Someone recently asked me for ideas about how they could get more involved in their local community.
I like thinking about this question and coming up with suggestions. It may seem like the most consequential decisions and conversations about our future happen at the national or global levels. But when it comes to actions that we can take as individuals to make the world a better place, our attention is also needed at the local level.
Here are a few of the ways you could try to get more involved in your local community:
1. Join or form a neighborhood association. When we know more about the people we live around, we can tackle challenges and provide support a lot more quickly and easily. In-person gatherings can be a great way to learn about projects and opportunities for helping others, and many associations now have online groups that share neighborhood-specific information too. If you live in a mostly business-oriented area, look for a small business or merchants association where you can sit in and learn about issues facing those stores. If that all seems like too much, consider just starting with an open house or back-yard potluck and inviting the folks who live right around you.
2. Volunteer for a local not-for-profit. Find an organization that is working on an issue you care about – from housing to education to sustainability and beyond – and contact their office to ask how you can help in the time you have available. Not sure where to start in finding an organization? Call your local community foundation, United Way, or community center to ask who needs more help. You could also attend an event (festivals, fairs, benefit dinners, service projects, even parades) to see what organizations have visibility and credibility in the area.
3. Participate in local government and regulatory body meetings. Show up and be a public presence. Watch how decisions are made that affect your life. Ask questions and provide feedback to officials to let them know you're tuned in. Notice what issues aren't being discussed, and find out why. These meetings can be intimidating or even boring, but they're being conducted on your behalf and occasionally include time for public input. More importantly, when you're working on an issue later that needs governmental approval or support, you'll be more comfortable navigating those conversations.
4. Be a tutor or mentor to younger people. Call the local school system, library or community center and ask how you can get involved with helping kids who need some extra care and support. So many students don't receive any kind of one-on-one attention throughout their school day, and sometimes not even at home. Even if you just get to spend 30 minutes a week chatting, doing homework and being a role model for them, it can make a big difference in their lives. Be prepared to do some paperwork and go through a background check, but it can be worth it.
5. Stay informed. Browse the announcements boards in community spaces and coffee shops to see what's going on. Read the newspaper, visit the library, attend local meet-ups that match your interests, research online. Knowing the facts about the issues that we face locally and nationally means we're in a better position to contribute in meaningful ways to addressing them.
6. Challenge apathy and cynicism. When you hear someone express concern or hopelessness about the future, start a conversation about what they are experiencing now, what they'd like to be different, and how we might get there. Some people are stuck being upset at everything, but most people want to find a way forward, and maybe you'll be the one that sparks a solution!
What are you doing in your household, workplace, classroom or neighborhood to improve your community?
(This list is an updated version of my 2012 post, Civic engagement goes beyond voting.)