Proactivism: Help Make the Play-Doh

Ever heard disillusionment roll across a community? It hits the gut before it fully hits the head, like the blast of wind before a tsunami pounds the shore. Disillusionment can stagnate a city’s government if allowed to take the heart out of the community’s activists.

As civically engaged residents, you and your neighbors worked hard to get positive change in your community or stop changes that you thought were detrimental to the area. You, perhaps as a member of a neighborhood group, invested time and effort. You made sacrifices, missed work, or your kids’ soccer games and birthdays. You wrote letters, made calls, marched, and participated in public events and hearings. Power to the people! Participation and action, now! We can do this! 

You expected officials to pay attention and be fully engaged in doing the right thing for your neighborhood, parks and streets, or whatever goal you invested so much of yourself to achieve. You were so earnest, and, after all, you and your neighbors are the ones they get paid to serve!

So, how could it be that the Planning Department, the Mayor, and the City Council didn’t see all your great activism, logic, reason, and passion? How could they not have voted the way you hoped and expected? 

All that pent-up hope and intoxicating sense of empowerment implode, then anger explodes, and you say, “I should have known. They never listen to us. Why even try? Why did I vote for them? I’m done! Things never change.” 

What do a bunch of frustrated, angry, disillusioned community activists do after not getting what they want? 

They start again, of course! They become proactive, not reactive. They refocus on generating a fresh vision for their community. They gain greater awareness of how governmental processes work. They get in on the game sooner and work the rules to their advantage. They participate in the process with a more substantial base of know-how. 

And that process starts much, much sooner than you might think. In over 40 years of community activism, THAT is the most important lesson I have learned. 

Want to generate change, create something special, or save something historic? Then believe you are not only shaping the Play-Doh via activism, but activists can be there to help make the Play-Doh. You can pick the colors and impact governance. 

That analogy reveals I am a parent and a grandma who discovered a long time ago that pre-packaged Play-Doh is easy but making it from scratch is more exciting and satisfying. Here I am, at 67, still rattling cages (metaphorically), writing editorials and posting commentary while picking up litter in my neighborhood and volunteering for committees. 

What is the lesson in that personal revelation? A person who truly cares never stops learning and being engaged. Activism is a driving force that spans a lifetime. Don’t give up on participation in civic action when one issue doesn’t turn out how you hoped. Get in on the next one sooner, stronger, and better prepared.

Case in point, my participation in the Omaha City Charter Convention. 

Participation in Omaha’s City Charter Convention

Councilman Vinny Palermo nominated me to represent District 4. My first thought – run! Second – ask lots of questions. Third – ok, I really want to take on this challenge. That is my modus operandi when contemplating launching myself into an issue.

Like most people, I only sort of knew about the City Charter, Omaha’s “constitution.” However, the convention process was a total mystery. Besides, I never thought a “regular” person like me would be nominated to serve. So why pay attention? Right? I am embarrassed to admit that.

Serving on the Charter Review Committee, what some call a board, is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to perhaps change the course of city government. Once in a lifetime for me. How could I say no? Do you want to see the change? Then be the change. Participate in the process. Make the Play-Doh.

I saw my initial obligation to learn as much as possible about the current charter and the 2013 convention. I over-studied, but it was worth it. These 40 years of community activism, with a mix of disappointments and successes, have left me with a good measure of skepticism about our government and the political motivations of those in office. Still, I had faith in the essential goodness of human nature. Corny? No shame in that.

Many things were great about the Review Committee and the entire amendment creation process. What moved me to write this blog was to tell you about my frustrations, disillusionment, and ultimate perseverance. 

I saw many folks show up or write in AFTER the committee submitted our proposed amendments or even later when the City Council public hearings were held. Disillusionment and anger were pretty apparent from many of them.  

If a person is going to moan, complain, and point fingers at the government’s actions by ranting and raving on a social media platform or at the corner bar and coffee shop, well, they need to get out of those comfort zones and participate in the process as pro-activists. In other words, stop waiting for somebody else to make the choices. It’s an uphill struggle if folks wait until a public hearing to express themselves. By that point, they have missed multiple opportunities to exert influence and alter the course of a project or charter change.

Most disappointing for me was finding out that the Unicameral ultimately sets the rules for Omaha’s Home Rule Charter. Many things have changed since the original charter, without a vote of residents, because state law overrides the city charter. This could have been the time to throw my arms in the air and say, “So, why are we here?”

Instead, I started thinking – Omaha residents need to address issues such as the time required for residency before people are allowed to become candidates in district and city-wide elections. The state determined six months is enough, but can a person settle into a district and know the community or its issues in that short timeframe? Would that tempt some political maneuverers to shop around for a district to reside in? 

I was angered by what I perceived as egocentric moves by some charter members and deeply disappointed by the lack of public participation despite unprecedented efforts by Mayor Stothert’s staff and various community organizations to inform and motivate attendance. The low viewer count for the live-streamed and recorded meetings was also discouraging. How can a convention carry the voice of the city’s residents if we do not hear that voice from the source – the people? 

It would have been easy to cross my arms and pout: “If the public doesn’t give a hoot, why should I?” 

Instead, we (I believe there are more than just me) learned that the year before convention member recruitment begins, a much more proactive effort to educate the public about the charter’s significance needs to happen. How can we ensure that district representation is more balanced and thus avoid the perception of a stacked deck majority? I propose that the next review committee be composed of two members from each council district: one nominated by the Mayor and one by the respective city council person; then, the 15th member should be a joint selection agreed upon by the Mayor and City Council. 

Make the Play-doh and change the shape of things. How will you get involved?

This guest blog was written by Janet Bonet, community activist; president of Spring Lake Park Team; owner & senior interpreter/translator at Protrans Spanish Language Services.

Any opinions expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of One Omaha. 

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