Saturday, February 12, 2011

on civic participation

Oh New England.
This week we had a town meeting, and it was the first meeting that I have attended that I have sat up on the stage of the high school auditorium with a little nameplate in front of me.  It was a special town meeting, not the regular annual meeting in May, and there were only two articles on the warrant, that is, only two issues to vote on.  Usually special town meetings don't draw much of a crowd, but in this case one of the issues was of particular interest to a lot of people, and so we had nearly 300 people.  That's pretty close to the numbers that usually attend the May meeting, although sometimes there can be closer to five or six hundred, depending on what is on the warrant.

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a play for a contest--it won, and the play was performed at a local theater along with several other kid-written plays from the county.  My play was about 10 minutes long, I think, and it was called "The Town Meeting." It was filled with all sorts of New England personalities- caricatures of people who I imagined stood up and fought with each other at town meeting. It turns out, the real thing is actually even better.  Usually in the past I have sat in the back, and honestly I have attended town meetings as much to observe and study people as I have to participate in the process myself.  Miraculously, a whole room of people really can get things done, but the conversation that takes place in the mean time is better than anything that could be on TV that night. 

What is amazing about the town meeting is that it offers so much power to those who choose to use it.  Every year there are contentious issues that draw people, but the items that are always on the warrant are equally, if not more important.  Every year the town is given the opportunity to vote on the budget, and in the process, their tax rate.  And with all that at stake, attendance still hovers around 10% of registered voters around here.

I'm the last person to guilt anyone into attending their town meeting.  I have certainly not attended every town meeting in the nine years that I've been living here as an adult--and for a long time it never would have occurred to me to get a babysitter and go tromp up to the high school on a Monday night.  And so, other people, people who chose to go to town meeting, made the decisions.

I also understand the tendency towards apathy when it comes to government.  Everyday I listen to the news--my listening almost borders on addiction, really, and I check the New York Times on my phone.  These days especially I'm worrying about where our country might be going, and my only hope comes from the fact that I know how easy it is to get stuck in the process--I know that democracy moves slowly, and so I hope that the tone will shift before NPR gets unfunded and before the word "rape" is redefined. Sometimes I sign petitions when they come to my email box, other times I just mean to.  It just all feels big, and being one among hundreds of millions of people is so, so small. But still (and I say this to remind myself too), there is power to be had if you are willing to take it.  Especially at the local level, you might have more say than you think, and all it might take is a little self-education and the courage to speak up or raise your hand at a meeting.  I spoke to a fair number of people who attended their first town meeting this week, and they each confessed in their own way that it was a rush to participate.  Somehow, sitting in a room filled with people, listening and being part of deliberation, raising their pink or green cards or putting them in the little wooden boxes by the doors, and deciding in an issue right then and there--even if it is a long night, or you have had to listen to people you really, really don't agree with, it's hard not to walk out of there feeling like you've been in a room filled with democracy.  It's real power.

It's been a big week for democracy.  Around here, and in the big world, too.  Like any system that is put into action in real unpredictable human society, it is full of challenges.  I watch Egypt with the rest of the world, hoping and worrying and biting my nails to see what will come next.  But this week I've been thinking about the strength of democracy, and about how I think that the more we use the power that is granted to us within the system, the stronger the democracy gets, and the closer to its ideal form where we all have a say.  It's when we don't participate that a smaller group of people end up making decisions for us.  And I find that watching other people fight so hard for their voices to be heard, even thousands of miles away, makes me speak louder here, makes me want to use my power of participation even more.  It's a gift that I'm doing my best to accept.

1 comment:

  1. The past few weeks have been filled with such explosions of freedom [and just plain explosions, come to think of it] have really made me think a lot more about the way I affect my community, and shape my democracy. I'm young, I can't even vote, but I'm free. This post helped remind me of that; thank you.
    I heard that segment on NPR as well, about redefining rape. Goodness. We've got to live the best we know how to, exercising our freedom and not getting overly daunted by the seemingly insurmountable odds. I feel like we could accomplish a lot more if we stopped putting so much energy into doubt and consternation and started acting and debating freely. We're a free nation, yes, but we're imprisoning ourselves with our doubt.
    Egypt gives me hope, and this post gives me hope. I mean, we might not know where we're going to be in a couple of days, but we know that we're free to go wherever that place it.