"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.
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.
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).
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.Wow.
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?