Civic Salt: Let's take a fresh approach to citizenship, community

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Bureaucracy is a terrible word. It invokes boxes. Taxes. Forms. White walls. Impersonality. Lines. Both of the waiting variety and the straight variety. Bureaucracy makes a human feel tiny.

Each month I’m going to analyze it in this column.

Civics, on the other hand, is a wonderful word. It’s empowering. It’s an active education of the rights of citizenship and community. We don’t talk enough about civics. We don’t know enough about civics.

And that’s what I’ll be talking about in this column, too.

Is being civically minded calling my senator? Is that it?

Or is being civically minded learning about a zoning height variant change that might affect the ability of fishermen to use Portland’s docks as a place of business and livelihood in the years to come?

That type of civic mindedness means you’ll have to show up at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, probably. To one of those rooms. The white-walled ones. You’ll get a printed agenda, maybe. But it’s also uploaded as a PDF file buried about 25 pages deep on the city’s website because: transparency and accessibility.

The others in those “public” meetings know the drill. They actually understand zoning law. They are the much-maligned developers who profit from this process. But I have a hard time believing that they, too, don’t also care about their city. The rapacious soul-sucking developer is far too easy a stereotype to buy into. And the city employees are not our enemies in this fight. They are our allies, actually.

But this complicity with stasis deserves to be called out. And if the baby-boomers aren’t itching to do it, younger folks are eager, if only through dire necessity. We are losing our souls because this is our civic process. How else would you define losing the docks in Portland? Like taking a fine piece of sandpaper to the last bit of grit on Commercial Street. These docks. These fishermen. These people. We cannot let this process displace them and ruin us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. That whole process of finding an agenda buried on a website and showing up at a random hour to a mind-numbingly boring meeting? That can change. That has to change. Remember that pesky little demographic cliff Maine is hurtling off of in a few years? Complicity with stasis keeps the keys to our future with our very white, very old, and very male-dominated power structures.

I’m not alone in believing that our future lies elsewhere.

Municipalities are desperate for new, younger public-sector workers. What if we made public-sector jobs that were actually attractive to young people? The IDEXXes and WEXes of the world are here, and we love them for being here. But what about other areas of the state? Who is going to fill the town administrator position four hours from the lure of Portland?

Cities have a self-esteem problem. They know that their technology apparatus is not up to snuff. Smart-city surveillance devices – I mean, “sensors”— are shiny and fun and boy do they look and sound cool. But what human problems are they solving? Are we lacking in privately owned companies who make money from selling the data of our citizens? That’s the “problem” that smart-city devices solve. Don’t believe the hype. And be very skeptical.

Innovation at the civic level looks a lot like re-imagining the process of civic engagement. It looks like investing in an infusion of design talent to deploy to municipalities all over Maine. It looks like reforming procurement processes and the way we buy technology (hint: the current reality isn’t pretty). And it looks much more like grassroots organizing than it does an Elon Musk wet dream of shiny technology that makes one person ridiculously rich.

Civics should be accessible. For all. And we should focus on hiring young folks to do that work. The first step is to listen to us.

In this column I’m going to talk about how this all works, and sprinkle a few fresh ideas about civics. Find me on Twitter if you want to come save the docks, too, because I’ll wade through some PDFs for us all.

Emma Burnett of Portland is a civic technology evangelist and a communications and community organizing professional. Find her on Twitter @elburnett.

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