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Civic Participation and the Importance Of Community Involvement

The Founding Fathers created our nation’s government with representative democracy at its core. Our elected officials are charged with making decisions and setting policies that serve the greater good, and in order to understand what best serves the people, it’s necessary to have a solid grasp of what the people want and need.

California’s elected officials -- and particularly those in local government -- face some significant challenges in terms of connecting with their constituents. For example, the state’s residents speak an astonishing number of languages. The state reports 224 languages spoken in the court system, and the University of California Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching website asserts that more than 300 languages are spoken in our state’s K-12 schools.

Finding ways to connect with residents who speak limited English requires creative thinking and fresh approaches. In addition, many people with limited English proficiency distrust government in general, further compounding the challenges of involving them in the local decision-making process.

The diversity of languages spoken here reflects the state’s myriad cultures. Effective outreach to our diverse residents requires cultural sensitivity and an understanding of their values and customs. Well-inten tioned efforts can unravel if they inadvertently offend the people they are intended to serve. However, as Duarte City Council Member Tzeitel Paras-Caracci notes on page 13, "Surveys sometimes suggest that communities have very little trust in their elected officials. This can be a stumbling block, but also a great reason to engage the public ... Engaging and empowering residents and asking what they think is an important part of building and keeping their trust."

New Series Focuses on Inclusion

This month, Western City is launching a series of articles on issues related to civic participation. California’s cities are using many different strategies to connect with their residents, and the series will share information about these successful efforts in a variety of contexts. This month’s install ment includes an interview with several city officials from throughout the state on what’s working in their communities (see page 9), a list of online resources and a feature about the City of Brea’s efforts to connect with residents over the past 20 year.

Future articles in the series will focus on:

  • Ensuring representation and inclusion in public engagement efforts;
  • Using community participation in planning, housing, budgeting, youth issues and emergency preparedness;
  • Strategies for ensuring sustained capa-city for public engagement; and
  • Measuring the success of civic participation efforts.

Collaborative Governance Initiative Provides Support

The Institute for Local Government (ILG), which is the nonprofit research affiliate of the League and the California State Association of Counties, has launched a Collaborative Governance Initiative as part of its ongoing work to promote public confidence in local government. (For more information about the initiative, visit www.ca-ilg.org/cgi.) The program’s goals are to support in formed and effective civic engagement in public decision-making and help California’s local officials successfully navigate the growing number of community participa tion options that bring the public’s voice to the table on important issues.

The staff of ILG’s Collaborative Governance Initiative is leading the effort on this series and working with experts to provide content. Staff designed the series to provide information, stimulate discussion, build on existing efforts to connect with residents and increase public trust in local government, and their work is greatly appreciated.

Laying a Foundation for the Future

Engaging our residents in the civic process is important -- not only as a part of col laborative governance, but also as a vital component of getting our youth involved in shaping their communities now and in the future. They are the next generation of leaders, and successful civic engagement provides an opportunity to cultivate their talents and inspire them to seek leadership roles. As today’s elected officials, you are in an ideal position to do just that.

Our state’s diversity presents both chal lenges and reasons for celebration. It provides us with the chance to show the rest of the nation, and perhaps the world, how well truly representative democracy can function when we embrace our differences and work toward our common goals -- and the greater good.