Older, wiser, still engaged
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but sometime in the past few years I stopped feeling young. Last year, I officially passed the midway mark in my thirties and got married. And I’m not that young: I’m pretty sure Greensboro’s city manager is younger than I am, and I know the youngest city council member — now seeking his third term — has only a couple years on me.
As someone who follows local politics for a living, the people I identify with most are the citizens who come to city council meetings month after month because they give a damn about their neighborhoods. Many of them are in their sixties or older.
They have worked hard, and want to see their tax money spent wisely. They want adequate police patrols in their neighborhoods to prevent break-ins. They want the vegetation trimmed back from heavily traveled roadways to prevent traffic accidents. They want the city to do something about blighted housing so it doesn’t bring the down the value of their single largest investments, their homes, and so they doesn’t provide a haven for criminals. Given the demands of their personal lives and neighborhood leadership responsibilities, sometimes they have the luxury of looking at the big picture — at what will create jobs and make Greensboro an attractive city for growth.
As someone who follows local politics for a living, the people I identify with most are the citizens who come to city council meetings month after month because they give a damn about their neighborhoods.
The irony is that these community volunteers have invested nearly a lifetime of experience to develop the expertise to effectively advocate for their communities, but they stand to realize relatively little of the benefits. Those of us who are under 40 are the primary beneficiaries of their caretaking.
Flip the script. We have new challenges that the engaged citizenry of today did not have to contend with. Being that most of them are boomers, they came of age in a time of widely shared prosperity, when tax revenue to pay for vital public services was expanding, and employment, if not assured, was at least generally available to those who made the right personal and educational choices.
That’s not true anymore. I know lots of idealistic college graduates who are eager to give back to their communities but are struggling to stay employed or are only working because of Americorps. It’s not rare that they’ve had to move back in with their parents. What are we going to do to create jobs to employ our college graduates in Greensboro? How are we going to make sure they are adequately compensated so they have the financial confidence to start families and buy homes?
How do we make sure Greensboro is growing and not dying? How are we going to ensure that our city is livable with good parks and transportation infrastructure conducive to walking and cycling, that our city is culturally vibrant with ample employment opportunities? How are we going to ensure that our children receive a quality education?
No one has the expertise to advocate for these needs more than young people. Forgive the old if they care more about keeping their taxes low than about job creation, public education and downtown nightlife. They’ve paid their dues.
Oftentimes, those of us who are under 40 go to work; we meet our friends at the bar for drinks; we enjoy the amenities of apartment communities: the pool, the tennis court and the walking trail. We think society operates on auto-pilot; it doesn’t.
Many of us also know that society is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. We certainly know that it’s not working for us. We know that we’re drowning in student debt, but jobs are hard to find and easy to lose. We know that the income gap is widening. That’s why the Occupy Wall Street movement is expected to spread to Greensboro and Winston-Salem next week.
Protest. Occupy. But also vote. Voting in local elections doesn’t make sense for a lot of young people because they don’t see city government as relevant. The reason it’s not relevant is because young people are not organized into a voting bloc that forces elected officials to listen to their concerns at the peril of losing the next election.
We have a serious democracy deficit. Only 35,152 people voted in the last municipal election. That means that about 13 percent of Greensboro’s residents are responsible for selecting our current municipal government. If you weren’t part of that 13 percent, why should they care what you think?
I can tell you that a lot of people hold city government accountable: developers, neighborhood groups, the restaurant industry, landlords, large-scale property owners, small-business owners, conservative activists and even people fighting to keep the White Street Landfill closed. There are others who live here, work here and raise families here who aren’t heard from so much by our elected leaders: people who live in public housing, immigrants, people who go out to nightclubs, tenants, people with disabilities and people with small children. I can assure you they don’t get a lot of phone calls from people who clean houses, wash dishes and change bedpans for a living.
I’ve gotten to know this cool group of young people who call themselves Face to Face. They don’t know everything there is to know about city government and leadership, but they’ve taken it upon themselves to learn and teach others while they’re at it. I think they recognize that engaging with their community leads to deeper, more meaningful lives.
On Tuesday, Oct. 18 from 6:30 to 10 p.m., I’ll be joining them in the parking lot adjacent to M’Coul’s Public House for Show of Hands, a free concert featuring Camp Lo, Jenny Besetzt and MC Kaze. We’ll have food and drink for sale. Candidates for Greensboro City Council will be there to play Wii tennis, shoot hoops and answer questions. If you’re not working second shift at the hospital, you should be there, too.