Going to City Council Meetings as Grassroots Activism — Don’t Forget the Rooster

Illustration Sara Harvey

Pick up an agenda, and sit. The school board sips drive-thru Starbucks on the dais, which is just a plywood folding table, until the chairman taps the microphone, tells a few jokes, and kicks off three hours of verbal rhubarb.

And I contend that, even if they only talk about starting school earlier in September, you’ve committed grassroots activism by being there.

We promised to get more involved politically after the election in November. Donald Trump lost by three million popular votes and still swore in on January 20, and I felt powerless as a citizen. I suspect many of us did.

Demonstrations and volunteerism are mighty. No one can disregard 470,000 women in pink knit caps in the Capital, or the hot food of Meals on Wheels. I just want you to consider going to local school boards, planning commissions and city council meetings, too.

They’re our basic increment of government, and they’re efficacious to make decisions that change lives. Go and engage this magic.

I was a community newspaper reporter in Virginia and South Carolina from ages 22 to 31, and I went to a lot of public meetings. I know that if you go, it will hold the board accountable, and lend weight to an issue. You’ll knit closer to your community by eavesdropping on its problems, and by meeting neighbors in real life. It cultivated an empathy in me that informs how I vote now on behalf of our national community.

You may run for city council yourself, enjoy serving, and run for higher offices.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that human progress is a series of small acts.

“Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

The center was a former high school built in the 1950s, and its auditorium was full of people. There was no air conditioning, so paper fans waved across the room like butterfly wings. I was surprised to find a local councilwoman up front, delivering a state of the neighborhood address. Unguarded, tender and very direct, she asked the people to resist the drugs and crime on their streets.

She didn’t know a reporter was lurking by the macaroni and cheese, but I wasn’t cherry-picking headlines. I needed her words to inform me.

Public meetings taught me how America works. I know more about criminal court proceedings and school building improvement bonds than I do about my 401K. Listening to the solicitor argue passionately for death in an Anderson County, South Carolina, courtroom, I realized that this was, literally, life and death. America was life and death.

I moved to New York in 2009 to study comedy writing, and felt like it was almost presumptuous to connect to my new neighborhood, tight with generations of families. A woman handed me a flyer on the sidewalk near my apartment in Brooklyn, and invited me to a police advisory meeting. I knew the value of going, but I never went. I think it’s time now.

This is your invitation. Subscribe to local news, follow local journalists on social media (here’s my list of local Brooklyn publications), and share their stories. If an issue grabs you, put the next public meeting on your Google calendar and go. Go to one, once a month. Go to listen first, and talk to your neighbors and ask questions after. (Read this incredible essay on “white women’s tears” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo.) Then, tweet about it.

Go to watch, too, because public meetings are theater infused with the win-lose stakes of sports. Parks and Recreation was a seven-season sitcom based on the back-of-house world of local government. The issues themselves will break your heart, but you could BuzzFeed-list the types of meeting regulars.

I was there the night the rooster came to the Pickens County Planning Commission to protest rezoning. He was in a cage, and didn’t crow, but if he had signed up to speak before 7 pm, he would have had his chance.

Comics, humor, haiku— linktr.ee/saraharvey