During particular conversations, I frequently hear the response, “there’s nothing you can do about it,” regarding not only concerning national political issues, but very often about deeply local issues. What bothers me when people say this is that there is something you can do about it!
Even though many would say that our democratic system is “broken,” it is still a democracy. And our democracy, by definition, is “by the people and for the people.” But it is also a living system that requires the people to participate in it. Most of us tend to be armchair participants in our politics, as situations appear impenetrable. But, like most anything, the intricacies of our political system can be learned and anyone can still get involved, but it does take intention and effort.
I grew up knowing that I could actively engage in my community, helping to shape the decisions that affect it. This began when I was only about 4 years old and my mom, out of necessity, would bring me to her League of Women Voters meetings. From there, my brother and I would often end up walking around our neighborhood, going door to door with mom to encourage folks to learn about ballot initiatives or to help them to register to vote.
This was during the early 1970’s wave of women’s liberation, ala Gloria Steinem, when inspired housewives were encouraged to apply for government positions that would insert them in places of power. My mother ended up becoming the first woman school board president of Jefferson County. I “accidentally” learned about civic engagement simply by bearing witness to my mother’s activity.
As a busy working mom of my generation, civic participation has often taken place through mothering and work. Each year my preschool class would have a “service project” that could engage the young children and their families in a meaningful, but appropriate way. We might create art that we would sell and donate all the proceeds to a cause. We always collected non-perishable food for those in need and one year we gathered essential toiletries, the children creating their own assembly line to put them in Ziploc bags, and parents would hand them directly to homeless people. These activities established for the children the idea of supporting the greater good in our community.
If we care about raising the next generation to become informed members of their communities, the time to begin is immediately. I was reminded of how powerful this early learning is by a recent How I Built This podcast featuring former professional soccer player, Beverly Leon. She has developed Local Civics, https://www.localcivics.io/home an ed-tech start-up that helps young people develop strong civic leadership skills. Her mission is to create a more inclusive democracy by initially teaching kids about their own power.
By connecting through Leon’s app, students, beginning at about age 12, can work with teachers and peers at their school to discover and participate in accessible local civic events and activities ranging from volunteering at the neighborhood library to campaigning for a local candidate. By starting small and participating with friends, these activities remove the overwhelming piece of local politics, providing an accessible “on-ramp” to local civics. As students progress, their involvement can deepen as their understanding of the infrastructure grows.
There are so many ways to introduce civic involvement to our children at many levels. History Denver welcomes volunteers who are assigned “endangered buildings” around town whose histories require research to warrant preservation. Neighborhood organizations in our community (Berkeley Regis United Neighbors, West Colfax Association of Neighbors, and others) welcome community participation in the review of new zoning laws being proposed. A super easy place to start is this paper! We report on issues and events that are the epitome of civic and local. Now an award-winning paper, The Denver North Star can serve as a gateway to understanding reliable sources, as they are pretty much your neighbors.
Jill Carstens is a proud Denver native, a passionate mom and a teacher her entire adult life! She picked North Denver as her home base in 1997, and has run Milestones Preschool here since 2011. If you have ideas for an article or further questions for Miss Jill, you can email her at Jill@DenverNorthStar.com