“Civic engagement” is a term you probably have heard bandied about, without knowing exactly what it means. Perhaps it conjures up images of protesters holding up signs in front of City Hall. While it can include protesting, civic engagement encompasses a broad range of political and non-political activities that have the goal of promoting the quality of life within a community. If you are a civically engaged person, you realize that you have the responsibility and the power to be part of collective efforts to improve the public good. You are someone who sees your community’s well-being as vital to the quality of your own life.
At 350 Contra Costa, our focus is on the political part of the somewhat squishy scope of civic engagement. We direct our efforts towards getting our city, county, and state to take the actions necessitated by the climate change emergency so we can continue to enjoy Contra Costa as a great place to live, and to improve environmental justice. This engagement of the people living in a community with government on the issues that directly affect their lives is the highest expression of democracy. We’ve recently seen American democracy come under attack; one of the best ways we can make sure our democracy endures is through civic engagement, through making sure that local government hears our voices on the issues that matter to us.
You may have some skepticism about whether civic engagement actually works. Does local government respond to community input? Often, local government takes action without receiving much in the way of community response, even if public meetings are held. But when a significant number of local residents decide to make their voices heard, they can be very effective in influencing government. One great example is Contra Costa County’s Declaration of a Climate Emergency (CER), unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors on September 22, 2020. This happened because local residents signed petitions, showed up at the county meetings, and got involved in some of the grassroots organizations providing input to the CER. Another example is the No Drilling in Brentwood campaign, where locals and activists joined forces to prevent the county’s quick approval in May 2020 of a permit for exploratory oil well drilling, within 1,100 feet of residences, without an environmental impact report (EIR). In response to the public outcry, the county is conducting an EIR and has yet to complete its review of the massive amounts of public comments it received.
So what exactly does civic engagement entail? There is a wide array of ways in which you could effect change, including:
- Discussing issues and political candidates with friends and family
- Signing petitions
- Circulating petitions
- Displaying banners and bumper stickers
- Writing letters or emails to public officials
- Writing letters to newspapers
- Posting on social media
- Speaking about issues at public meetings
- Hosting educational seminars
- Meeting with public officials
- Distributing electoral campaign materials
- Running for public office
As you can see, no matter what your time constraints, skills, and comfort level, most likely there is a feasible, maybe fun, way to be engaged in improving the quality of life and environmental justice in Contra Costa.