[This is a citizen post by Darren Lee, a member of I Am Madison Citizens Coalition]
So you want to make an impact on the world around you, but don’t know where to start? You’re not the only one. I’d wager that this specific quandary is one that most people face before becoming active. From what I can tell, most people’s journey into political engagement, locally or nationally, share a similar origin story: he or she is going about their life as normal until one day, one fateful day, they cross paths with something they sense needs to be fixed, can’t be ignored, or can be changed for the better. This call to action resonates with the individual, but more times than not, they’re unsure where to begin - they don’t know “HOW” to start. I believe this dilemma tends to be true for budding figures on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. With this blog post, I’ll try to help those stuck on the “HOW” of it all. Moving past that initial hurdle opens up a world of opportunities to make change a reality.
Now that we’ve stated the question we’re trying to solve, how do we go about solving it? In the interest of solving a roadblock rather than creating a new one, I’ll try to make this post as clear and concise as possible. I believe the easiest way to stay engaged with something is to make it personal. This might seem obvious, but many people cast their net too wide initially and end up with nothing in turn. To accomplish this task, make a small list of the subjects or issues that matter most to you; the items in this list can be either local or national. Keep the list to five items or less for now, our goal is to stay focused and engaged. Subjects can be as large as the nationwide healthcare debate or as intimate as aiding the hungry in your vicinity. This list holds the key ingredient to change: passion. As long as we involve ourselves in things that matter to us, we will be compelled to stick with them. We’ve come up with a list of passions, now we need to figure out how to engage with them.
An important question we need to ask is who or what controls the thing we’re trying to change. For example, if I wanted to make a change in my neighborhood, I’d have to determine who is in charge of the HOA. Broadening the scope out a bit more, if I was concerned about the state of the roads in Madison, the city council would be the group I’d need to convince for change to occur. If we take things to a national scale, if I was concerned about healthcare in the United States as a whole, legislative bodies beyond our local level have the final sway in those rules. While each of these examples strive for the same general goal of change, figuring out how we can make change happen in each of those scenarios differs significantly. As you can see, the smaller the change, the easier it is to influence on an individual level. If the change you want to see is out of your direct control and the person or group who can make that change is also out of reach, then we must ask a follow-up question: is there a person or group of people that can be reached that can ultimately make a difference? Even if you don’t have access to the arbiter of change directly, a group or coalition just might.
Engagement may have been the trickiest part of the process in the past, but modern society offers avenues for becoming involved with even the most niche of causes. Now that we’ve determined who or what can make the change we need, we need to identify how to reach them. One of the easiest places to start is Google. For example, if I wanted to know what happens at local city council meetings, I could simply do a search for “Madison AL city council”; from there, I might decide to go to one of their events in-person. If I had an interest in the local ecosystem, I could do a search for “environmental groups near me” and reach out to some of the groups listed in the search results. Social media is another great avenue to find local groups that are trying to make the same changes you are. On your social platform of choice, you may investigate if there is a local group that you can join. If they host events, consider attending. Once you find a point of contact, ask questions about how you can contribute. The more active people you have in your circle, the easier it is to get engaged with the topics you care about. And once you do find people, make sure to listen.
Listening is the most fundamental skill in invoking change. It allows you to hear the concerns and grievances of others. By their very nature, people’s livelihoods and well-beings are affected by politics, so it is essential to understand why others are there with you trying to make the same change that you’re trying to make. Perhaps even more important is understanding the arguments people try to make against your proposed change. It also allows you to learn. Local politics tend to be peculiar. In the state of Alabama, the politics of Madison vary greatly from those in Birmingham; it’s crucial to find the specific details of a given area. As stated earlier, change is easier on a local level. Engagement, however, can happen on any scope. If you want to find individuals passionate about the big scope issues, there are people in your area trying to do the same. Staying in the conversation and cultivating a local community is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to get change to trickle up to where you need it to be. You might not be able to speak with the president directly, but if you think about it there’s not really all that many people between you and them in the chain of command. If enough individuals bring attention to a matter, the collective will ultimately have no choice but to respond.
The final point I want to make is that there’s no shame in asking for help. If you can’t find a group you’re looking for, there is someone out there who can point you in the right direction. Even if you can’t find a local green club, you can always go to the closest botanical garden and ask in-person. Even if a person there can’t point you in the right direction himself or herself, they may know someone who can. To that point, contact us at ivotemadison.com and we’d be more than happy to try pointing you in the right direction. Don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t all fall into place over the course of a day. Getting involved is like learning a new language. It’s not something that you will pick up immediately. It’s an art. You will be uncomfortable with it at first and also make mistakes. But as time goes on, you will feel more at home. Activism is a community; those involved in change are always striving to recruit new allies. You are wanted.