Democracy is not a spectator sport

By Any Natarajan
Indian-Americans today are considered a “model” immigrant community – we are well educated and have made tremendous inroads in several areas.  As a young  community, we have been inward-focused – on us as individuals, on the family and children and a close circle of friends.  It is only recently that we have started to be involved in School PTAs and other school related outreach efforts. Despite the fact that we think of ourselves sometimes as being “temporary citizens” in this country – with the dream of going “back home” soon, we are here.  And we need to get involved in merging with the mainstream community.  There are several ways to be involved in the communities we live in.

Be proactive:  The only time we tend to get involved with a community issue is in a reactive mode – when something affects us directly.  We then join a group and march angrily to demand justice from city hall.  This process does not provide much perspective into how things function here and we are reacting usually from our understanding of government from the country we came from.  To be proactive and direct the change instead of reacting to it is a much healthier format for community building.

Get out of your comfort zone:  If you live in a neighborhood that does not have much interaction – if you are a fairly typical suburbanite who uses the city more as a bedroom community, chances are that you barely know your neighbors.  You can take charge of hosting neighborhood parties to get to know the neighbors better.  You can also contact the city’s police department and initiate a neighborhood block party as part of National Night Out.

If you are already involved with your neighborhood or your children’s school PTAs, try something different – it is important to get out of your comfort zone and explore other opportunities to be part of the community.  There are several short-term opportunities for volunteering – again, contact your city about volunteer programs.

Work on what you care about:  Given the lack of time, it is hard to commit to volunteering for something on a long-term basis.  Make sure that you care deeply and are passionate about a cause before you commit to volunteering.  Volunteering should be about both giving and getting something back. 

Boards and Commissions:  Another way to be an integral part of your city government and be involved in policy-making is to seek an appointment on a board or commission in your city or county.  There are numerous opportunities available and it is fairly simple to get them.  The best way to start is to check out your city’s website for a listing of all of all board and commissions.  Typically, most cities have human relations commissions, library commissions, youth advisory commissions, planning commissions, senior commissions and art review boards.  Once you narrow down the ones you are interested in, attend a couple of meetings (all meetings are open to the public) to make sure you know what you are getting into.  Fill out an application and talk to one of your council members about your interest. 

For a democracy to succeed, all voices have to be heard.  For a democracy to succeed, you should get involved – if you do not get involved, you give up your right to complain.  As Mahatma Gandhi sad “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Anu Natarajan is a member of the Fremont City Council and an urban designer. 

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