How to Be a Better Citizen

government

I would like to thank you for clicking on a post about how to be a better citizen. After all — democracy ‘by the people and for the people.’ YOU are one of those people. And without your engagement, that government doesn’t work as it’s intended.

Most of us know it’s important to vote in our presidential elections, but those only come around every four years. And there are so many more opportunities to influence your state and local government for the better. Today, we’re going to learn how a person who gives a shit, which is how I think of that desire to make a difference in yourself and the world, can become more engaged in democracy, particularly at the state, city, and local level.

You are reading the transcript of an episode of the “How to Be a Better Person” podcast. If you’d rather listen, click the play button below. And if you like what you read and/or hear, click the Share or Subscribe buttons!

Listen to the Podcast Here

About today’s guest, Nirva LaFortune

I’m interviewing Nirva LaFortune, who is my city council representative here in Providence, Rhode Island. Nirva is also my neighbor and my friend. And most excitingly, she is running for mayor of Providence. That election in 2022. Nirva was born in Haiti and came to Providence when she was three years old. She attended public schools in Providence before getting her undergraduate degree at Temple University and her graduate degree at Brown University here in Providence. She’s been an administrator in higher education for 15 years. Many of those years at Brown. And when she wins her election next year, she’ll be the first black person and first woman to be mayor of Providence.

Nirva is the first candidate who inspired me to volunteer on a campaign and actually knock on doors. In other words, she helped me be a better citizen.

Although I was scared to do it at first, I completely admit, I had some great conversations with my neighbors. I met a lot of people. And I got to feel like I was truly being represented in government when she won. Nirva has a thriving career at Brown. Plus she holds public office. Plus she’s a mom–our youngest kids are classmates. Since she’s a real person with a busy life and because she’s so good at inspiring people who’ve never been involved in government in any way to pitch in, like she did for me, I wanted to talk to her about how you can make a meaningful contribution to your local government, even if you’re intimidated or feel like you don’t have time.

Nirva, welcome. I’m so happy to have you here. You’ve been on the city council now for four years. What has that experience of holding office taught you about the importance of local government?

I think for many people, when we think about elections, we focus a lot on our federal elections or our state elections. And sometimes people don’t put as much attention on our municipal elections. But what people don’t realize is that that municipal election directly impacts the people who live in that city or in that community. When you’re electing a city council person or mayor, you’re electing someone who’s going to represent your city. Who’s going to make decisions about your schools. Who’s going to make decisions about the taxes you’re paying. And who’s going to make decisions about when your trash gets picked up. Or what type of funding goes into your rec centers in your park to ensure that we have green spaces or spaces for our kids to thrive and go to.

And so those are critical elections. They are critical positions within our government structure. And I think it’s really important for people to get engaged and to understand how they function and what role they play in our everyday life.

I like how you said everyday life, because really, even though we focus on those federal elections, those local elections are what is affecting and touching and shaping what is available to you every single day of your life.

Absolutely. I mean, when we get federal dollars in, they funnel in through the state and then they go into the municipalities. But again, that budget is approved by your city council or your mayor is by your municipal government. And so it shapes the way your city functions, as you say. And it impacts you and your family directly.

So I think a lot of people think that government is just going to do whatever government is going to do and there’s not a lot that any one person can do about it. What has holding an office shown you about the power of regular people to influence what the government does?

Well, the government can only do what it wants to do if it’s informed by the people and if the people support it. At the end of the day, you get to elect who’s going to represent your ward, your community, or your city. So if the elected official that’s in place is not doing what they promised to do, then you have an opportunity to elect someone else. Also, if there is any type of concern or if there’s a policy that’s introduced that you’re not in agreement with, you have a voice. But in order to participate the community, you have to show up.

One thing I noticed is that sometimes when we have city council meetings, there aren’t a lot of people there. When it’s not like a hot topic issue or a controversial issue. But sometimes when it’s not a controversial issue, it’s those little minor things. Whether we’re going to redirect traffic or change a zoning policy that might directly impact your neighborhood. Those things are important. But government can’t do anything without the approval of the community, the residents, the taxpayer.

