Knocking on your neighbor’s door and introducing yourself creates community on your block. In fact, if you’ve wanted to do this before but haven’t figured out the right opportunity, breaking the ice after a shift in presidential power is a good excuse.
Remember that the point of you doing this is for you to get to know people. So, listen — don’t just talk about yourself or assume everyone feels the same way you do. This is not about that. Living in such close proximity, as we tend to in cities, means that neighbors can be resources to each other. If you’re away, they watch your house. If someone is carrying groceries, you can hold their door. Keep an open mind and be sensitive. Attend your local civic association meetings and report back to your neighbors.
And then, once you’ve established a positive working relationship with your block, make it official by becoming block captain, which opens you up to a variety of city-supported services to help you have the best block in Philly.
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2. Support your local school — even if you don’t have kids.
Our public schools have good kids, teachers and staff inside, but they need support. This is not about making a school “better,” but rather ensuring that our children have access to all available resources needed to receive an outstanding education. There are many “friends of” school groups that have formed over the past few years, so jump in! We are waiting for you.
If your catchment school doesn’t have a community support pipeline yet, then make one. Friends Of Neighborhood Education (FONE) exists in part for this reason. We can connect you to resources, introduce you to other people in your neighborhood and provide overall support.
3. Run for local office — start with election board or committeeperson.
I like to refer to these positions as “political office lite” meaning that while they are very much important roles that justly serve the community, they are entry-level. You are not required to produce a major campaign, you do not need fundraise and you only need five to 10 signatures on your ballot petition (though you should really get at least 30).
The best place to start is either as election board official — next election: 2017 — or as committeeperson — next election: 2018. Election board officials are the people who work at your polling place on Election Day. There are six positions focused on ensuring a fair voting experience for your division (about five blocks). As a committeeperson, you represent your division and ensure your neighbors are informed about candidates and have assistance getting to the polls if needed.
I recently created a Facebook event for the first day that nomination petitions open to run for committeeperson. Even if you are not sure you want to run yet, stay connected to this event invite for updates, reminders and resources to help you make the most of the opportunity.
This is good work, but it is also hard work.
It’s great that people want to get involved. But these actions take time, energy and effort. You will need to wake up early, check email on vacation and go to a meeting on a night when you really just want to watch TV at home. But you must sacrifice to make real change. I’ve had a pit in my stomach since last Tuesday, and I hope it never goes away, because that pit has turned into a call to action. Remember: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I hope that you will join me.
Here are some additional resources to check out as you figure out your next step:
- Citizens Planning Institute
- Committee of Seventy
- Young Involved Philadelphia
- Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee
- Keep Philadelphia Beautiful
- Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners
- Philadelphia Democratic City Committee
- Philadelphia 3.0
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