Really? Not six weeks after an expensive and unflattering campaign season and I want to talk about elections? Yes. Absolutely.
Because like it or not, they matter. A lot. To your 503b, your parks and trails, your public safety, and to your nonprofit career.
Now, this could be about how we all need to be more engaged in advocating for our organizations and their missions (after all, nonprofit organizations only scratch the surface of their advocacy potential, in part due to a lack of expertise). But it's not. This is your real world PoliSci 101 - how to get involved in your local political processes - told through the story of YNPN member Josh Reimnitz, the Teach For America-alum-turned-newest-member of the Minneapolis school board. Together, Josh and I will show how you can take a few more participatory steps into our imperative albeit slightly imperfect political sphere. It'll be painless. Maybe even poetic. Just promise us you'll give it a try in 2013.
Disclaimer: It is not the belief of YNPN-TC or any of our nonprofit allies that upon reading this you will immediately launch a campaign. That said, we hope it will help.
Find an issue
When an election door closes, a legislative door opens. From school board to state senate, our representatives will discuss and propose legislation on any number of issues, from taxes to endangered turtles. For Josh, the achievement gap and the inequities he's seen firsthand in our education systems prompted his community involvement: first as a volunteer, then Teach for America alum, then nonprofit Executive Director, then community collaborator. Through continued and deepening investment in an issue, Josh arrived at a pivotal question – “How can I change the system to work better for kids?”
So what's your issue, oh so passionate, altruistic one? Is it marriage equality? Maybe a public health issue? Do you get your kicks scheming on entitlement reform? Whatever it is, there's a path for that. Here are some resources to test the waters of civic participation:
- Subscribe to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits calendar RSS for events (often free!) relating to your issue or to the legislative session and advocacy in general, like the 2013 Session Line-Up on January 11.
- Stay tuned to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs events like the recent Opportunities and Challenges of Nonprofit Advocacy
- Want to take it a step further and get your organization involved?Here are some helpful how tos.
Check out the candidates and representatives
But issues wouldn't get anywhere without candidates, and there's no excuse for you not to know what your district is, who represents you, and who wants to represent you. Especially with the recent redistricting and some potential candidates for mayor, there will be a number of competitive (i.e.: more interesting for you and me) city council races this year. Educate yourself with the wealth of local resources in the Twin Cities:
- Look to MinnPost for thorough and hyper local information on recently elected representatives, upcoming candidates and elections updates.
- Your local League of Women Voters publishes voter guides with candidate biographies and hosts candidate forums leading up to every election, which are always free and open to the public.
- Stay tuned to your City website for information on which ward you live in, effective in 2013 (if redistricting affected you).
Attend a caucus
Candidates wouldn't get anywhere if we didn't vote for them. But spoiler alert: In highly Democratic areas like Minneapolis and St. Paul, those candidates might be all but elected a whole four months before primary day on August 13. Why? All thanks to a little system Minnesota has called the caucus. The quick and dirty explanation is local citizens get together to have conversations and vote about what issues matter and who should be on the ballot to represent them. Caucuses are free, happen on one day in late spring, and have a huge impact in the scope of an election cycle (not bad for a few hours of caucusing). They’re administered by city level political parties, so just find the one that's right for you and try a caucus on for size. And take it from Josh, "it's amazing, and truly exciting, the level of influence one person can have in nominating a DFL or Republican candidate at their neighborhood caucuses."
Do something (constructive and productive)!
Josh’s advice? Just show up. "Events, forums, writing letters, going to caucuses...don't let unfamiliarity scare you. The people at these events, they want you to join in. To participate." Planning a happy hour come spring? I bet there's a city council candidate forum you can attend and then discuss over 2-for-1’s. Looking for an excuse to start a monthly coffee group? Use a local issue or race as conversation starter. Want to donate to that issue you love so much? Invite some friends over for food, drink, conversation, all for a $10 suggested donation to that cause.
Josh adds, "In order for our democracy to be effective we need people to participate. Currently those who are most passionate, and often times most radical, take part in civic events. Until we have more "mainstream" viewpoints at wonky events we'll continue to have a disproportionate amount of candidates representing the extremes." Take it from Josh, and make your resolution to do something civic in 2013!
What tips do you have for engaging in the political process? Or why haven't you done so yet? How do you pledge to get involved in 2013?