So in order to make sure that we’re holding government accountable and your voices are heard, you have to get involved. So it’s important to show up to community meetings. It’s important to pay attention to what’s on the city council docket. Most municipalities have an open meetings policy. So all the information should be accessible online through the city directly or through your secretary of state’s office. It’s important to pay attention to issues that might show up on your ballot to vote for. It’s also important to pay attention to reports that are coming out from the city.

But more importantly, it’s important to get engaged. And people getting can get engaged in many ways. You can join your children’s PTO or certain community boards that exist. You can join your neighborhood association. And you can show up to your city council meetings that might be held in your community show up to city council meetings at large. Or you can go to the different committee meetings because these discussions happen in those committee meetings. Whether it’s finance, whether it’s ordinance. And then we usually bringing out to the full council for a vote. But in order for your voice to be heard, you have to show up to those hearings. You have to speak up, you could submit letters. But more importantly, reach out to your elected official. And if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do again, hold them accountable, call them out.

Can you talk more about how to reach out to your elected official?

Well, your elected official, generally they have a email address that you can contact them. You can call them. My information is usually public. So I have my email address posted on my website, including my cell phone number. You can also call the city office, whether it’s the mayor’s office or the city council directly. And they could connect you to an elected official. But those are many ways that you can get engaged. And again, showing up to the meetings. And the meetings are usually posted on social media. You might get a notification in the mail or via email, but it’s really important that you just participate.

And participating doesn’t mean that you have to allocate 12 hours per week. You can just show up to one meeting a month or a meeting every other month. But just pay attention to some of the decisions that are being made, because again, they directly impact you. And if you don’t speak up, then you don’t have any control over the decisions that are being made for you, for your family, for your community.

So Nirva, you were telling us about how important it is to show up and attend the meetings and pay attention to the decisions that are on the docket and whatnot. And it sounds like showing up is so important. When you’re in a city council meeting and you look up and see constituents looking at you, what does that do for you as a representative, as their elected official?

Well, one, it keeps me grounded because it reminds me of why I’m there. I’m not there to represent my own interest. I’m there to represent the interests of my community and my city. And so when I’m in city council, when I’m casting a vote or I’m making a decision, I think about how that decision is going to impact the people, the people in my community. Whether it’s the people in my ward or the city of Providence.

Because at the end of the day, as a city council person, yes, you’re elected by your ward. When you vote on something as a collective, the city councils voting on issues that impact the whole city of Providence. So when my constituents are there, it keeps me grounded and it reminds me of my purpose and why I’m there.

And what about when you’re hearing from them? So whether you’re getting a phone call or whether you’re getting tweets or comments on social media or people are responding to your email newsletter. Which by the way, is another good way to stay abreast of what’s going on.

Yes. And I’m a little behind, I’m going to catch up. But we’re doing a whole little new design. It’s is going to have a new look, so it’s going to come out soon.

Awesome. I love those. I think a lot of our elected officials are trying to make it easy for us to know what’s going on and what they’re working on, because of course, they’re looking to hear from us about what we think. But what happens when you hear from someone? Like, what does it do? Help us understand why us reaching out to someone like yourself, who’s in office, how can we understand the impact of that?
Like maybe there was even a particular instance when someone reached out and it just gave you courage or it influenced your thinking. Because I think that sometimes we just think like, ah, it’s just going into the void. It’s not even worth it. So help us understand our power and what it means to our elected officials to hear from us.

Absolutely. We’ve had an issue with one of our rec centers, the Vincent Brown rec center right here in the ward. Where for a long time, the roof was leaking to the point where it cause mold. And then I got involved. And finally we’re seeing some real investments and a lot of these issues being repaired. But it took that additional advocacy from me. And also from the people who are working in the rec centers and from community members, who’ve sent their children to the rec center who volunteered there.

