Without a doubt, now is an emotional and scary time to live in the Twin Cities. The widely circulated video-recorded death of Philando Castile has put the Twin Cities in a political and emotional uproar. Everybody is obviously running a little hot right now, so I hope readership will forgive me for speaking with cohesive candor instead of my normal hyperbolic sarcasm.
My social media feeds are full of passionate calls to action right now. This is inspiring, but oftentimes followed by frustration when we don’t know HOW to take action. This seems to devolve into more and more obsessive posting and passion on social media, which doesn’t seem to actually get anything done but rather is akin to a snake eating its own tail.
Never fear, though, ye loyal streets.mn readership! Our fair riverside cities are known for their community engagement outside of the interwebs. We indeed have the tools to truly enact the democracy we took notes on in high school in between trying to flirt with that cute girl in our Civics class and drawing drum sets in our notebooks.
However, if the preceding sentence describes your high school experiences as it certainly describes mine, what follows is a likely necessary cheat sheet explaining how our local government works and how you can get involved.
Don’t tell the teacher I gave this to you, and remember, you owe me big when we play dodgeball in gym class.
Depending on whether you live in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, you will have different representation for your local government. Both cities approach government a little differently as Saint Paul has a district council system and Minneapolis does not, but the same basic rules apply. I’ve divided the systems into three levels so that you as a citizen can pick how and when you want to engage.
The Grass Roots Level
Both cities have a strong history of grass roots organization, which for the non-initiated essentially means you can go once a month to a meeting with your neighbors and have a voice towards making your community better. It’s worth noting that these are usually volunteer organizations, so if you come into this kind of meeting and yell about the board members salary they are gonna look at you funny. It’s also worth noting that there are usually snacks at these meetings. If you’re nice, they almost always share.
For Saint Paul, the grass roots level is called the District Council System. This is a series of 17 nonprofits that have existed since 1975 to gather information from the neighborhoods and report politically to the City Council so they can make local laws. You can find what district you live in here.
From anything to zoning to police work to playgrounds, going to your District Council first is what makes sure you have the political muscle to get the change you want enacted. If you are feeling really inspired, you can run to be on the board of your district council during their annual meeting. I served on my board when I lived in Saint Paul and it was an incredibly rewarding experience. Plus, I got to figure out where all the cool bars were before they opened due to my time on the zoning council, which is undeniably cool.
For Minneapolis, the grassroots level groups are called Neighborhood Organizations. These groups aren’t officially connected and endorsed by the city in the same way the District Councils are, but they still hold a great deal of political power. You can find your neighborhood organization here.
The main difference between neighborhood organizations and district councils in my opinion is in how much actual governing gets put in the hands of neighborhoods. The District Councils often have more of a say in zoning in Saint Paul, whereas in Minneapolis zoning decisions happen at a city level. Although zoning and other political committees sound boring, they are incredibly important and change the future of our cities in huge ways. In that way, Saint Paulites arguably have more of a say in their political process as neighborhoods make their own decisions and City Council usually has short meetings to sign off on it. The Minneapolis line of thinking is that zoning and other complicated issues should be managed by politicians and planners with advanced degrees.
As James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem once shouted, “there’s advantages to each!” but the best way to learn about each advantage is to show up for a meeting, get a cookie, and ask some questions. Did I mention there’s snacks?
The Committee Level
If I didn’t lose you in that long paragraph about zoning importance, the next level up politically from here is Committees. Committees are super cool because you get to decide what you really care about. There are transportation committees, environmental committees, civil rights committees, and even committees specifically dedicated to making hanging out in the park more fun.
For Saint Paul, these committees are run by the district councils. If there isn’t a committee for what you care about, make a friend on the board and start one. My friend Eric for example started a transportation committee which gives him all of the rad dad points.
In Minneapolis, Committees are run by the city government and managed by staffers and politicians as noted in my zoning example above. Don’t worry though, meetings are public and you can always email people your opinions if you can’t make it. Committees are listed here.
When you interact with folks on committees (or in general), remember to say please and thank you. Politics might seem sexy on TV, but the reality is there are a lot of beige rooms and a lot of illogical shouting. If you are reasonable and polite, you will be surprised at how far you can go.
The City Council Level
Do you have a lot of Facebook friends? Did you get really excited when I talked about zoning? Do you find Frank Underwood to be ethically reprehensible but brilliantly effective? Perhaps you should consider running for City Council!
City Council members speak for the community. They also have staffers and a team who are specifically trained to field your questions and represent your interests. All Frank Underwood jokes aside, influencing your City Council person is easier than you think. Unless they’ve illogically given up their city email for an AOL account, emailing a city council person can net fantastic results. Even more effective is getting your entire block to email them. For free drinks and bragging rights, get your neighborhood organization or community council to send an official endorsement letter AND have your block email them.
Since these are actual paid politicians with party affiliations and a garage full of lawn signs, it’s a good idea to make sure your emails are cohesive and use logic. Even if you come with a huge posse your representative is going to make fun of you later behind closed doors if you write your letter ANGRILY with egregious exclamation points!!!! True, they might also vote with the exclamation point majority, but this is America, y’all. Let’s try to have some dignity like that eagle from the Muppets.
So shut the laptop, turn off Netflix, and ride your bike over to a community meeting this week. We’re living in crazy scary times, but we have all the tools we need to make our voices heard and make the Twin Cities a better place. All we have to do is show up.