When things aren’t going well in our community, our first impulse has traditionally been to get upset. Our second impulse has been to look for someone to blame. Typically, we may point the finger at government:
Why, we demand, aren’t they making progress on ___ (insert the painful issue of the moment here)? This approach is counterproductive—and communities are realizing there is a much better way.
There really is no they. There is only we. Getting angry at “them” solves nothing, and the community continues to hurt. When citizens get engaged and take ownership of the issues, big progress happens and it happens fast.
Struggling communities can’t wait on government to fix their problems. This is true even in the best of times, and with the highly complex issues today’s communities face, it’s even more so. Elected officials are short on resources; plus, they move in and out of projects due to the election cycle. If there’s to be sustainable progress, it must be driven by private citizens.
Get engaged, not enraged.
I’ve seen more and more communities come to realize revitalization is the job of ‘we the people. It’s a big trend, and it’s taking place all across the country. And the first step is a mindset shift. Citizens start to think: What can I do to reinvent my community, to make it a great place to work, live, and play?
Here are 30 ways to get engaged in your own community:
1. Shift your mindset to one of ownership. The first step in getting engaged is to make this your mantra: “My community is my responsibility. Every child is my child.” This mental shift changes a lot of things. You’ll stop thinking only about things that directly affect you and your family and start thinking about the needs of others.
2. Educate yourself. Maybe you’ve never paid much attention to your community’s economic conditions, culture, demographic trends, social networks, or political and power structures. It’s time to change this. Brush up on the local history. If you don’t already read the local paper, start. Understanding the forces impacting your community will help you formulate smart strategies for change.
3. Promote trust and transparency on all levels. Stay aboveboard in all that you do. The slightest hint of a cover-up or backroom deal can break trust and derail your efforts. Communicate often and with everyone.
4. Know your numbers. Research community dashboards. If your community doesn’t have a dashboard, put together your own. This will help you figure out where you stand and where you need to start making improvements.
5. Make sure your information is accurate. This is key to good decision-making. Do your homework and bring in experts if necessary. Also, know that there’s almost always misinformation floating around about community issues. This may sway people to oppose needed changes, so correct it whenever you hear it.
6. Educate yourself on the processes through which decisions are made. Know how your local government works and what you can do to effect change.
7. Get to know your neighbors’ issues. Talk to people: at school functions, at church, standing in line at the grocery store. Ask questions and solicit their opinions on community issues. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.
8. Join your neighborhood association. This is a great way to get to know your neighbors and their issues. You’ll instantly become part of an engaged group of citizens who care about the community. If you can join the board or some other leadership group, so much the better.
9. If you don’t have a neighborhood association, start one. When neighbors band together, amazing things can happen. These groups really can drive meaningful and lasting change.
10. Start a dialogue and keep an open mind. Listen to the other side before you make up your mind on a hot-button issue, even if you initially disagree with them. (There will be mixed levels of interest on different topics.) You might be surprised to find that your ideas change as you learn more.
11. Position yourself as an enabler/facilitator. Make it clear that you’re not looking to aggressively push an agenda or strong-arm others to do your will. The idea is to help citizens help themselves.
12. Instead of complaining, figure out who the decision makers are and start there. It’s easy to complain about officials or organizations on social media. Resist the urge. This is not what leaders do. Instead, ask, Who can get things done? Get in front of these people and try to build a relationship with them.
13. Build relationships with other deeply engaged and committed people. Don’t just focus on formal leaders who have the “right” title. Informal leaders — often business leaders, educators, physicians, and others who are highly visible and respected in the community — are a powerful group. Get them on board first.
14. For sure, VOTE, but do more than that. It’s important to vote for smart, ethical elected officials who have the public’s interest at heart and who are committed to smart growth and community building. Do your research. Work to get people elected (or re-elected). You might even consider running for office yourself.
15. Show up. Look for meetings you can attend. For example, research when and where your local government meets. Find causes and groups in your community that are important to you and find out when they meet. Almost everyone can find time to attend a meeting or two a month.
16. Look for opportunities outside formal meetings. For instance, make a point to attend community events like street festivals, rallies, or school fundraisers. These gatherings tend to attract diverse groups. They are great opportunities to talk to people whose paths you might not otherwise cross and to learn about causes and issues that matter to them.
17. Be an advocate for what you believe in. If you’re passionate about an issue, step up. Channel your passion into action. Take a leadership role if you can. Offer to head up a parent group or advisory committee.
18. Partner with other groups (especially larger, more established ones). Are there any strong national groups that share your common interest? Connect with them to see if you can establish a local branch in your community or at least benefit from some helpful tips or best practices. Collaboration between groups is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have.
19. Keep meetings short, but make them count. If you’re in charge of a meeting, keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Make sure all meetings are action-oriented. Always wrap up with action items that are clearly assigned to a particular person and that have firm deadlines. It’s the only way to drive accountability.
20. Promote engagement 24/7. It’s great that you’re engaged, but make sure others are too. Seek to engage people who wouldn’t normally be engaged. Look at new ways of talking to local people so they feel connected. If they aren’t coming to meetings, go where they are: festivals, schools, farmers markets, and so forth.
21. Encourage and support engaged young people. For any community to thrive, it must attract young, talented people. Change cannot happen without them.
22. Communicate often and in a variety of formats. How do people like to get info? Be flexible and adaptable in providing it. Give people a variety of ways to engage: online forums, social media, etc. Your efforts will be appreciated,
23. Ask politicians the tough questions and keep on asking until you get an answer. For example: What is the process for establishing a city or county budget, and how does that budget process support or exclude the public? Most elected officials will welcome a chance to explain the decision-making process.
24. Be an ambassador for your city. Don’t say negative things about your community. Highlight the positive. If others are making unfair accusations or spreading misinformation, gently correct them.
25. Support local businesses. Local companies, including new and small businesses, are the backbone of your community. Yes, government should make it easy for them to thrive, but that’s only part of the equation. Whenever possible, spend your dollars at home!
26. Volunteer. Walk dogs at the local shelter. Visit patients at the hospital. Work a shift or two at your city’s food bank or soup kitchen. Not only will giving back make you feel good (and of course benefit the recipients), you will learn about your community’s most dire needs.
27. Don’t underestimate the power of small acts of engagement. Look around your own neighborhood. Is there an elderly homeowner who needs help with yard work? Could you organize a cleanup day with other neighbors? Is there a sick or homebound neighbor who needs help with meals? This is a great way to learn about and engage the people who live directly around you.
28. Expect and prepare for setbacks. Tackling changes inside your community involves multiple outside factors: bureaucratic red tape, funding issues, the differing opinions of thousands of citizens just like you. Getting anything accomplished, even small tasks, can feel impossible. Instead of feeling frustrated or defeated, use setbacks as an opportunity to look at what you are doing with fresh eyes. Brainstorm new ways to accomplish your goal. Ask around for others to help you solve the problem.
29. Maintain a sense of civility. These are your neighbors. You will almost certainly disagree with many of them on what you perceive as needed change. That’s okay. Keep in mind that they are part of the community you are seeking to improve. They deserve to be treated with respect at all times.
30. Stay the course. Have patience. Vibrant communities aren’t built in a day. It will take time. Sometimes that can mean years and years of hard work and dedication to make just one plan come to fruition. Never give up. This is a long-term process, and you can’t quit when things get tough.
When you’re deeply engaged in building a vibrant community, it can be one of the toughest journeys you eundertake. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Communities matter. When we improve them, we’re improving lives.