But again, it takes our collective voice, but having that individual that can help you connect to the city is also important. Because sometimes just going into the city hall can be overwhelming. It’s a process. And so just having that connection and being there for community is one of the main roles of the city council person.  And being also the legislative body of the city, of course.

You know, I think maybe a lot of people don’t realize that they can reach out to their local representative for help. But as these examples that are showing us. But you also need help from your constituents, right? I mean, are there times when you feel like you’re having to go out on a limb for something that maybe the council people in other wards aren’t as gung ho about, but you know that your constituents are? Does hearing from people about specific issues, like give you cover  or help you do your job?

Well, I wouldn’t say necessarily gives me cover. But it shows that this issue matters to the people. And there’s been a couple of issues that have come up, whether it’s been legislation that impacts people’s taxes. Or when I worked on my legislation to increase social, emotional support for our students in schools. People reached out to the city council and to the mayor’s office to support it. Those are ways that you can support your city council person.

And so we all play a role in government. Just because the person’s elected doesn’t mean that  you don’t play a role in the decision-making process. Because at the end of the day, the decisions that are made in the city council chambers are informed by the community needs.

Fantastic. We need to wrap it up, but I want to ask one more question before we go. Is there anything else that you wish you could get people to understand about the importance of participating in government to whatever extent you are able?

Absolutely. So one really important thing is if you want to have elected officials that represent the unique diversity of your community, we have to support and we have to encourage people from various backgrounds to run. Especially women and people of color.

When you look at the percentage of women in general who are elected in office and US Congress, there’s about a little over 23% of the US Congress is made up of women. In state elections or state leadership, there’s a little over 28%. In statewide electives, it’s about 28%. For state legislators. It’s about 29%. And in municipalities, when you look at the cities with populations of over a hundred thousand people, there are only about 21% of our country city mayors are women.

And when you think about the percentage of people who vote, women are the most active voters. We have to elect more women in office. Because when you even look at the state of Rhode Island, our state has elected more women in our state legislator. And we have seen some policies that have passed. We’ve codified Roe vs. Wade. We’ve passed legislation around sense loss to keep guns off the streets and out of the hands of the wrong people. So, we’ve made some real progress.

But in to continue making progress, we have to elect people who understands the communities that you’re serving. Who has personal experiences, who can advocate, who can listen and who can represent your values, your ideology. You don’t have to agree on every single item, but you want someone who you know and can trust. Who’s going to do the right thing, and who’s going to represent all people.

But we have to make sure that we’re supporting them by volunteering on their campaign, telling your friends about them, voting for them. But also supporting their campaigns by making a contribution because it’s harder for women to raise money, which prevents them from being able to be part of the process. And so it’s important for us to support women and support people of color who are running for office and people who care about your values and who are going to represent your community.

Amen. I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for running. And it’s a pleasure to support you and to talk to friends and to contribute money and to host fundraisers and to knock on doors. There are so many ways to get involved and there are inspiring candidates out there. I hope people who are listening to this will find those inspiring candidates in their local neighborhood. Or maybe you are one yourself. But I just want to say that you don’t have to run for office in order to be a force for good in your local government.
Nirva, for people who want to follow you, find out more about you, connect with you, where can they find you?

You can find me on my website at votenirva.com. I’m also on Twitter @nirva_lafortune. Also on Instagram and Facebook, please follow me. Pease check out my website. And if you are inspired, please make a contribution to my work and campaign so you can be part of history and elect the first woman to be mayor of Providence.

Daily Tiny Assignment

We’re going to keep it really really quick. And that is just to go and look up who is your city council person or your town council person. Or who represents you at the municipal level. Put that person’s information in your phone so you can call them. Follow them on social media. Subscribe to their email newsletter. You can just do one of these things or all of these things. But open up the lines of communication between you and your elected official. Thanks. And I hope you’ll come back tomorrow. I will be diving a little bit further into all the many ways to communicate with your elected officials.

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