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Debra Marsh had just led a tree-identification workshop for a group of Girl Scouts when she saw an advertisement seeking citizen volunteers for her city’s tree commission. “I was no expert on trees,” recalls the naturalist and former environmental consultant in Upper Arlington, Ohio, “but I certainly was enthusiastic about learning about them.” So she applied.

Attorney Amy Goebel was a stay-at-home mom raising her children in Hingham, Mass., when she learned of an opportunity to join her community’s cable advisory committee. “I was interested in helping to bring cable competition to our town, which at the time had only one provider,” Goebel says. She raised her hand.

Guided by their personal interests, both women embarked on a path of civic engagement, one that drew on their expertise as well as their personal desire to make a difference in their communities.

Civic engagement can function at many levels and take various forms: leading a scout troop, organizing a trail cleanup at the local nature preserve, volunteering at a daycare co-op, or joining the board of a neighborhood association. 

It can also operate in a broader arena, allowing interested individuals to help make policy and governance decisions that affect the larger community. Typically organized by cities and counties, citizen advisory groups, such as the ones Marsh and Goebel joined, work at the intersection of government, business, and nonprofit sectors — and they can exert significant influence. 

If you’re interested in addressing homelessness in your community, for instance, you may choose on-the-ground volunteer work at a local shelter. That shelter is likely overseen by a commission on housing or a committee for ending homelessness. If you join that group, you might get a larger sense of the problem and be in a position to do more about it. 

New Opportunities 

The current wave of baby-boomer retirees has caused “a massive change of leadership” at the local-government level in the past decade, says Jodi Sandfort, MSW, PhD, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota. She sees a revival of interest and energy among young leaders in cities and counties around the country — a trend she hopes will be matched by new vitality on the citizen boards that work with them.

“These new leaders are full of energy,” she says. “They’re rewriting procedures. They’re tackling concerns about diversity and reaching out to newcomers and those who’ve been missing from government.” What leaders need now are citizens — lots of them — who care enough about some aspect of public life to do a little background reading, show up for regular meetings, and keep our democracy running smoothly. 

Sandfort says advisory boards are committed to holding government and private contractors accountable. “When people get involved, they see how robust these institutions really are.” 

Civic engagement can also deliver personal benefits, says Parissa Ballard, PhD, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “People who volunteer generally report feeling healthier,” she notes. 

It also gets you out the door, broadens your social circle, and invites you to leave your own problems behind and be part of a team working toward something for the common good. 

In serving their communities, both Goebel and Marsh were able to leverage their professional experiences and keep their skills sharp. Goebel drew on her legal training to help negotiate contracts with the two cable companies that ultimately competed for customers in her town, and to help establish a new cable-access station. 

“I especially enjoyed seeing how many citizens were willing to volunteer a lot of time to help the town improve services,” she says. 

Marsh’s previous work with an engineering firm was relevant to the tree commission; she had engaged with city planning departments and had learned to present projects at public hearings. 

Like Goebel, Marsh was inspired by her experience. “It was extremely rewarding,” she says. “The people on the commission represented many professions and interests. It was good to get to know them and to all work for common goals.”

Communities thrive when folks get engaged. Where might you be willing to step up and make a difference?

5 Keys to Successful Civic Engagement

1.  Identify your strengths and values.

Consider what interests you and what suits your temperament. Do you like the excitement of planning something new, or do you prefer the satisfaction of balancing a budget or resolving an ongoing problem? Would you be happier offering your professional expertise after hours, or would you rather take a break from your workday role and tackle something entirely different? (See “Discover Your Strengths” for more on this.)

2.  Research your options.

Find out which local-government body deals with your area of interest; this will vary by community. Check city and county websites and watch for notices in local newspapers. Call city hall and ask, or talk to community leaders you know at work, at your place of worship, at the gym, or on social media. Most states have open-meeting laws, so sit in on a few meetings to see if this level of participation is something you really want to commit to. 

3.  Put yourself out there.

Learn about the application process, and schedule time to complete it. Some cities and counties accept applications for only a month or two each year, often in the fall. Apply for the boards that most interest you, but know that some attract multiple candidates. Others, meanwhile, may have vacant seats, offering easier access for involvement. (Tip: Confirm that you are available during the board’s regular meeting times; it’s not worth joining if you’ll miss half the meetings.)

4.  Get educated.

Congratulations — you’re in! You will probably be required to take some kind of training. Many cities offer Citizen Academy programs, and your committee may encourage you to attend one. Be sure to get all those meetings on your calendar, and schedule time for socializing after each one, just in case everyone adjourns to the corner tavern. Get ready to learn new skills, make new friends, and help your community become a better place to live.

5.  Pace yourself.

You may get frustrated — in fact, you probably will get frustrated. There are only so many complaints about trash service or noise or traffic that anyone wants to hear, and most of these boards receive plenty of complaints. Self-care is crucial for the civically engaged, says Parissa Ballard, PhD. This might even entail taking a break now and then if you need one. On the other hand, you might also draw energy from the experience, she adds. Finding a network of people committed to similar causes can buoy your spirits through the frustration.

And take time to rest and reflect. “Reflecting on the meaning and value of any activity that you participate in is a good idea,” says Ballard. “It can help you make sure activities continue to be personally meaningful.”

This originally appeared as “Step Up” in the September 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Joanna Szachowska

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