Beyond the ballot box: How to take your civic engagement to the next level

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Evergrey reader Caroline Sayre has long been committed to making her community a better place — whether that’s through her current job teaching English as a second language or her previous work in affordable housing. Like many of us, she once felt that her 9 to 5 job was the best way to pursue her passions and make a difference. 

Then Donald Trump was elected president.

“I’ve always felt that my work was enough to make the world a better place,” Sayre said. “When Trump was elected in 2016, I decided it wasn’t. I needed to do more, and get involved in a more sustained way.”

Figuring out the best way to learn the ins and outs of government took some time. And a recent Evergrey reader survey found time — or lack thereof — is a common reason folks aren’t engaging more.

In response to the question “What are the main barriers keeping you from getting more involved in your local government?” 65% checked a box next to “I’m busy and don’t know where to start.” Thirty-four percent said “I don’t think my efforts will have an impact.”

Darnell Kebo receives email updates from city council member Andrew Lewis and attends virtual city council meetings when they fit with her work schedule. She’s also sent him a few emails, but has yet to get a response. 

“I’m not a loud voice, and I know louder voices tend to be more acknowledged, not because they’re more important — just because they’re louder,” Kebo said. 

For Emma Ruder, figuring out what state lawmakers do and keeping tabs on their voting records hasn’t been easy. Ruder has lived in Seattle for almost four years, and she wishes there was an easier way to translate the formal actions of what happens in Olympia into everyday language. 

“If I knew what they could do, I could actually look into the actions they’ve made,” she said. “But it’s so broad I don’t really know where to look.” 

Sayre agrees that tracking individual bills and actions can be time-consuming. She’s thinking about organizing a group to collaboratively research what’s happening and educate one another. (Interested? Send us a note at [email protected], and we’ll put you in touch.) 


Finding your focus

Government participation can be a full-time job in and of itself. That’s why it’s important to focus on what matters most to you, and be strategic about what actions will have the most impact.

Sayre’s advice: First, find out who represents you at the city, state, county, and federal level. Sign up for their email lists, so you know when their town halls or quarterly constituent meetings are happening. Attend, and listen to other people to get a better understanding of the issues and determine your own priorities.

“Part of it is getting involved in the process and participating, but it’s also observing what’s important to other people and the community,” Sayre said.

Another strategy: letters. Like put-a-stamp-on-it, and drop-it-in-the-mail letters. Sayre has found she’s much more likely to get a response from politicians (or their aides) when she does things the old-fashioned way.


A neighborhood resource for Seattleites

At the local level, connecting Seattleites with practical information about their local government is the bread and butter of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. It regularly holds a civic engagement training program called the People’s Academy for Community Engagement (PACE) and also maintains a robust online resource hub that includes a calendar of upcoming public meetings and a neighborhood organizing toolkit, among other things.

The Department of Neighborhood’s mission goes beyond disseminating information. Through programs like the neighborhood matching fund, residents are able to have a direct say in how taxpayer money is used. 

But Director Andrés Mantilla readily acknowledges that racial equity and inclusion were not always as baked into the work at the Department of Neighborhoods as they should have been. Mantilla says that’s changing and points to efforts during the census that centered communities of color and resulted in Seattle having one of the highest response rates in the country.

Another bright spot is the department’s community liaison program. It’s been around since 2009 and currently includes 54 embedded leaders working within communities that have been historically underrepresented in Seattle. They’re paid as independent contractors and do everything from door-to-door outreach to working with ethnic media to amplify messages. 

“It’s a game changer because it has really driven a different level of thinking on how we engage with communities,” Mantilla said. “What works with the Latinx community might not be relevant to the Black community, and we have to really bring that level of nuance to our engagement.”

Editor’s note: Want to learn more about how to engage with your government? Join Andrés Mantilla and other local leaders for a virtual conversation at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16.

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.