Many fail to realize that creating change can be easier and faster when you look a little closer to home.
Like most Americans, my upbringing did not prepare me for advocacy work. As a child in Fall River, Massachusetts—a working class, post-Industrial mill city—the term “lobbying” had no use in my vocabulary and simply sounded lofty and inaccessible. I pictured members of Congress, miles away from Massachusetts, making decisions on behalf of my community. There were no paths clear to me as to how I could be a part of the changemaking.
Now, years later, I have been fortunate to engage in civic activism in a way that most college students haven’t. I now know that change—shifts that affect our daily lives—happens at the local level. More than that: I now intimately understand that individuals involved in local politics can have a profound impact on the lives of others.
In the wake of the presidential inauguration, conversations about changemaking continue to focus almost exclusively on federal policymaking. Although national politics may take the cake when it comes to glamour and prestige, some of the most rewarding and effective advocacy work can come from engaging on a meaningful, personal level with your state representatives and local officials.
When I started college at Brandeis University, I had sweeping ideas of government and how it functioned. All that changed during my last year where I participated in the Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation (ENACT), a national program engaging undergraduates in state-level legislative change by learning to work with legislators, staffers, and community organizations to advance policy. ENACT helped lead me back to why I was interested in public policy: the goal of addressing problems I saw in my own community growing up.
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During the program, I had the chance to lobby numerous legislators, including a state senator, for the Fair Workweek Bill. This bill would afford workers in restaurants, retail establishments and the hospitality industry the right to a stable and predictable schedule—and with it, the chance to have a stable and predictable work-life balance for them and their families.
It was exhilarating to sit down with the senator to discuss the bill and the impact it would have on Massachusetts families—using examples of people I knew whose lives would be changed by the passage of it. Suddenly, the ideas of lobbying and legislating felt tangible and accessible to me. Advocacy wasn’t just men in suits speed walking through the halls of Congress. It was also the experience of sitting down with a local official and sharing stories from my community.
My opportunity to lobby on behalf of the Fair Workweek bill also gave me a sense of vocation: I knew I wanted to work in local government, on the frontlines of affecting change. I valued the idea of being in touch with my community and ensuring that local voices and needs were being understood. After I graduated I returned home to work for the City of Fall River in the Mayor’s Office.
Now, every day on the job I see firsthand the impact that local government can have. When the COVID crisis hit this spring and my friends were teeming with questions about how their families could file for unemployment or when they could expect their stimulus checks, I’d encourage them to start by contacting their local officials. Many of them had no clue that contacting local officials was even an option. It was gratifying to witness them getting the support and answers they needed— while developing a whole new understanding of what local government could do for them!
But we shouldn’t have to wait until a global pandemic or an economic crisis to feel galvanized about local politics. Americans, no matter what side of the aisle they fall on, have experienced distrust and frustration with how politics play out on a national scale. Many fail to realize that creating change can be easier and faster when you look a little closer to home.
In a year where youth voter turnout broke records, it is crucial to keep up the momentum of young people’s civic engagement. Young people showed up for issues like racial justice and climate change, but the past four years of divisiveness and the ever-looming possibility of a divided House and Senate reinforce the fact that some of America’s largest problems cannot be solved on a national scale. Many young voters haven’t felt represented or heard in the political arena.
My advice to those people is to tune in to what is happening on a local level. States and municipalities have often been incubators for new policies and progressive ideas, whether it’s the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, cities like Denver and New York City piloting new forms of policing, a local plastic bag ban, or a change to state sex education curriculum. If the youth voters who turned out in record numbers this November carry their energy to local issues we will see our country transformed from the roots up.
There are many reasons to feel dispirited about the state of American politics today. But we all have an active role to play in shaping the kind of society we want to live in. There is a place for everyone in changemaking— and the commute to city hall is a lot faster than the one to D.C.
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