At a conference a few weeks ago, one of the presenters asked all the participants to share a story of the first time they remember becoming politically engaged. The story I always tell people is that I first recognized the power of individuals engaging in the political process while working on anti-genocide efforts in college.
But as I thought more about my answer, I actually had to rewind to 1998. In my hometown of San Diego, citizens were voting on an initiative to decide whether to use public funds to help support a new baseball stadium. For me, there probably could not have been a more important initiative. Although I could not vote, my grandparents could. My grandma, however, was steadfast against the initiative, fearing that it would take money away from local institutions like libraries. I lobbied her, hard, trying to demonstrate that the San Diego Padres were a vital local institution, and that the ballpark would help create local revenue. (As an 11 year old, I’m thinking my arguments centered on the former). The initiative did end up passing, although I’m pretty sure she voted against her grandson’s wishes.
The importance of that story is not that the San Diego Padres got a new stadium (they have filled it with debacles of teams, although the downtown San Diego area has been completely revitalized, showing the wisdom of my argument). But the point is that I became convinced of the importance of politics through a very local issue that mattered to me, and my grandma cared about it to the extent that it influenced her. This lesson is exactly what GC tries to preach – political involvements starts not with big legislation in Washington DC or by voting in national elections, but with local issues that affect citizens on an everyday basis.
Fast forward fifteen years, to this week. On Tuesday night, I attended a debate between the two Democratic contenders running for Brooklyn District Attorney. The debate was fascinating, as the 23-year incumbent faced off against a young upstart. However, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the issues they talked about: mostly local court cases in Brooklyn’s recent history. I actually knew next to nothing about the specific issues that the Brooklyn District Attorney was in charge of (complicated by the fact that the position is part of the wider NYC apparatus). For example, the two candidates debated the contentious “Stop and Frisk” issue, but I was confused about their actual ability to do anything about the policy. As I left, I realized that my knowledge of local politics in my neighborhood in Brooklyn is extremely limited.
The irony of running a non-profit that is focused on local civic knowledge and involvement and not knowing my own neighborhood is not lost on me. But I think this is actually something that is a problem with the social change sector, in general, and especially in the circles where I interact. At the same conference where we were asked that initial question, I had a dinner-time conversation with several civic leaders who all agreed that local political involvement was key, but admitted that they were not involved locally, largely because they were too busy traveling around the country for work.
Many large scalable non-profits, using similar logic, have identified “interventions” that are critical towards improving a specific social sector, be it education, health, or politics, but don’t take the time to understand the local contexts where they do their work. Throughout my work at GC, I’ve seen a divide emerge. In each of our cities, there are very local organizations, completely in tune to local politics and context, doing good work, and without scalable ambitions. On the other side, there are national organizations, dedicated to scaling, but largely unable to recognize local politics and contexts. Unsurprisingly, there is tension between these two sides.
At GC, we probably fit into the latter category right now – a national organization that is not in-tune enough to local politics, which became accentuated to me the other night. But I really want to try to bridge that gap. Our work, getting young people involved in local politics, absolutely has to be situated in a local context. We must understand local politics, know local actors, and walk in local circles. At the same time, we’ve made a deliberate decision that this needs to be a national cause, largely because so little exists to promote youth civics in the school setting.
To do this, my staff and I have realized that the vision starts with ourselves. And so, in addition to doing our work, we have all committed to engaging in our local political scene. Recently, this has included Gillian and Drew attending a local Boston mayoral forum, Mary asking questions to NYC mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio on her corner, Ayisha following the NYC Public Advocate race, and Tom devouring all Rhode Island political knowledge. It’s actually pretty fun. So hopefully we can start to bridge that divide. And hopefully I can learn the names of the candidates running for Brooklyn District Attorney.
~Scott Warren, Executive Director
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.