Why does civic engagement matter?

Dear neighbors, 

In 2013, I left my home in Fargo and accepted an offer to join an education fellowship based in Chicago. The year-long fellowship consisted of three separate, three-month apprenticeships where I focused on community building and experience design. I worked alongside a theater company in Chicago, a creative agency in Los Angeles, and an architecture firm in Seattle. I share this with you now because of the relevance of the unanticipated teachings I received as a resident of each city in which I apprenticed. Each place exposed me to the culture and constructs of some of our country’s finest cities and inspired me to reflect on the great potential our own city is capable of realizing.  

I saw Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle by bike. This was during a group bike ride through Chicago.

I saw Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle by bike. This was during a group bike ride through Chicago.

After graduating from the program, I was determined to apply the positive practices I’d seen elsewhere right here in Fargo. 

But first, I asked myself an essential question before attempting to improve upon anything. If I were to help make my city one of the best places on earth to live, then I first needed to know how it functioned. I asked: How does the City of Fargo run? 

In pursuing the answer to this question, I encountered an answer of sorts, though you may not see it as an answer because it’s actually another question. The answer/question I found was: 

 

Why does civic engagement matter? 

 

As I explore this question through my work with Folkways, I’ve begun to understand more about our city than I could’ve ever learned had someone simply shared an answer to my initial question about how the City of Fargo runs. Asking why community engagement matters has led me to two primary convictions:  

We are all shareholders

If you’re living in Fargo, you’re a shareholder in the city by way of your time and money. Your input has real value because, as a tax-paying citizen, you’ve bought into the city. Elected officials are called civil servants because they serve you. In essence, the city works for you. Having a say in how and where our resources go is entirely our business. 

We all have the ability to communicate

We live in an era of instant communication and feedback, whether that’s through reviews, surveys, text, or emails. However, our current structure sees commissioners debating in a glass box, working to determine the fate of the world outside. Our feedback and concerns have limited places to be directed, which creates an ineffective way for city leaders to understand what their constituents want.

As a believer in only discussing problems when paired with solutions, I have some ideas for how we can address the disconnect between our civil servants and the general public. 

Ways our city can encourage civic engagement

I believe that the city and its commissioners have a duty to make sure every citizen has genuine and accessible ways to be involved in civic processes. We can make sure that this access is available by implementing the following: 

Fargo's MySidewalk topics.

Fargo's MySidewalk topics.

  • Democratize information
    • Provide a clear and navigable calendar that shares meeting times and places, giving residents the info that they need to work alongside city government to improve their city (I made one for you to see here.) 
    • Citizens need to know that they are welcome to engage in public meetings
    • Open data: information needs to be at the most hyper-accessible level (consider Detroit’s pen data portal as an example) 
  • Create engagement beyond public meetings (which are often held during people’s working hours)
    • Use online platforms like mySidewalk.com
    • Host evening hour Q&As with our public officials to accommodate for the schedules of citizens who work a typical nine to five
    • Increasing the access to information with a presence at large community spaces such as the FargoDome or West Acres in the form of an information booth for the entire city
  • Community conversations
    • Provide time and space for community members to voice ideas, visions, and concerns and engage in facilitated conversations on topics that are most important to them
    • Community-focused hackathons to help us creatively solve problems, like this one that took place in Fargo
The Community Conversation that I hosted with my company, Folkways, at the public library.

The Community Conversation that I hosted with my company, Folkways, at the public library.

Over the last two years, I’ve learned how our city runs by engaging in public meetings, forums, and processes. I’ve considered myself welcome and begun to share my input through action and conversation. I believe everyone should be empowered to engage to city government in this way. 

After all, community participation is the only way that we are going to create the city we all want to live in. 

Until next week,
Joe