By Richey Piiparinen
People line up completely surrounding the Jackson Township Municipal Building, in three separate lines alphabetically by last name, before the polls open, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, in Jackson Township, Pa. // AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Maybe your town could use a few new elected leaders.
Or some competition.
Maybe they could use…you?
This fall, thousands of people will be elected to office — often, devoid of competition — to run schools, townships, boroughs, and cities in our region.
These elections don’t have the Kafkaesque qualities of national political races and lack the emotional force of public protests — but still are important.
“People should run but it’s important before they run they research what the position entails so we don’t have people starting the job and resigning after a year,” said MaryBeth Kunzik, elections director for Armstrong County. “That’s happened.”
The nonprofit group Run for Something is working to get more young people to run for public office, focusing on state and local offices.
“We have to fight for every single office, no matter how hard or how small,” said co-founder and Executive Director Amanda Litman, “because the alternative is that either the worst people end up jumping in or no one does, and then critical services get under-provided.”
These elected positions, often unpaid, carry with them the responsibility for developing the character of a community beyond clearing roads of snow or paving them.
Protesters gather to listen to Courtney Wiggins speak at Open Space Park in Traverse City, Mich., during a rally in June 2020 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The protest movement over black injustice has also quickly spread deep into predominantly white, small-town America, notably throughout the parts of the country that delivered the presidency for Donald Trump. Protests were plentiful last year, but how many people are volunteering within their community or running for office? // Mike Krebs/Traverse City Record-Eagle via AP
They make rules for things such as the size of signs, the height of fences, and perhaps least sexy of all, managing sewage treatment.
They decide how to spend your taxes.
They lead the public schools your kids attend.
If your town has police, those who run the town are responsible for hiring them.
Volunteering in your town’s government or seeking office, to most of us, carries not the feeling of release one might get from pitching a sign skyward and chanting in protest.
The tenor is generally not one of roaring emotions, as a protest might be. Rather, it is the quiet patter of prescribed assembly, often in a town hall, the elected officials seated in a row, one of whom pounds a gavel to call a meeting to order, as per Robert’s Rules of Order, with the sound of someone eating crackers because they’ve not had time for supper.
Residents are entitled to attend these meetings, ask questions, and speak.
Sometimes meetings are held in a basement, a school gymnasium, a dingy office with bad ventilation — or in a barn. Twitteratti they are not, nor is local government easily expressed as Instagram-cool.
Their digital soapbox might be limited to a Facebook page with town announcements.
These groups frequently do not represent the diversity of a community, but rather, those who happen to run for office.
Change is hard. Yet whether we want it or not, change will come. It becomes harder — and slower — when we watch, rather than participate in it.
Sometimes, not enough people pay attention or get involved until something goes wrong.
Protest has its place: It is society’s emoticon of rage, frustration, and sadness, an expression of things pent up all unfurled at once.It has helped to start — and push — movements.
Sometimes, it is the lever for systemic change.
But the wheel for that change can also happen in town halls and on school boards, and grow outward. Serving on committees and then running for office allows each one of us to affect policy in our communities.
It is unquestionably less action-packed to stay awake while pondering borough code, or hiring a police officer or worrying about clearing town roads of snow.
But it’s also a place where one person can make a measurable difference.
When local elections take place this fall in many Postindustrial states, we urge you to check out opportunities to serve on boards, commissions, and advisory committees in your community.
If you’re feeling bold, successful write-in campaigns are possible at the local level, with voter turnout so low.
Change is hard. Yet whether we want it or not, change will come.
It becomes harder — and slower — when we watch, rather than participate in it.
By Heath Druzin
By Vince Guerrieri
By Carmen Gentile | Photographs by Justin Merriman for American Reportage