Feb 20th, 2017

A model for civic engagement

Originally posted by: The Virginian Pilot

UNSEASONABLY WARM temperatures coaxed hundreds from their homes on a recent Sunday, but they weren’t spending the day at a park or on a golf course.

They flocked instead to the Academy for Discovery at Lakewood for a civic fair and workshop series to encourage greater involvement in public affairs. The event, called Engage Norfolk, sought to harness some of the energy bubbling among a concerned and motivated citizenry, directing it toward productive ends.

Certainly it’s the type of thing sorely needed in a nation where the past year has rekindled interest in civic affairs.

The contentious presidential election may have driven as many people away from the debate as it drew new people in. Still, the candidacy of Donald Trump proved to be a powerful force for getting first-time voters to the polls and for bringing many folks back to the process.

His election also lit a fire under progressives, who took to the streets in remarkable numbers the day after Trump’s inauguration. The executive order on immigration prompted rallies at more than a dozen airports, where thousands filled terminals — some protesting for the first time in their lives.

While there have been some violent episodes, notably in the streets of Washington, D.C., after Trump took the oath of office, the vast majority of the displays of civic action have been both peaceful and powerful. Like newcomers throughout America’s political process, today’s are eager to make a difference.

Likewise, Trump supporters who carried their candidate to victory hope to see a president follow through on his promises. They, too, are willing to work to see him succeed. They will find allies among tea party activists, who have for years helped shape the agenda for the Republican Party and who remain an active force in Washington and elsewhere.

While the new White House is the lodestar for protests and rallies, so much of this energy would be better devoted to state and local politics — where so many decisions affecting citizens’ day-to-day lives takes place.

Consider the recent fervor over the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

A generous Republican donor with an established record as a proponent of school choice and voucher programs, DeVos became a lightning rod for criticism as she struggled to answer basic questions about education policy during confirmation hearings.

Public school activists, teacher unions and Trump opponents pounced, engineering a spirited campaign to see her defeated. They nearly succeeded as Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie in the Senate to complete DeVos’s appointment.

The energy behind the campaign was undeniable, and any interest in the nuances of federal education policy should be applauded. But could those shouting the loudest identify the members of their local school board? Have they directed similar energy toward the advancement of education initiatives in Richmond, measures with far greater affect on local public schools than anything Washington does?

Certainly they should. All Americans with passion and ideas should find a productive outlet for participating in the public debate. Direct that energy toward local issues, since an effort to improve one’s neighborhood can have a tangible and more immediate impact.

That’s what Engage Norfolk sought to capture, and the public responded by coming out in droves to learn about groups making a difference, political organizations (the Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians were all represented) and how to get involved in civic affairs.

Kudos to AltDaily, the New Journal & Guide, Volunteer Hampton Roads and Norfolk Councilwoman Andria McClellan for sponsoring the event, which could have a lasting impact on the city.

May this be a model for other communities in Hampton Roads and across the nation.

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