I recently discovered an intriguing organization based in St. Paul, MN, called the Citizens League. It’s goal is to improve Minnesota by helping citizens to shape public policy.
During the recent economic crisis, towns and counties around Minnesota saw their LGA slashed. LGA is Local Government Aid and it’s a method whereby taxes are pooled from communities around the state and then redistributed to communities that have a lower tax base than wealthier communities. With the economic crisis, people were more reticent to “share the wealth” and LGA got cut, with folks grumbling about the size of government and how wasteful LGA was.
When I considered the LGA program from a historical perspective (as I’m wont to do at work), my thought was that when LGA was put into place, surely the people running the government at the time saw it as an effective way to build the state. They didn’t say to themselves, “How can we create a really wasteful program that’s going to be inefficient and make people mad?” When policy is sensibly made, typically there’s a good reason for it.
I didn’t have time to do a lot of research on the background of LGA, but I’ve been interested in how it arose, so my eyes are always open, scanning for its history. I attended a forum to meet then candidate Rick Nolan (this was before the last election). During the forum, Rick mentioned that he was part of the “Minnesota Miracle,” which established LGA in 1971. Well, what do you know? This gave me an important piece of information in seeking out more history.
And then, earlier this year, I discovered the Citizens League, which apparently played a critical role in birthing the “Minnesota Miracle.” That, right there, was enough to pique my interest in this organization.
As I did more research, I discovered that the Citizens League recently became involved in something it calls “civic policy making.” Rather than having citizens leave all policy making in the hands of government or leaders, the Citizens League wants to help people see that they are also policy makers via the choices and actions they take in life. What a person does as an individual can have an effect on the community, sometimes a large effect. It’s a mix of personal responsibility and the Butterfly effect, with a measure of consciousness in how our agency can help the larger community.
A few examples might make this clearer.
In our business, Mid-Century Vibe, we, and our partners at MidModMen, have decided that we want to offer customers reasonably priced vintage furniture that is in ready-to-use condition when they buy it from us. We’ve made a number of conscious choices right there. 1) We’ve picked vintage furniture (1940s-1970s), mostly modern in style, rather than anything older or newer. 2) In making it ready-to-use, we’re willing to clean, refinish and reupholster pieces as needed. 3) By refurbishing old furniture, we’re keeping it out of landfills. 4) By making it reasonably priced and ready-to-use, we show we care about the customer’s wallet, time and experience.
In making a few specific choices about how we want to operate our business, we have an effect on the larger community through the money we spend, the furniture we save, and the customers we serve. This is civic policy making.
The same holds true for my job at the Morrison County Historical Society. The organization has a long reputation of being an innovative and careful research institution that is responsive to its stakeholders. These values are clearly stated and carried out in everything we do. It’s why we have a website that is loaded with historical information that, in turn, brings more people to our institution. It’s why the organization is respected throughout the state. This is civic policy making.
On a personal level, even the smallest of my actions can have an effect on the community.
My regular blog readers know that I often talk about my dog (affectionately called “Doggle Woggle”) here. We’ve had Doggle Woggle for close to three years now. He’s a high-energy breed and I was determined when we got him to make sure he had a enough exercise. Part of that comes from knowing that an un-exercised dog is a naughty dog. Part of it comes from having grown up with a chihuahua named Dandy that lived most of its life in a cage in the basement because it was not properly house-broken. Watching that dog have a miserable life was enough to ensure that any animal I owned would be properly taken care of. (In fact, all of my siblings are also really responsible and loving pet owners, most likely because of Dandy. During high school, a friend of mine offered to take Dandy to a foster family to be cared for and I took him up on the offer so she could live our her days in comfort.)
Anyway, I walk Doggle twice a day, no matter the weather. We have a fairly regular route. I’ve noticed there are a lot of other dogs, some of them quite big, who rarely ever leave the house, let alone are taken on walks. It makes me sad for those dogs. I could be a dog owner who never walks the dog, but the act of walking my dog in the community is part of my civic policy making. It’s good for the dog. It’s good for me. And it’s good for other dog owners in the community to see someone out walking the dog. Perhaps it will encourage them to do so as well.
How do you engage in civic policy making? What small acts and choices do you make in life that you hope will have a positive effect on the world?