A Year of Public Service In East Boston
Four times in the last week I’ve been out with a shovel on the banks of the East Boston Greenway planting daffodils, just because it seemed like a good thing to do.
Around this time a year ago, I joined my first “Community Cleanup” where a neighbor lent me a trash grabber and we cleaned litter for an hour. A day later, I emailed my City Councilor about trash cans. Two weeks later, I helped a neighbor with a community tulip bed. A few days later, I joined my first neighborhood association board meeting. Within a few weeks, I arranged to have shrubs planted on a community path to prevent erosion. Then I arranged to have a dog poop bag dispenser installed on the community path.
Prior to that first “Community Cleanup” I was interested in doing such things, but had done exactly none. Then in a whirlwind, it was all happening. Now, a year later, I’m reflecting at how I got here. My tracking shows that I did 78 such acts of public service in 2019 for a total of 187.5 hours. That’s a little over 8% of my free-time, but it hardly felt like it!
So here is some advice that I would have given myself in order to become active sooner.
Go to a public meeting in your neighborhood
At some point, I started going to my monthly, open to the public neighborhood association meetings. I dreaded them. They were 2 hours of uncomfortable, unproductive “community engagement” between property developers and residents, with a tiny bit of community updates sprinkled in and woefully little neighborly chitchat. On the bright side, I learned about the Office of Neighborhood Services’ neighborhood liaison, my City Councilor, the BPDA, my State Rep and the “community process.” Most importantly, I learned to lookup other public meetings and I found there were many!
Talk to a community stalwart
I had joined a couple of Facebook groups and one day I bumped into one the frequent posters at a restaurant. His name was Kannan and when I chatted him up about how to get involved, he warmly told me he’d add me to the newsletter. However, the connection was made, and a few weeks later he connected me with the neighbor who needed help with the community tulip bed. To this day, he is an excellent mentor with a great working knowledge of government and an inspiring level of dedication to the public good.
Send notes to your Electeds at every level
My first note was to my City Councilor’s office about trash cans. It was a productive note because it quickly turned into a dialog about a wishlist the annual budget cycle, which I would have never known about without starting the conversation. Later, I sent notes to my neighborhood liaison and my State Rep and now they CC me on relevant updates they send out. I think it’s important to consider if an Elected could possibly help with your issue (e.g. your State Rep probably can’t help with City issues and vice-versa, and maybe your liaison can help you without involving your City Councilor.)
Send short, directed emails
At some point, you’ll have built a small contact network. When you contact them, imagine your are an unpaid volunteer with a busy life. That person doesn’t want to be CCed on everything and they don’t want to read a brain dump of all your thoughts. They might help you anyway, but you will be doing them a great service if you write short emails and send them only to the one or two people in charge.
Make Requests and Offers
Like so many things in life, you’re participating in a market of sorts where your offers of time and effort are the supply, and your requests for time, effort and budget are the demand. You can trade favors or good favor with individuals and community groups. You’ll never get anywhere if you never request things. That is how you’ll learn important things like budget cycles and grant dates, how you’ll meet like minded people, and how you’ll make stuff happen. This is how I got a dog poop bag dispenser installed at my favorite park. I asked a neighbor, who referred me to a Parks and Rec employee and we made a deal that he would install it if I would refill it.
Be patient & plan ahead
If it can wait until the monthly meeting, then get on the agenda and wait for the monthly meeting, and don’t send a lengthy email!
There’s a rock near my house engraved with the phrase “A city is not an accident,” and I think it’s important to keep that in mind. If you want to undertake a big project, you will need to talk to tons of outreach, planning, emailing, convincing and the like. If you just want to do something in your neighborhood, typically you just need a few nods. You’ll be able to do way more, and you’ll learn a ton along the way. The knowledge and experience you gain is what you’ll need should you decide to undertake something big!