Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Can Be an Activist?

The Conscious Shopper does her best to get involved.

"Okay, I think we're ready to get started," the man on my right began, clearing his throat.

I pulled out a pen and arranged my papers to take notes, but I was quickly distracted by a commotion behind me. I turned in my seat and glared. The commotion settled down, but as the meeting continued, it picked back up again. There was a lot of wiggling and whispering and hushed threats. I had trouble focusing on the speaker as I alternated between scribbling hurried notes and glaring behind me.

Pretty soon, I noticed that I wasn't the only person in the room distracted by the back row. Several people glanced over and glanced back at me. My face burned.

An hour lapsed, and the commotion behind me was getting worse. Glancing back, I realized that one instigator was on the verge of an emotional breakdown and another was shooting death rays at me with his eyes. Hastily, I gathered my belongings and hissed, "We're leaving. Right now," before retreating from the meeting with three small children tagging along behind me.

I fumed about that meeting for days, weeks, maybe even months after. I wasn't mad at my boys - no, it wasn't their fault at all. After all, I was the one that dragged them to my meeting. But I wasn't mad at myself either - no, it wasn't my fault. The guilty party was a poorly devised system that made it extremely difficult for an average joe like myself to get involved in advocating for change.


Some Background

The City of Raleigh is currently in the process of rewriting their zoning code, so several groups here have been advocating for a change in the code that will allow for the establishment of community gardens as a principal use on both public and private land. This is an issue I'm extremely passionate about, and since my schedule as a SAHM is far more flexible than the schedules of people who work, I volunteered to represent my advocacy group in meetings with the city.

At first things were going fine and dandy...except that I had to find a babysitter for my two younger boys every time there was a meeting (my oldest was in school). But generally that wasn't too difficult.

Until the meetings grew more frequent, school let out for the summer, and I started feeling guilty about constantly mooching off my friends for free babysitting. So one day feeling frustrated, I decided, "Screw this. I'm taking my kids with me."

As described above, it was not a pretty picture. The meeting was scheduled for a rough time of day (right after lunch), my oldest has a short attention span and a fiery temper, the youngest was two at the time (really what did I expect?), and to top it off, I inadvertently chose a seat near the man that was leading the meeting, so my misbehaving boys were right at the focal point of everyone's attention.

Some Ranting

Now that you have the background, I hope you don't mind if I go off on a little bit of a rant. Here's my issue with that whole situation and why that meeting made me so angry for so long:
  • Every meeting that I've attended with the City of Raleigh has been held during the day. Most meetings for the advocacy groups I'm involved with are also held during the day.
  • People work during the day, and leaving work to attend a meeting with the City or an advocacy group is generally not approved by their employers, unless they work for a related non-profit or the government.
  • People who don't work during the day are either students, stay-at-home parents, or people who work at night (and sleep during the day).
So who can be an activist? People who work for non-profits or the government. People whose job it is to advocate. Maybe students, if their schedule allows. The average person who has a job? Sorry, too bad. The average stay at home parent? Sure, if you leave your kids at home.

The meeting I described above was one of the first where my advocacy group felt like we were making some real headway with the City of Raleigh. They seemed open to our suggestions, they had formed a work group, and they'd planned that meeting to kickstart the process of changing the zoning code.

I asked the City representative leading the meeting, "Will the public be able to participate in this process? And how will they be able to provide input?" I was picturing some public meetings scheduled at night. Maybe a page on the City's website documenting the steps the work group had taken with a section asking for public commentary.

The man looked confused, motioned around the room, and said, "This is how the public can participate."

Soon after that meeting, I heard the following quote by Hope Taylor, Executive Director for Clean Water NC, explaining why that arrangement is so detrimental to the advocacy process:
In many cases they will advocate strongly for stakeholder processes, which have a real serious downside. That is because the public doesn’t have the capacity or the resources to be able to take time off from work and participate. Advocacy groups that are trying to protect the environment are at a serious disadvantage. Citizens don’t have the time to participate in those processes, so the ones that do have the resources to participate are the industries that have the resources to hire the lobbyists to be present. And the result is that the trend is for stakeholder processes to continue to weaken regulations with time. So, you know, they can advocate for a stakeholder process, and then they can dominate the stakeholder process in a way that prevents strong regulation and permits from being put in place.

Since that meeting (about six months ago), I've continued to be involved when I can. But I'm teaching a preschool class two days a week this school year and swapping babysitting on another day so I can volunteer in one son's classroom on a fourth day. I have one day a week where I'm not already scheduled, so unless the advocacy meetings coincidentally land on that one day, I'm out.

Still, I keep up on the issues, forward emails to other members of my advocacy group, volunteer my time when I see opportunities, and spread information to my friends. I'm not actively involved like I wish I was, but I guess the answer to the question, "Who can be an activist?" really depends on your definition of activist. I'd like to think the answer is me.

What has your experience been?


Anonymous said...

Before I even read the quote from Hope Taylor, I thought, "Um, they don't set it up so normal people CAN participate." They don't want a bunch of agitators for real change messing up what they already have planned out. I know it sounds cynical, but I'm sort of at the point where I'm not sure the "little guy" is ever going to have much of a voice unless a lot of people make time for a serious uproar.

ruchi said...

