From local nonprofits to positions of leadership, there are many chances to keep helping your community even after the election.
ADRIAN, Mich.—The 2020 election is over, but for rural activist William Garcia the work doesn’t end. The election is where his work begins.
Garcia is a local organizer in Lenawee County, working on issues like fighting the ban on homelessness the city passed in September. He found a lack of grassroots movements in his area, so he built one from scratch and is starting to prepare his newfound progressive partners for local elections next year.
“In Michigan, both the US Senate and State Legislature severely impede the implementation of leftist and progressive ideas at any level other than local,” Garcia told The ‘Gander. “If there are vacant positions on your municipal planning or development commission, get leftists in those positions.”
Garcia pointed to a number of ways to stay involved following this last election, and encouraged Michiganders to find the way to become a part of a movement that is comfortable for them. The important thing is finding the right way to be involved for you.
“If activism feels like more work, you will burn out,” Garcia cautioned. “Whatever you do, do what you enjoy, do what you do well, and do it with friends. If you’re not enjoying yourself, find another way to contribute.”
Here are some of those ways to contribute.
Take Up Causes
Activism is central to what Garcia does in Adrian. Fighting for unhoused residents in the city has made him do research on the cause, make strategic connections to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Homelessness Law Center, and prompted him to become as well-read on the topic as possible.
Taking up a cause is also a great way to connect with like-minded people, Garcia explained. And causes abound, simply due to the sheer volume of things going on in communities around the state.
“Find something terrible going on in your community and put up a protest on Facebook,” Garcia said. “And it’s seriously not that hard to find terrible things going on in your community. Your municipal government is probably doing something absurd right now, and if they aren’t, your police department or zoning commission or school district is. Some elderly person is probably getting evicted. Some landlord is giving families unfit housing. If all else fails, the rent is too damn high.”
A side effect of political organizing, and one Garcia considers necessary, is building friendships. Trust is essential to small groups of committed residents in a community, so really knowing the people you organize with matters.
“You should be friends—if you can’t all go out for dinner together after the action, something is wrong,” he said. “If you’re in a smaller community especially, you really only need a handful of people to make big changes happen. Make those your favorite people.”
He cautioned though that making change on a cause in your community will likely upset powerful people, so for the conflict-averse, another way of being involved might be better.
Join Local Boards
Another way to remain active and make change outside of an election is working on a city planning board. Local governments tend to have many commissions, boards and committees making proposals, assessing local programs or providing oversight over a city department, and vacancies on these boards open fairly regularly.
These tend to come with certain inflexible time commitments but by and large are a behind-the-scenes way of being involved in local government. And they’re a great way to champion your political philosophy in a way that’s tangible in your community, Garcia explained.
Local governments have some of the most direct impact on the daily lives of Michiganders and can often step in with local policies where higher levels of government struggle to take action, as seen with the local nondiscrimination ordinances extended to LGBTQ Michiganders over the years.
Garcia wants to see Michiganders joining these boards and commissions and leveraging the power they possess to affect real change that often goes unused and unrecognized, he said.
But local boards aren’t the only way to get involved in local government.
Run for Office
Voter turnout in local elections is fairly low in general, and in rural Michigan the margins of victory for down ballot races are especially slim. For someone with time, charisma and a bit of ambition, seeking office on city councils or school boards might be a great way to remain involved in local government.
Even mayoral elections can be decided by a few energized voters.
“There are so many communities where the voter turnout for municipal races is in the teens or even—I swear I’m not joking—single digits,” Garcia explained. “If you’re in a community like Morenci, Michigan where the last mayor got 83 votes at 4.3% voter turnout in 2019 and is up for re-election, go take that power.”
More ambitious Michiganders seeking to get involved could look to Lansing and run for the state legislature.
And running for office isn’t the only way to get something on the ballot.
Start a Petition
Some of the most impactful changes to Michigan in recent years from securing digital privacy to allowing recreational marijuana to a sweeping reform of Michigan’s voting laws were born from citizen-led petitions.
The process of getting a proposal on the ballot is long and takes a statewide effort, but getting in touch with related activists or building a community around a cause can be a good place to start. Based solely on the sheer volume of decisions being made at the state and local level, some are bound to cause problems, ranging from permitting bad landlords to the rent being too damn high, and one way to address those problems is by petition.
There’s a lot of overlap between this one and taking up causes, but the process of getting an initiative on the ballot is far more managerial and less overtly confrontational, so some might find it a more appealing approach. It also has the potential to create direct change rather than attempting to influence others to act. The downside is, it’s a much harder goal to accomplish.
And, as the ballot petition for LGBTQ non-discrimination protections statewide discovered, that process can be subjected to unpredictable challenges, like a global health emergency.
Work With Nonprofits
Another way to actively create change and be directly involved in helping causes you care about is working with a similarly-aligned nonprofit organization. From regional Communities of Mental Health to lawyers defending immigrants to shelters for those living with domestic violence, Michigan has no shortage of places that do good work.
Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, Meals on Wheels and scores of other programs regularly seek volunteer aid to help forward their missions, and being involved in these programs can be very rewarding, said St. Clair, Michigan resident Audrey Sochor. Sochor is a program manager at an area nonprofit and called her work a “feel good job.”
For the less politically inclined who still want to make a difference, these kinds of programs are a great way to help the community.
Make a Friend
A core througline to all of the above activities is working together. Changing the world or Michigan or your neighborhood requires teamwork, and that team needs to be able to trust and rely on one another, Garcia said.
“You can get a lot more done with six or eight people who are ideologically compatible than you can with 60-80 people who aren’t,” he told The ‘Gander. “After you have that strong base of people who you can trust, who work well together, who have norms and a culture and projects underway, then maybe you can expand a bit.”
Working as a small, dedicated group of passionate people focused on a common goal is a storied tradition worldwide when it comes to creating change, and a tradition passionate Michiganders can continue as the 2020 election falls into the distance behind us.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world,” American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Garcia put that another way.
“The real revolution is the friends we make along the way,” he said.