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Civic engagement in our own backyards: Why getting involved at the local level actually matters

Ann Hiskes, left, and Melissa Baker-Boosamra, right, encourage GVSU students to engage in civics.

Despite changes on a national scale, advocates at a state and local level continue to stress the importance of civic engagement both nationally and locally. Here in Grand Rapids and across the state, government entities, schools and private companies are throwing their proverbial hats in the ring, educating everyday people on the roles, systems and actions needed to make positive and measurable change in their communities.
Since the 2016 presidential election, the news cycle has been dizzying, overwhelming and even volatile. Reports from the White House stream in daily, offering an array of perspectives on an administration that has turned the previous one on its head. Amid the crises were James Comey's firing, and the resignations of Michael Flynn, Reince Preibus, and Anthony Scaramucci—to name a few.

And then came Charlottsville. And the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And the DACA reversal. With historical upheaval on a national scale, we can often find ourselves wondering how we can get involved in processes that seem beyond our control. Throughout the country, passionate individuals can be seen gathering in public spaces, supporting or protesting recent legislations. But how much of it really makes a difference? Besides waving or burning flags and scrawling letters on brightly colored poster board, what can we do to make our voices heard?

Despite changes on a national scale, advocates at a state and local level continue to stress the importance of civic engagement both nationally and locally. Here in Grand Rapids and across the state, government entities, schools, and private companies are throwing their proverbial hats in the ring, educating everyday people on the roles, systems and actions needed to make positive and measurable change in their communities.

Historically, civics education and engagement is no better witnessed than on a college campus, and Grand Valley State University is no exception. "Institutionally, as a university that is deeply committed to the ideals and practice of liberal education, we recognize the importance of preparing our students not only for their careers, but also to be productive members of society," says Melissa Baker-Boosamra, MPA, associate director for Student Life, Civic Engagement and Assessment at GVSU.

Melissa Baker-BoosamraIn her position, Baker-Boosamra heads up the Civil Engagement Showcase, an event designed to "to recognize and celebrate the work of faculty, staff, students and community partners in developing mutually-beneficial partnerships and engaging the community in civic-minded work," according to their website.

During the winter 2017 showcase, President Thomas J. Haas unveiled GVSU's Civil Action Plan, a detailed guideline for the schools' recommitment to public and civic life. The five main themes were: overarching commitment, sustainable partnerships, student civic engagement, place-based institution and social and economic equity.

In addition to this broad outline for the entire university, staff at the Community Service Learning Center (the community outreach arm of the Student Life Office) developed Democracy 101 not long after the presidential inauguration in January. Utilizing a biweekly, non-credit earning format, these lunchtime events are open to the public and tackle topics related to democracy. But why go to all the trouble to engage the GVSU community?

"Bottom line? We all have to live together," says Baker-Boosamra. "It's this type of organized, calm dialogue [that] prevents the hostile arguments that can easily get out of control."

This focus on preventing hostile environments and encouraging productive dialogue is at the heart of the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP), a nonpartisan leadership curriculum housed within the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) in MSU’s College of Social Science. Created in 1992, the aim of the MPLP is to educate leaders while encouraging socializing between political parties, thus building civic engagement and leadership.

This type of bipartisan engagement can be rare in today's tumultuous politics. "While the current political climate's acrimony may drive ideological and loyal voters, it is turning most citizens off from the process," says Co-Director and Democrat Steve Tobocman, who himself spent six years in the Michigan House of Representatives. "Citizen action, if there is any, is a direct response to this feeling that the system is not working," he adds.

"As the Republican Co-Director, I joined MPLP’s leadership almost 20 years ago because I learned through politics that people want to be heard and they want to matter and be respected," says MPLP Co-Director Anne M. Mervenne, who helped plan the first ever First Conference of U.S. Women Governors, held last weekend at GVSU. "We are not there to change minds but we provide an opportunity for people to listen to one another."

The consensus is clear: equipping everyday citizens and community leaders with information on the building blocks of government greases the wheels for productive dialogue, and fosters growth of these individuals' own civic journeys.

Tera Wozniak QuallsSeeking to equip fellow Grand Rapidians with the tools necessary to get involved, Shanon Garrett, president of SMG Strategies, a political consulting firm, formed new educational company CivicizeMe with partner partner Tera Wozniak Qualls of Momentum for Impact, a sustainable business consulting firm.

Combining their respective expertise, Garrett and Qualls piloted their first CivicizeMe program in Grand Rapids—a six-day primer on civic leadership—in 2016. With this in-depth format, "people could walk away feeling authorized and empowered to call themselves a leader," says Garrett. Designed for everyday citizens, professionals, and even current community leaders, this program is an introduction to the basics of local government, and encourages them to get involved.

CivicizeMe has since diversified into additional formats, offering Backyard Civics 101, a three-hour seminar that has been "helping people give voice to a civic ambition that they might have," says Garrett. Garrett says that these trainings simply offer information and confidence—essentially empowering individuals to accomplish something as small as adding a speed bump or stop sign, to something as large as running for public office.

"It is important obviously to keep an eye on what's going on on the federal level, but if you're looking to make more immediate change, that's in our own backyard," says Garrett.

Graduates of Leadership Grand Rapids, a 32-year old program housed within the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, have capitalized on this fact—honing their leadership skills to become more effective members of their local community. Each year, LGR brings together cohorts of 40 individuals for one Thursday per month over the course of nine months to explore community issues—things like breaking the cycle of poverty, healthcare, education, and affordable housing.

Utilizing four platforms: diversity, systems thinking, community connections and leadership skills, LGR students have an opportunity to hear from speakers of a variety of disciplines and walks of life in order to view Grand Rapids from all angles. Students also are taught the importance of civic engagement apart from economic contribution.

"The importance of citizen voice [is] being a servant in our community and being a leader in community work, not just professionally," says Megan Smith Jovanovic, JD Vice President of Talent Development at the GR Chamber.

Whether you're a high school student (or younger), a college student, a young professional or years into your profession, it's never too late to make your voice heard. Even if you feel uninformed or at a disadvantage, a bevy of professionals are waiting for you to take the leap—to sign up for a class, attend a luncheon, or join a council. In our city, even the smallest voice can make a difference. "Your local voice can make a huge change," says Smith Jovanovic.
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