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.
Curious to hear what you think the role of neighborhood orgs should/could be in response to the killing of Philando Castile. I serve on the St. Anthony West board and I know this is on the radar of Whittier and other orgs as well.
For me, the goal of this article is to just more people involved in the neighborhood organizations. Engagement is always difficult as so much of the grassroots level is volunteer based.
That said, here are some spitball ideas for what neighborhood organizations can do. There is definitely a bandwidth issue with volunteers, but I think these things *could* help the discourse.
1 ) Offer an event discussing equity in transit, neighborhood organizing, etc. There are a number of great non profits that are willing to come to neighborhood groups and give workshops/talks. Educating the community is the first step to making a democratic intelligent decision. Below are a couple of groups that could be good options:
2 ) Have face to face partnerships with police. This is super hard and really takes a long time to develop because getting a bunch of folks that traditionally don’t like police (and I’m one of them, teenage skating makes me wanna run away from my grind rails when I see a police, and relatively speaking, I’ve had it real good as a white male.) But there needs to be a safe neutral place where everyone ESPECIALLY people of color have a say. Given the history of inequity, it may even be worth it to have the meeting in a place where POC are especially welcome. Wild out of the box idea: Talk to a preacher, those brothers know people.
3 ) Invite BLM to your Neighborhood council. Offer them an official voice. Have them do a workshop. Even if they decline, (which they have a history of doing) *keep inviting them.* They’ve done a lot of great advocacy and they are too good a resource to be kept marching in the streets and protesting. Put it in your Constant Contact. Invite them every month. Offer to have a workshop with BLM.
4 ) FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. and MORE FOOD. Throw Barbecues. Invite police and the community. Invite BLM. Get flyers to rental units. (Important) Dig a hole in the ground and cook a pig. For better or for worse, human beings haven’t changed all that much in thousands of years. We have basic needs and when we convene together to fill those basic needs, we experience something greater than ourselves, something almost spiritual. Jake, one of my friends from volunteering at a bike shop, says that BBQ is his religion. There’s a real truth in that: we need to eat together, it’s a form of love that cannot be overstated.
5 ) Speaking of Whittier: Engage rental populations. End this conversation about land owners being “stakeholders” in their community. That is garbage talk and against the very fabric of what makes this nation so great. Everyone has a stake in their community. Period.
6 ) Did I mention food? National Night Out is coming up? What are you planning? Have you bought a pig? Are you going to smoke it? People love BBQ. I mean, at least smoke a bird. Chicken is cheap.
7 ) Keep showing up. Bring a friend. Although the emotions explode on social media, democracy is a grinding slow process. But it’s also a very beautiful thing, like a stable glacier coming down from a mountain. Engage in the beauty.
Regardless: THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. I appreciate your service to the community. You are doing amazing work. THANK YOU.
This is where you can rent a pig smoker: 😉
Love love love this post. If you have time and interest, please get involved! I will add that in addition to the district council system, the city of St Paul sponsors numerous boards and committees that are always in need of dedicated volunteers to show up to decidedly dull meetings during day time hours. Our input matters, though and it is another way to make a difference in how he city functions.
Counterpoint, hyper local government is a garbage idea that perpetuates inequality through lack of equal representation.
Obviously these structures exist and in the short term they should be used as much as possible, but in the long term the goal should be to dismantle them or lessen their power, like Seattle is doing: https://thecisforcrank.com/2016/07/13/murray-severs-ties-with-neighborhood-councils/
I guess to be clear this is just about neighborhood orgs and district councils and anything that comes out of those, obviously City Councils should stay.
I’ve had this argument before, Peter! Great counterpoint! When I was ranting and raving about this, the frustration that I had is that it seemed some folks in politics were able to use community organizations as a shield against activity. The idea is that people are able to have a voice and then they burn all their efforts in a community meeting, thus letting City Council members do whatever they want.
That said, even in a corrupt situation like that one, coming together as a community is a good thing. The problems of inequity IMO are rooted in education and culture. Even if the grassroots level of government seems like a JV arena for people to just go and echo the same sentiment, it is a place with existing social capital where you can go and meet your neighbors. In an increasingly disconnected urban environment, this is huge.
It’s just reaaaallly important to force these meetings to be effective. If your neighborhood council meets at a police station, fix that ****. Get your Robert’s Rules game on and make an incremental change to make it better. If you are on a board, bring something to the table. Write a proposition about something you care about. Be passionate! Be literate! Be the kind of community member that a politician will *regret* ignoring.
As far as dismantling community councils, etc? You’ll probably need to propose that at a community meeting and get a majority vote to make it happen. So for the short term, regardless of what we want in the long term, we need to go to these meetings.
I think that an inherent nature of hyper local politics is its exclusion. My neighborhood org (Corcoran) has trouble filling a full board, and we’re one of the more competently run organizations. And even then, the board is overwhelmingly white middle class home owners, which do not fully represent the diversity of our neighborhood.
Being active is hard. It’s exhausting. I’m fortunate with my middle class job with predictable hours that I can confidently say I can attend the 3 regular meetings a month I do attend, plus special community meetings or city council meetings or whatever. Someone that works more than 40 hours a week, someone that doesn’t work “bankers hours,” someone that is a single parent with children, someone with an unpredictable schedule, that person is by its very nature excluded from a process where, on a regular basis, a group of people come to a physical location and talk for a few hours. It’s a perfect process for middle class working people or old retired people, who are more likely to be white. It’s not a great process for the real diversity of our communities.
