In recent years the issues communities face have become a lot more complex—and it's become more and more evident that one group alone cannot solve them. In today's volatile environment, elected officials often lack the resources to do so. They also face multiple other issues. And they move in and out of projects due to the election cycle. (This of course varies from community to community.) For all of these reasons, research shows that private sector leadership is the key to sustainable success.
In other words, driving quality of life in a community is a job best done by citizens—but for many years we haven't been accustomed to taking an active role. Perhaps we felt someone else was doing it, or we thought we couldn't really make a difference. Maybe we just felt we were too busy. In many cases we simply couldn't see a clear path for engagement. But that mindset is changing.
Citizens are beginning to realize they must close the gap between government officials and the community. This is very good news. Citizens make great partners for identifying local problems and creating good, workable solutions. This creates much better buy-in than a top-down model.
Vibrant communities don't just happen. They're built, and in a smart and organic way. My book Building a Vibrant Community is a blueprint other communities can follow, based on Pensacola, Florida's journey toward vibrancy. And a big part of that blueprint centers on citizen engagement.
Engaged citizens make communities stronger, healthier, more connected, and better able to meet the needs of the people who live in them. And citizens themselves also benefit. They tend to have a greater sense of well-being and belonging.
There's always a small group of super-engaged citizens. We need to keep these folks super-engaged but also bring everyone else under the tent.
Here are 30 ways you can become a more engaged citizen.
1. Shift your mindset to one of ownership. The first step in getting engaged is to make this your mantra: "My community is my responsibility. Every child is my child." This mental shift changes a lot of things. You'll stop thinking only about things that directly affect you and your family and start thinking about the needs of others. You'll start feeling a sense of responsibility for the well-being of all citizens. This mindset is crucial for a vibrant community.
2. Educate yourself on your community. Maybe you've never paid much attention to your community's economic conditions, culture, demographic trends, social networks, or political and power structures. It's time to change this. Brush up on the local history. If you don't already read the local paper, start. As you're doing your research, write down a list of questions you have and seek out the answers. Understanding the forces that are currently impacting your community will help you formulate smart strategies for change.
3. Promote trust and transparency on all levels. Stay aboveboard in all that you do. The slightest hint of a cover-up or backroom deal can break trust and derail your efforts. Communicate often and with everyone; no one should be left out. The more stakeholders and residents understand the process and what the goal is, the more successful your efforts will be.
4. Know your numbers. Studer Community Institute worked with the University of West Florida Office of Economic Development and Engagement to create the Pensacola Metro Dashboard. It contains 17 metrics that, together, provide a snapshot of all the data that is vital to a healthy community. If your community doesn't have a dashboard, put together your own. This will help you figure out where you stand and where you need to start making improvements.
5. Make sure your information is accurate. This is key to good decision-making. Do your homework and bring in experts if necessary. Also, know that there's almost always misinformation floating around about community issues. This may sway people to oppose needed changes, so correct it whenever you hear it.
6. Educate yourself on the processes through which decisions are made. Know how your local government works and what you can do to effect change. In Pensacola we've established the Center for Civic Engagement to teach citizens how government works and how to advocate for change. We currently offer courses for local leaders and citizens who want to be a part of creating a vibrant community, but soon we hope to expand to attract regional and national participants.
7. Get to know your neighbors and their issues. Talk to people everywhere: at school functions, at church, standing in line at the grocery store. Ask questions and solicit their opinions on community issues. Don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and talk to those from different cultures and/or socioeconomic levels.
8. Join your neighborhood association... This is a great way to get to know your neighbors and their issues. You'll instantly become part of an engaged group of citizens who care about the community. If you can join the board or some other leadership group, so much the better. Generally if you're willing to step up and work hard, the group will be grateful to hand over the responsibility.
9. ...Or, if you don't have a neighborhood association, start one. When neighbors band together, amazing things can happen. This is why the Pensacola Center for Civic Engagement made "The Next-Level Neighborhood Organization" a cornerstone of its course offerings. We wanted to provide guidance for those who want to start a neighborhood association and also for those wanting to make an existing one more effective. These groups really can drive meaningful and lasting change.
10. Start a dialogue and keep an open mind. Listen to the other side before you make up your mind on a hot-button issue, even if you initially disagree with them. (There will be mixed levels of interest on different topics.) You might be surprised to find that your ideas change as you learn more. Even if you've publicly taken a position in the past and you change your mind, it's okay to say that. People will respect you for being transparent and forthcoming.
11. Position yourself as an enabler/facilitator. Make it clear that you're not looking to aggressively push an agenda or strong-arm others to do your will. The idea is to help citizens help themselves. Collaborating with others—be they individuals or groups—is the best way to solve problems. Someone just needs to galvanize them.
12. Instead of complaining, figure out who the decision makers are and start there. It's all too easy to complain about what officials or organizations are (or are not) doing inside a community. And with social media, there's even more opportunity. Resist the urge. This is not what leaders do. Instead, ask, Who can get things done? Get in front of these people and try to build a relationship with them.
13. Build relationships with the other deeply engaged and committed people. Don't just focus on formal leaders who have the "right" title. Informal leaders—often business leaders, educators, physicians, and others who are highly visible and respected in the community—are a powerful group. Get them on board first. By leveraging and mobilizing these leaders up front, you'll be far more likely to get the momentum you need to create change.
