People often think about politics on the national stage, such as presidential elections. However, government also happens at the local level. Getting involved in local politics can help you understand how your government works and become familiar with the issues and needs in your community—as well as the people who are working to address them.
Despite the fact that local government is happening around us all the time, you may wonder how exactly you can get involved. Too often, it can feel like there are barriers to entry. Many people aren’t sure what they can do to help or get their voices heard outside of voting. In reality, there are lots of ways to get involved in local politics depending on your interests and available time. Some of these ways include:
1. Contact local leaders.
The best way to get involved with local politics is to speak with these politicians. Of course, this means first getting acquainted with them. Spend some time looking up who represents you and contact them with your specific concerns. You may have more elected officials representing you than you thought. For example, in the US, you may have a mayor, city councilmember, county supervisor or other county-level representative, state assembly representative, and state senator representing you, and that’s not including your Congressional representative and US senator! At the local level, you may have elected representatives serving on public school, transportation, and library boards as well.
These individuals are meant to represent you—they or their staff will at least listen when you reach out to them. Don’t be afraid to reach out often, either. Most officials want to know what’s on their constituents’ minds. In general, a physical letter, email, or even a phone call is better than using social media. While the official may not answer the phone themselves, their staff will take a message and ensure it’s delivered to them. You can also request a reply, which increases the chances that the message gets to the intended recipient.
2. Support a local political organization.
Think about the issues you care about most and then do a search for organizations already getting work done in that particular area. These organizations always need support, whether that means monetary donations or volunteers. Getting involved with these organizations is a great way to learn about the problems in your community and the political solutions people are working on to fix them. Through these organizations, you can learn a lot about how local government works and how you can make a lasting impact on your community. If you have never gotten involved with these sorts of organizations before, don’t be anxious about reaching out to them. In general, people will be happy to have the support and eager to talk to you.
3. Go to town hall meetings.
Town hall meetings are often sparsely attended, which is a shame since this is the best time to speak directly to elected representatives. Local legislators are typically present and even members of Congress will come to hear from their constituents. Town hall meetings generally consist of a short speech from an elected official followed by a question-and-answer session. Even if you don’t want to speak up, you can learn a lot by listening to your neighbors. You can call your elected officials to ask about upcoming town hall meetings or find information online. Because of the pandemic, many of these meetings are now virtual and thus even easier to attend.
You can also attend city council meetings, which have also gone virtual. Though city council meetings are sometimes notorious for long discussions on the minutiae of proposed laws, you can certainly learn a lot, and there is almost always a public comment period. Check your city’s website to see if the meeting agenda is published ahead of time.
4. Join a board or commission.
Across the country, many cities and counties have boards and commissions designed to advise local government on particular policy issues. Some examples might include a historical preservation board, zoning board, or parks and recreation commission. These groups allow residents to get directly involved with policymaking. Do some research about what groups exist in your jurisdiction, and push for new boards and commissions if you feel like something is missing.
Often, the people who belong to these groups are appointed by local officials, so you may need to make yourself known before you’re placed in one. These positions are always unpaid and considered a form of volunteering, but they are a great way to learn more about local government, meet members of your community, and forge connections with public leaders. A great way to start is to Google your city’s name along with “boards and commissions.” Your local government website should also have a list.
5. Run for public office.
If you really want to enact change at the local level, think about running for office. Do some research about what openings are available and think about how you could drive change in those positions. Even if you aren’t confident in your ability to win, running makes it possible to speak about the issues that matter to you. You can use your platform to raise awareness and push for change.