I was asked to give an impromptu speech about civic engagement today. This is an awkward kind of question for me, because it’s almost impossible to talk about in a neutral, nonpartisan way. Yet that’s the only way to really get anything accomplished any more.
Right now it seems like a lot of people are more motivated to stop their “opponents” from doing anything than they are to do anything specific themselves.
We have to pull back from that image of “winning” and find a way to frame our projects as non-zero-sum. Meaning, there is more than one winner and there are many ways to win.
I mentioned five things in my speech, which I wish was as organized when it was coming out of my mouth as it is here:
Most people are complainers. Everyone complains about things - I think it is the main driver of all innovation and progress - but most people are *only* willing to complain.
I’m a helper by nature, with many years of training in social services. When someone has an issue, I often know how to get it resolved. I’ll ask someone, what do you want to have happen?
Almost nobody ever has an answer.
If someone I know very well is annoying me with a complaint, I will ask, Do you have a request?
Meaning, if you want me to do something for you, ask me and I will probably do it, but otherwise, shut the heck up.
For example, if I’m late all the time, I probably deserve to be told off in some way, but I’m never going to stop unless you ask me for what you want. What counts as “not late” to you? Get specific. If you want me standing by the door with my coat on by T-minus whatever, believe me, I can’t read your mind. You’re going to need to spell it out.
It’s very much the same thing with local issues. People will go on until they turn purple about “traffic” or “this place sucks” but they don’t usually have an actual, specific plan for what they would rather see instead.
You can show up to town hall meetings, campaign for various candidates, write letters to the editor, vote for every single thing, sign petitions, apply to get propositions on the ballot, host a podcast, march with a sign over your shoulder... but if you aren’t clear about exactly what you want, nothing will happen.
How would you even know that you got what you wanted if you were never sure exactly what it was?
Part of this is an issue of empowerment, the feeling that you can ask for things and get them, the feeling that if you try to make something happen, it probably will happen.
What I’ve learned is that power is not given, it’s taken.
Power can also accrue through various unofficial means. It comes in different forms: charisma, leverage, influence, gravitas, money, job titles, specialized knowledge.
An example would be someone like my husband, who sought out special training as an EMR. I’ve seen him in action several times. He will rush up and identify himself as an emergency medical responder. Then he starts asking questions. No matter where this happened, people would probably react in the same way, by making space for him, watching and listening. At that point, if he called out for someone to call 911, someone would obey, no questions asked.
Most people don’t want to be in power during a crisis. They don’t want to be the one with the fire extinguisher. They don’t want to be the one to get the snake out of the toilet. They don’t want to make decisions, they don’t want responsibility, and they certainly don’t want to be held accountable for the results.
Likewise, most people don’t want to bother learning whether something is handled by their city, their county, or the state. They might be able to get their request granted almost immediately by their district rep, but when it comes down to it, they’d rather complain for eighty-five years than spend twenty minutes typing into a web form.
People have more power than they think they do.
We all have the power to pay attention, to introduce ourselves to others, to ask questions, to learn new things. We have the power to imagine all the ways that things could be better. Not in the abstract of “things” like “the universe” or “land of rainbow unicorns” but *specific* things. Things like potholes or noise ordinances or how fast the traffic flows through a certain intersection.
When we have a more specific idea of how we want the world to look, what we want to see happening around us, then it becomes more obvious that a lot of the time, we can start making it happen, all by ourselves.
My parents taught me this when I was a preschooler. They got together with some other parents in our neighborhood. Each family took a street and a garbage bag. We all picked up trash and empty cans, and we turned in the cans for the deposit and bought popsicles with the money. I was unclear on the concept that other kids were doing this, too, because I couldn’t see them (and I was 4), so of course I thought I deserved all the credit.
There are some policy decisions I’ve made over the years that make it obvious what I should do in certain situations. I always pick up broken glass at the park, even if I have to get a stick and dig it out of the mud. I sleep with my phone by the bed in case I hear someone screaming in the night, so I can call 911 right away. When I find a wallet or an ATM card, I turn it in. I don’t have to ask for permission to do any of these things.
I’ve done what anyone can do to be more involved and engaged. I’ve decided that if I can easily help others, I will do it. Sometimes I will help others even at considerable effort, like writing them a reference letter or revising their resume. I do nice things because it’s fun, and also because it helps me to feel like I am a person who knows how to get things done. I like to be where the action is.
Anyone can make decisions about what they are willing to do and what they refuse to do.
After that, it’s just a question of how many things you think you can do and how many people you think you can help.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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