Duluth Citizens in Action Forum

26 Jan

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending the day at the Citizens in Action 2014 forum in Duluth, an event put on by the League of Women Voters and a host of supporting organizations. I went on a whim, having received a flyer earlier this week; these sorts of events can be hit-or-miss, depending on the quality of the organizing effort, invited guests, and degree of political neutrality. In the end, it was a day well-spent: the planning committee did a thorough job and reeled in many local politicians, and while a majority of the attendees were certainly on the left side of the political spectrum (no surprise in Duluth), there was some variety, and a pleasant lack of harping on causes. The food was good, too.

The keynote speaker was Minnesota State Representative Rena Moran, who in her second term serving a St. Paul district in the State House. Rep. Moran’s story was a compelling one: in July of 2000, the single mother of seven decided she needed to leave Chicago and move to a state with good schools and a strong community for her children. So she told them to leave most of their possessions behind, piled them all into a van, and drove to Minneapolis. Her family spent a few months in a shelter, but before long she was on her feet, and eventually found a home in St. Paul’s historically black Rondo neighborhood. It all snowballed from there, as Moran became involved in local affairs. As a representative, she highlighted her legislative successes during her first term, when the Republicans held the majority in the House and she needed to build relationships across the aisle to get anything done, and told of bringing her colleagues with her to show them reality inside inner-city neighborhoods. Rep. Moran stayed for the entire conference, joining panels and sharing her experiences.

After that we broke into groups, and I attended a panel discussion entitled “Young Adults in Action.” The panel included Rep. Moran, two Duluth Denfeld students involved in the Native Youth Alliance of Minnesota; two 20-something members of the board of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial, which aims to remember and continue dialogue about the 1920 Duluth lynching of three black men; and two Duluth East students and members of the group Students for the Future, which organized to give students a voice in Duluth schools during Red Plan restructuring talks some five years ago and lives on today. (Full disclosure: I was out of high school when the group was founded, but know a number of its original members, and played a minor consulting role in its formation.) A couple of moderators guided them through a series of questions, and while the forum could have benefitted from a somewhat looser format, it delivered the goods.

Two candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant Minnesota House 7A seat on the east side of Duluth were in the room, and one of them asked the panel perhaps the most pressing question: just how do we get people involved? With young people, getting them through the door often seems to be half the battle. It’s an especially big problem nowadays, when college and high school students are bombarded with daily information on countless groups they can join; it can be easy to miss the best options, and many are reluctant to take a leap and join something unless they have a group of friends with them. A single cause or candidate might inspire some excitement, but it can be hard to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility in those who weren’t raised in that sort of environment to begin with. And, as one of the Denfeld students explained, sometimes they quite simply don’t have enough time to take on anything else.

What is undeniable, however, are the potential benefits for those involved. The two East students, when asked what they’d gained from their experience, succinctly said two things that, while not unknown, took me four years of college to fully internalize. (I paraphrase. Student One: “I wanted to study international relations, but now I’ve realized how easy it is to have an immediate and lasting impact just by working in my community.” Student Two: “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I know I can do other things in life but still be very involved in politics.”)

After lunch, we were sent to rooms in small groups to meet with local politicians, who rotated through to meet us in groups of two or three. There were sixteen on hand, including two state representatives, two county commissioners, the St. Louis County Attorney, and a whole bunch of the city council and school board members whose names often grace this blog. We got brief but productive opportunities to share our stories and most pressing concerns, and the officials took diligent notes and replied as time allowed. There was a pleasant diversity of topics brought forward by the other citizens in attendance. Being a big picture person, I settled for telling my own story and some shameless blog plugging, and was pleasantly surprised by the response. (Thanks, readers!)

I’m afraid I did run off when we got to the singing at the end, but for the most part, it was a quality event. In the grand scheme of things, it probably didn’t change much—the people who came are mostly the sorts who would have made their voices heard in some way anyway—but face-to-face contact never hurts, and getting people together to talk about political engagement can be rejuvenating. And while I make a big deal out of the stories of people who are not usually vocal in politics being overlooked, not everyone can be constantly engaged, and it’s up to those who can to be aware of them and pick up the slack. A healthy community needs its activists and campaigners, but it also needs its caretakers and critics; those who can step out of the hectic world of politics from time to time. Reality tells us there are plenty who simply don’t have the interest, whatever their reason. As long as they aren’t forgotten, it all works out in the end.

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