14. For sure, VOTE, but do more than that. It's important to vote for smart, ethical elected officials who have the public's interest at heart and who are committed to smart growth and community building. Do your research. Work to get people elected (or re-elected). You might even consider running for office yourself.
15. Show up. Look for meetings you can attend. For example, research when and where your local government meets. Find causes and groups in your community that are important to you and find out when they meet. Yes, most of us have limited time and must pick and choose carefully—but almost everyone can find time to attend a meeting or two a month.
16. Look for opportunities outside formal meetings, too. For instance, make a point to attend community events like street festivals, rallies, or school fundraisers. These gatherings tend to attract diverse groups. They are great opportunities to talk to people whose paths you might not otherwise cross and to learn about causes and issues that matter to them.
17. Be an advocate for what you believe in. If you're passionate about an issue—whether it's protecting the local environment, bringing art and culture to your community, or raising money to support the local children's hospital—step up. Channel your passion into action. Take a leadership role if you can. Offer to head up a parent group or advisory committee.
18. Partner with other groups (especially larger, more established ones). Are there any strong national groups that share your common interest? Connect with them to see if you can establish a local branch in your community or at least benefit from some helpful tips or best practices. This can make your job much, much easier. Collaboration between groups is no longer a nice-to-have; it's a must-have.
19. Keep meetings short, but make them count. If you're in charge of a meeting, keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Make sure all meetings are action-oriented. Always wrap up with action items that are clearly assigned to a particular person and that have firm deadlines. It's the only way to drive accountability.
20. Promote engagement 24/7. It's great that you're engaged, but make sure others are too. Invite a friend to a meeting or ask her to join your neighborhood association. Especially seek to engage people who wouldn't normally be engaged. Look at new ways of talking to local people so they feel connected. If they aren't coming to meetings, go where they are: festivals, schools, farmers markets, and so forth.
21. Encourage and support engaged young people. For any community to thrive, it must attract young, talented people. Change cannot happen without them. Reach out to the youth in your community. Support their causes and show up to their meetings and marches. Also take your own children with you as you attend meetings and events. You're showing them firsthand what it means to be an engaged citizen.
22. Communicate often and in a variety of formats. How do people like to get info? Be flexible and adaptable in providing it. Give people a variety of ways to engage: online forums, social media, etc. After you attend a meeting, do a quick recap on Facebook. Remember, many people care about the issues but simply don't have time to attend meetings. They will appreciate your keeping them updated.
23. Ask politicians the tough questions and keep on asking. For example, Why are neighborhood groups sometimes the last to know when government makes changes or funds projects that impact them directly? OR What is the process for establishing a city or county budget, and how does that budget process support or exclude the public? In the same way that you seek to be transparent, so should elected officials. Most will want a chance to explain the decision-making process.
24. Be an ambassador for your city. Don't say negative things about your community. Highlight the positive and manage up your city every chance you get. If others are making unfair accusations or spreading misinformation, gently correct them.
25. Support local businesses. Local companies, including new and small businesses, are the backbone of your community. Yes, government should make it easy for them to thrive, but that's only part of the equation. Citizens also need to shop at locally owned stores (even if the price is a bit higher), dine at local restaurants, and take guests to downtown entertainment spots. Whenever possible, spend your dollars at home!
26. Volunteer for local charities. Walk dogs at the local shelter. Visit patients at your community's hospital. Work a shift or two at your city's food bank or soup kitchen. Not only will giving back make you feel good (and of course benefit the recipients), it will help you see firsthand where your community's most dire needs really lie.
27. Don't underestimate the power of small acts of engagement. Look around your own neighborhood. Is there an elderly homeowner who needs help with yard work? Could you organize a cleanup day with other neighbors? Is there a sick or homebound neighbor who needs help with meals? Perhaps a few neighbors could take turns cooking for him. This is a great way to learn about and engage the people who live directly around you.
28. Expect and prepare for setbacks. Tackling changes inside your community involves multiple outside factors: bureaucratic red tape, funding issues, the differing opinions of thousands of citizens just like you. Getting anything accomplished, even small tasks, can feel impossible. Instead of feeling frustrated or defeated, use setbacks as an opportunity to look at what you are doing with fresh eyes. Brainstorm new ways to accomplish your goal. Ask around for others to help you solve the problem.
29. Maintain a sense of civility. These are your neighbors. You will almost certainly disagree with many of them on what you perceive as needed change. That's okay. Keep in mind that they are part of the community you are seeking to improve. They deserve to be treated with respect at all times.
30. Stay the course. Have patience. Like Rome, vibrant communities aren't built in a day. It will take time. Sometimes that can mean years and years of hard work and dedication to make just one plan come to fruition. Never give up. This is a long-term process, and you can't quit when things get tough.
When you're deeply engaged in building a vibrant community, it can be one of the toughest journeys you ever undertake. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Communities matter. When we improve them, we're improving lives. I believe we have a human responsibility to do so to the best of our capacity. PM
Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community and founder of Pensacola's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties forward. For more information, visit www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.