Activism Lessons I Learned from Working in my Local Government

My entire adulthood, I’ve considered myself an activist. I’ve worn multiple hats in non-violent direct action endeavors, taught others how to do so, and in the last few years have focused my energies on the visual components of social justice campaigns. And in fourteen years of working with multiple large NGOs and small grassroots groups alike, I never learned as much about our democratic process than when I worked as a Parks and Recreation Department employee with my local government.

Instead of working against authorities, I made an active decision to work for them and with them. Granted, this approach is not applicable to all circumstances, but the position was a mutually satisfactory pairing, as the inaugural Public Arts Coordinator for the City of Napa. As a Napa resident, I was already active in public arts initiatives, and realized the only way to truly affect more positive outcomes of city funding and curation was to be a part of the decision-making team. I thought it to be fascinating that, structurally, a public arts program would be managed by the Parks and Recreation Department, versus Public Works Department like many other cities. I wanted to learn, while also contribute artists’ perspectives and ideas to an ever-growing public arts program. In doing so, I learned a few things I’d like to share with others working for positive change in their communities.

  1. Be strategic in WHO you are targeting to create change. If your campaign targets or pressures certain individuals that don’t actually have influence on the decision you want made, you’ll be disregarded as someone who has not done their research. Do your research! Better yet, try to actually talk to those individuals first, before you commit an entire campaign’s resources and energies. If you cannot talk to them directly, talk to them indirectly by meeting with people on their team and/or in their department. For instance, don’t target the mayor about the destruction of trees in local parks, until you’ve met with the Director of Urban Forestry — you may learn that there are quite logical reasons for actions otherwise assumed to be careless. If your targets are direct, people will be more willing to prioritize your concerns.

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Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004

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Chelsea Ritter-Soronen

Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004