Fantastic post.

I agree with you that there are some serious issues here though to be fair, the system is set up because the city employees who lead these meetings also work regular days and want to be able to go home at night to their kids.

I don't know what the answers are ... but I think you're right, at least having the occasional public meeting at night would be a big step.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! I'd love to see the look on my manager's face if that was my reason for leaving in the middle of the day :P

I don't think you need to attend lots of meetings and things to be an activist though. Depending on the issue you can always find time to volunteer and simply spread information around.

I've been lucky enough to find some great groups in my area with people that meet in the evening, but I'm looking to volunteer more on the weekends.


Sustainamom said...

You bring up excellent points. When I covered local government meetings for a small town paper about 10 years ago, most attendees were senior citizens. It didn't matter whether the meeting was held in the day or evening. I wondered at the time if it was because they were more interested in the outcomes or if their schedules were more flexible.

Thinking back, there were a number of evening meetings. I think it was because the elected officials had day jobs. Maybe there is something to that...

Green Bean said...

This post seriously made me laugh!

Our city's meetings are at night. The last time I went, I procured a sitter but a friend brought her older child so he could see his mom take a stand for something. I was impressed both by her willingness to bring her kid and by his ability to sit quietly through the meeting.

Being an activist comes in all shapes and sizes, as you point out. I think we can do different things at different points in our lives. Great post!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@thesimplepoppy - I agree, and who has time for a serious uproar? I've also grown more appreciative for the need for non-profit organizations who can send people to those meetings.

@ruchi - That's what my husband argues too. I can see that reasoning, but I think there could be a more balanced approach.

@shortstylee - Yeah, I've had to reconcile myself to the fact that at this stage in my life, my form of activism can't be quite as involved as I'd like.

@sustainamom - I forgot about senior citizens, and you're right, they are often at those meetings, especially at city council meetings.

@Green Bean - I actually had that thought when deciding to take my kids to that meeting - "I want to teach them to be involved." I still think there's value in that sentiment, but maybe when they're older and maybe just one kid at a time. It was the squabbling that doomed us!

Alison said...

I feel very lucky, as all three communities (albeit within the same County) that I've lived in over the last decade hold meetings at night. Some planning meetings are during the day, but anytime they want public input they have evening meetings. And recently our community had a meeting about downtown accessibility, and kids were welcome!

My complaint with our community, is these public meetings are poorly announced or announced late in the game (like 2 days before hand), which still makes it difficult for busy folk to make the logistics work.

The community I live in however, has a history of activism, so it would be interesting to ask the old-timers if it has always been this way? Maybe you can stoke the fire that awakens your local public to activism and your civil servants to a new pattern of listening. If they've always done it that way they may be resistant to change, but an active involved community can be very appreciative of their civil servants. I know I am, because they have demonstrated that they do care...and in fact I feel guilty when I don't participate or give feedback, because I know that it matters!

Rosa said...

I have to agree with simplepoppy - who wants more input? They want just enough input to make it look like everything is what the public wants, not to do the real work of listening to everyone and working through disagreements and giving reasons for everything.

But, why didn't your advocacy group help you out, too? I was shocked, when I gave up on far-left groups and started going to regular old Democratic things - there's no child care.

No child care.

How are people supposed to come? Most people are either parenting, or working.

I actually pulled a couple kids I knew into the crying room at our church when primaries were there one year, but when I've brought it up to the party groups (who call me asking for volunteer time all the time) everyone in charge of events says it's impossible.

I still don't understand how mainstream political groups fail to do the basic access work that queer & anarchist groups have been doing for decades.

Truffula said...

Oh, those little co-activists! Things can also get very ticklish when the "quiet" toys you bring along for entertainment turn out to be not so much, especially when used on nice, hard, polished floors...

Hats off to all of the engaged parents out there!

underbelly said...

Bringing children into public spaces has been a long-standing feminist issue, because more often than not, when you discourage children from being in public spaces, you discourage women, too, as your experience at that meeting illuminated. It's sad, really.

I don't have children, but I do think that children are a necessary part of society who should be allowed in the public domain (with the exclusion of places like porn shops and night clubs, of course).

Yeah, I agree that it's disruptive to sit next to a child on an airplane, or have children at a meeting, but so is sitting next to someone snoring or someone's cell phone ringing. Life is full of disruptions. Children are a part of life. Come on, people, were those glares really necessary? I think you should submit an op-ed to your local paper.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Truffula - Love, love, love that comment!

@underbelly - In this post, I wanted to express the frustration I felt at that meeting and the feeling that I was disrupting and ruining it for everyone else, so I wrote it from that point of view. But there was also a lady who came over before the meeting started and offered us crayons and paper (which I had already brought), and most importantly, no one asked us to leave, which I had been very worried about at first. I'm not sure it's an outright exclusion of children so much as it's just out of the norm, and just like breastfeeding in public, maybe if more parents did it, more people would be accepting of it. Like you say, children are a part of life. Thanks for your comment! It really got me thinking.


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