It’s also a huge waste of money. Minneapolis gives very little money to their neighborhood organizations at this point, but many of them have staff and offices and hundreds of thousands of expenses annually. These come from local donations and grants and foundations, but all that money does is perpetuate the organization. Look across the eighty some neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis, and you start talking about real money that could instigate some real change, but instead it’s spent on perpetuating the current unequal system.
All of these are really good points, Peter. These are frustrations that I myself have had. When I was on my district council, I had a 2 hour commute, I worked 3 jobs, and made it to community meetings. And you’re right, I am lucky, one of those jobs was 40hrs a week bankers hours. Engagement is exhausting.
That said, I’m 31 and I’m on the front wave of millennials getting involved in their community as it seems you are too. I am GLAD that you are an engaged voice in this process, as you are thinking about these things and showing up, as this is an important conversation to have.
My question is: what IS the right form of engagement to foster equity? How do we make that happen?
A) I have my doubts about it being on social media because there is still a huge technology gap. Plus, social media property law is rather conservative, it’s essentially the equivalent of having a community meeting in a private place. It’s our generation’s equivalent of an echo box, so much so that it is written into the code that it echos existing sentiments.
B) Bankers hours suck, but city council meetings are often during the day. If we get rid of community groups, how does that solve the engagement problem? You’re right, it does seem super expensive to do things in this fashion and I wish (oh man do I wish) there was a more efficient and equitable way. But what does that way look like? I hate the “let’s have more process” card that folks who don’t want change play as much as anybody, but I’m scared to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
C) Did I mention I’m really glad you are involved in your community? These are hard questions to discuss. I’m glad you are discussing them. Culturally speaking, this has been tough for the MN Nice crowd. Respect!
I thought of this on my bike ride home: Would it be more or less effective for the MPLS organizations to combine into areas that cover larger territories? For example, I live in Longfellow, you live in Corcoran, but we don’t have the same neighborhood organizations. I was going to say “Well drat, I’ll run for your board” but that’s not really an option as I live 3 miles away.
Would a compromise that includes combining a lot of the neighborhood organizations into a bigger unit with bigger power be an effective compromise instead of throwing out the whole system? Saint Paul’s district council system (which isn’t perfect and I’m not arguing that it is) covers a LOT more space per board. Maybe that could give each organization more power to influence the city, give people more of a reason to show up, and be more efficient. What do you think?
I’m with Peter on this one. The structural inequities of society mean that hyper-local governance CANNOT result in any sort of representative activity. Your example of 2 hour commutes and three jobs is a good one — but you forgot about the two kids and the multiple trumped-up moving violations and the threatening letter from your landlord.
I agree with both of you. But I also think that it’s really easy to attack the system as a whole (which takes a lot of time and effort to change) and then not show up for the tiny boring changes that can be made when you ARE the person that has been blessed with bankers hours. I think as urbanists we are especially prone to try and fix gigantic systemic issues instead of just aiming a small neighborhood one.
A gigantic issue like changing the council system takes years to implement. But increasing participation in a neighborhood event and getting a barbecue scheduled with some neighbors and police? That’s achievable. And it can be done by the end of the summer. And good stuff can happen from that.
I think a sense of Noblesse Oblige has been forgotten in our culture. Essentially, I believe we need to abide by the “Spiderman Rule,” where great responsibility is required of great power.
Basically I just think people with bankers hours should show up. It doesn’t solve the problem (because the system has known flaws), but it’s a million times more effective than complaining about it on facebook.
But yea, both of you have terrific points, and I agree with them for the most part.
To be honest I don’t know if I want to be the middle man in organizing a BBQ specifically aimed at improving race relations. A lot of tweets like the following have merit: https://twitter.com/__MonetChristan/status/756253378032889856
I also agree with your sentiment. I would just say that it’s important to aim at the cultural problem as well as the systemic one. Both are necessary.
Giving up an opportunity to peacefully gather because we need justice and reparations (which I think we honestly do need to see) is another form of repression, one in which we oppress ourselves.
That tweet has merit. BBQs have merit. We need both. A soft cultural approach makes a hard political goal more achievable.
It’s neither particularly crazy nor particularly scary: crime is down, police killings down, killing of police down, economy humming along. I agree that the trumpers and berners think the world is ending but not ‘everyone’ falls for their hysteria.
While I agree with the sentiment in the title of your post, and I know a lot of good people involved in neighborhood groups, I personally have stopped encouraging people to get involved in them. I know too many people with neighborhood group horror stories. Your time is better spent volunteering with other civic-minded groups. I say this as someone who was on my neighborhood’s board until recently.
In neighborhoods where contentious land use issues come up frequently, this tends to attract extremely angry people to the process. At best, this is just unpleasant. At worst, it’s dangerous. I had a personal experience where a threat was directed my girlfriend.
A recent report from the Seattle Dept. of Neighborhoods applies to what we have in Minneapolis: neighborhood organizations which are “muting the voices of too many, while overemphasizing the voices of too few.” (http://crosscut.com/2016/07/seattle-department-of-neighborhoods-report-district-councils-inequality/)
The neighborhood association process privileges people with predictable/traditional schedules, free time, and the endurance to participate; this usually means older, white homeowners. Compounding the problem is that over the decades in Minneapolis, money has been earmarked primarily for priorities like home rehab: this money recruits homeowners to the process in a vicious circle that skews these groups even further towards the priorities of one class of people. My neighborhood’s group (in an 80% renter neighborhood) currently has a million dollars in the bank, courtesy of the city of Minneapolis, most of which is spent on loans or grants for people who could afford to fix their own roof or historic chimney.
This isn’t to say these groups shouldn’t/can’t exist on their own. But our cities shouldn’t be funding and lifting them to prominence at the expense of others, especially when these organizations are typically composed of people who already have an outsized voice in the process.