Civic

Thinking about civic duty — from the PTO to the presidency, so many people dislike the job that’s being done, often complaining that it’s always the same insiders, doing things the same old way. And that’s true, and when you take that truism and cross it with histories of oppression, you’ll notice that there are a lot of straight white men in the center of those power hierarchies. (Well, maybe straight white women for PTO, but same basic principle.) I went to the high school school board candidate forum today — five men who looked white to me, one black woman. It was a little stark.

But at the same time that we should be paying attention to that inequity, maybe even a little angry about who’s in charge (the high school board allocates over 80 million dollars annually) and what they’re prioritizing, there’s also the truism that the people who show up are the ones who get to make the decisions.

And where we have to be very, very careful here is to not assume that the *reason* people who aren’t straight white men (and sometimes women) haven’t historically shown up to run for office, serve on committees, etc., is because they don’t care or aren’t invested in their community. We *have* to take into account the weight of all the barriers to people’s participation, and then work to undo those barriers.

The single mom, or the married mom from a historically impoverished ethnic community — how is she going to serve on the school board? Even the main monthly meeting is going to cost her hard cash she may not have on hand for sufficient childcare; she may not have easy transport to the meetings either.

Never mind all the other committees she’d like to participate in, the other bodies’ board meetings she’d like to attend. And what about the cost of the annual luncheons, the club dues, the fundraising cocktail hours — all the little elements that go towards your body being very visibly active in your community, that let you have conversations over a pleasant meal and maybe even a drink or two that facilitate you working smoothly with other officials?

Oak Park recently raised the stipend for its village trustees and people complained. I’m not sure, but I don’t think the school boards or library board get any stipends. I didn’t check in advance, because Kev and I are financially comfortable enough that I didn’t *have* to check; I knew that we could afford the cost of any childcare needed, or an occasional luncheon ticket or cocktail. And *that* is how economic and ethnic and etc. inequities get perpetuated; you can be damn sure that if I do ever have the chance to vote on modest stipends for serving officials, I’ll be voting yes, not for me, but so that everyone who wants to participate in civic life *can* participate.

This message brought to you by my considering serving as Head Coach for Kavi’s soccer team that she just joined, because none of the other parents in the group volunteered, and the organizers sent us all a plaintive e-mail this morning. Communities run on volunteers, and someone has to step up. Even though I’m busy, I’m not juggling two minimum-wage jobs and deciding whether to pay for food or medicine next month. And heck, it’ll probably be fun chasing ten screaming little girls around a soccer field.

Yet I wonder whether maybe the league shouldn’t ask everyone who can, to chip in a little more towards a childcare fund, so that more parents have the option of being involved, no matter what their economic circumstances. It probably won’t happen at this level, and maybe it shouldn’t — maybe it’s too onerous even to organize that for something relatively low on the civic totem pole.

But this month’s soccer mom is next month’s elected official. We need to pay attention to where people are getting shut out of the process.

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