Friday, September 28, 2012

roundtable on civic engagement discusses social media, changing demographics

20120506_1165 Kefa Cafe
Kefa Café on Bonifant Street. (Space 7:10 is the room on the left.)

About a dozen people came out to "Unusual Suspects: Seeking Inclusive Civic Engagement in Silver Spring," a community roundtable last Friday evening hosted by myself and Amy Kincaid, who graciously offered us the use of Space 7:10 at Kefa Café on Bonifant Street. That may not sound like much, but in a space this small, that's a full house.

Inspired by a blog post by Takoma Park City Councilmember Seth Grimes, the event provided a lively discussion on how to get often-underrepresented groups, like young people and immigrants, involved in local affairs. Our featured guests were David Moon, a political strategist who writes the blog Maryland Juice, and Abigail Burman, co-founder of Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew, which successfully defeated a proposed youth curfew last year.

We also enjoyed the company of residents and local community leaders, including Jarrett Smith, the City of Takoma Park's first black councilmember only current black councilmember; Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center; Bernice North, who sits on the Silver Spring Citizens' Advisory Board; and Bahia Akerele, who owns On the Purple Couch, a recently-opened consignment store on Bonifant Street.

In 2009, Moon engineered the successful campaign of County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, the first Latina woman elected to the council. He spoke about the major demographic shift occurring in Montgomery County, which became majority-minority in the 2010 Census. The groundswell of support for the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who attended high school in Maryland to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, represents the "coming out" of minority and immigrant communities, he said.

The presence of people from different ethnicities or backgrounds affects the political discourse, Moon argued. "You have issues being discussed on the County Council just because there's a Latino member," he said.

Youth Curfew Petition, July 30
Burman (third from right) and fellow campaigners collected signatures in opposition to the curfew proposal last summer in downtown Silver Spring. 

Burman, who will be attending Oxford University in England this fall, noted the challenge of reaching out to young people, who can't vote and are often disengaged in local politics. "Constituencies that are underrepresented . . . don't think they're going to be listened to," she said. Nonetheless, she found the anti-curfew campaign shared common ground with unexpected allies, like a local chapter of the Tea Party, which saw the curfew proposal as an example of government overreach.

The best way to change the conversation in their favor, Burman realized, was "just showing up." Being a presence at public hearings and committee meetings was a way to "flip expectations" of how involved young people could be, she said.

Of course, not everyone has the time, the means or the wherewithal to go to Rockville and sit through lots of meetings, effectively barring them from participating in local government. Many in attendance suggested that officials use social media, like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, to reach out. After all, many constituents and office-holders alike already use those platforms to voice opinions or talk about current issues.

One suggestion was that online comments be made part of the public record. To do that at the County Council now, for instance, you can write a letter, write an e-mail (which gets printed out), or testify at a hearing and submit fifteen hard copies of your testimony. This ensures that there's a written record of public input, with addresses and identifying information that may not always be identifiable in a Facebook comment. But if the Library of Congress can archive Tweets for research, can't the County Council use them to register public concerns on higher tax rates?

Online or off, participants stressed the importance of bringing people together so they can be heard. Both Moon and Burman said they'd found success in "maintaining a constant coalition of representation" for disenfranchised groups, which not only gets their issues heard but allows "best practices" in organizing or campaigning to be passed down from one generation to another.

While the meeting didn't result in any breakthroughs, it was a great opportunity to brainstorm ideas and get interesting people to meet with and talk to each other. It's also just one of many events hosted by Space 7:10, which range from art exhibitions to live performances to a salon series. Check out their website for information on what's happening there in the future. (Hopefully, if Amy will have me again, I'll get to organize another roundtable. Fingers crossed!)

5 comments:

Seth Grimes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seth Grimes said...

Dan, again, sorry I couldn't make it, but good work!

Do note that Takoma Park has had several African-American council members, most recently Roland Dawes from 2001 to 2003. Lisa Hawkins represented that ward until 1999.

Other African-Americans on the council were Vernon H. Ricks, Jr., 1972-82; Gregory Hamilton, 1987-93; Lloyd Johnson, 1991-3; and Anthony Davenport, 1993-7.

Amy E Kincaid said...

You bet you can organize another one. Also notable: State Rep. Tom Hucker, who digs local and socially-responsible business, came by beforehand (couldn't stay because convo was during baby's dinnertime) and Silver Spring residents/enthusiasts Linda Mathews and Jonathan Bernstein (Silver Spring Green, Old Blair Auditoruim) participated.

dan reed! said...

Seth,

Thanks for the heads-up. I made the correction!

Casey A said...

I'm sorry I missed this event -- following up on the conversation we had about this topic at McGinty's a month or two back, I wanted to recommend "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam. It documents the erosion of community across all kinds of different dimensions -- churches, card games, and the workplace as well as civic associations and political groups -- and has some ideas about strengthening these kinds of connections (although I think he is stronger on documenting the problem than the solutions).