Our school board had a referendum on the last election day ballot, that if approved, would increase funding for our schools over the next ten years. My first instinct was to not vote for the initiative due to my children’s experience in the public schools, and because of mine, as a parent who tried to make a difference within the existing system. Over the years, I made an effort to email and visit teachers, principals and vice-principles, and served on a Parent Advisory Committee for the District for a time. But I mostly felt dismissed, or the public engagement process was designed in a way that it felt more like “window-dressing” engagement instead of meaningful involvement.

As the time ticked down to election day, I felt more and more conflicted. I am concerned about the state of many of our public institutions and their calls for more funding to solve complex, human problems, as if more money would address all ills. But I was also thinking about some of the amazing teachers in the system that try every day, against all odds, to make powerful connections with their students. Many teachers are underpaid, have no voice, struggle to get the supplies they need, or find it challenging to get the help from parents that will enable their children to succeed. I did not want to punish them by voting “No”.

I decided that I would email the School Board about my hesitance to vote for the ballot initiative. In the email I voiced my concerns about several District policy decisions as well as several other things I observed as a parent and citizen. Expecting a canned email response, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear back from one of the Board members in a matter of minutes. More surprisingly, he was willing to listen to my concerns. He took me up on my offer to meet with him over a cup of coffee.

We met for what I thought might be an hour-long conversation at most, but it turned into nearly 3. We had a very rich conversation. I was able to get a better picture of some of the challenges the District was facing and I shared my experiences with the public engagement processes I had been part of. There was active listening and a willingness to ask open-ended questions on both sides of the table. It was a truly refreshing experience.

After our conversation, I wondered how many other parents and administrators could benefit from more conversations like this–ones where we could really share and listen on a deep basis, resisting the urge to blame or shame anyone in the process.

Our Role as a Taxpayer and Citizen Matter

It is easy to become cynical about public life today, however, cynicism rarely leads to better systems or policies. It is up to all of us with concerns about our public institutions to take the time to meet with government officials, if possible. Expect that most of them will say “yes” to your request. In my experience, the vast majority of public servants will be happy to meet with you.

In advance of such a meeting, you might want to prepare a simple meeting agenda and a specific set of questions. Say what you want to say politely, but more importantly, listen. In the process of listening, it is likely that you and they will be enlightened or learn something new. My guess is that you will both walk away with a more complex and nuanced view of an issue or situation. If tension arises from a difference of opinions, I see that as a good thing, as long as everyone remains civil. Conflict and tension, in my opinion, almost always lead to better outcomes for projects, programs and policy-making.

Once you have gathered the facts, you can feel good about going to the voting booth. You will have accepted that you have a role to play in the success of our public institutions.You will have made an informed decision that is not based on assumptions or limited information. Perhaps just as importantly, in the process, you might have met a public servant with whom you can create an ongoing relationship.This is where a sense of community begins. Who knows? It might lead you in directions you never before imagined.

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