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.
- 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.
- Government processes take forever, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. If something you want done is taking too long, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s been forgotten, cast aside or not prioritized. It just means there are a bajillion layers of permissions, signatures and approvals for practically everything in local government. Keep in mind that many government positions are part-time, so response times can be rather slow for these folks. And while streamlined, there are places along the path of approval where items bottleneck, such as the District Attorney’s Office and the City Manager’s desk. Before you cast blame, simply call your City contact and check-in on the process. They’ll be so pleased you did!
- Money can often be reallocated to your benefit, if you plan far enough in advance and make a strong case. If you think a civic program deserves more funding, find out how and why the current budget was determined, where the money comes from, and who approves these budgets. Then (because government is all about influence and relationships, like any other industry) find an advocate for you on “the inside”. For instance, as an artist myself, I was an advocate for getting artists paid efficiently and sufficiently; I would take that information to department meetings and committee meetings to ensure this. If a budget has been cut that you perceive to be wrongdoing, don’t accept it, keep pushing for solutions.
- And that brings us to committee meetings! Join a committee! Attend committee meetings! There are plentiful opportunities to contribute your voice, in addition to voting and attending rallies or protests. Most committee meetings are held on weekday evenings and are open to the public to voice any concerns or praises. If you cannot attend the meeting, usually the minutes are posted online, or you may request them from an affiliated department. Committee meetings are also a great opportunity to meet new people, put faces to names you’ve read, and hear opinions that differ from your own. Once you become a regular face at those meetings, City officials do take note.
- Parks and Recreation Departments are a keystone to successful communities. I can only speak for the one with which I worked, but in my time as Public Arts Coordinator with the City of Napa, I learned that almost every civic sector is directly connected to Parks and Rec in some fashion. Especially interesting engagements include: urban forestry and environmental planning, programming at community centers, public art, river conservation, wildlife conservation, road safety, tourism and BIDs (business improvement districts), and public schools. There are countless ways to volunteer with your local Parks and Recreation Department, and I highly recommend it! In your next campaign, consider the support of your local Parks and Rec department. They’re likely already on your side, while also able to offer a civic planning perspective. My team was filled with passionate people that dedicate their expertise to the overall enhancement of the community in which they live, for the benefit of all. And in today’s political climate, we should be supporting that as much as possible.