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Cultivating engaged
citizenry in A2

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By Christine M. Tracy

“Generally people get engaged when they’re upset about something. As a citizen, your responsibility is not to wait until something goes off the rails and then get engaged,” says Mary Morgan, who with her husband, Dave Askins, edited The Ann Arbor Chronicle for six years. “It’s a normal part of your life and only viewed as activism because other people aren’t doing the same thing.”

Mary Morgan | Benjamin Weatherston

Mary Morgan | Benjamin Weatherston

The best hope for change is the community, Morgan said. Outreach, education and information facilitate the process. “There are about 200 people (in Ann Arbor) who really know who makes the decisions and have access to those people in a significant way and can determine the outcome of projects or policies. I don’t think it’s really healthy, but if you’re one of those 200 people, you’re probably okay with the way things are,” Morgan said.

To raise civic awareness and engagement, Morgan and Askins launched CivCity, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to informing, educating, and engaging Ann Arborites about local government and civic affairs through partnerships and programs, according to civcity.org.  One of those partnerships is with the Ann Arbor Library. CivCity will be collaborating again this year with the library’s Summer Games online program to encourage reporting on elections, speaking at community meetings, and participating in civic-minded activities.

Their aim is to meet Ann Arborites where they are, whether at home, school, a sporting event, or place of worship, and engage them with novel games and programs.

For example, CivCity will organize potluck dinners leading up to the Aug. 4 primary election. “Each host will invite 10 to 12 people and about two weeks prior to the event, each guest will be assigned a candidate or ballot issue to research,” says Morgan. “At the potluck, everyone will share what they’ve learned and discuss the local candidate and ballot issues.”

Twitter users can find information about upcoming public meetings at @A2CivCity. The group is contributing background on local government to the Ann Arbor LocalWiki and partnering with local schools to teach civics to seventh and eighth graders, according to Morgan.

CivCity will hold a workshop on navigating government and influencing decision-makers this fall. Their plans include providing civic news, voter-registration deadlines, and volunteer opportunities. “My goal is for everyone in the community to know who their elected officials are,” says Morgan.

‘No heart in this town’

While Morgan sees community engagement as the best hope for change, Ann Arbor’s Alan Haber believes providing a place for public interaction is integral to a functioning democracy. He believes public land belongs to everyone and the struggle is now with privatization. “Democracy needs place. There is no place. It’s all private. In a sense, there is no heart in this town,” Haber said.

According to Haber, in the past, Ann Arbor had a true center around the courthouse where there could be a big assembly, where a community memory developed, where interesting things happened and where energy congregated. To a certain extent, the university has served as the community’s meeting place. “People say it’s the university, but there is a town divide that is unbridgeable because of the elite character of the university” Haber said.

With Mary and Will Hathaway and other members of the Library Green Conservancy, Haber attended meetings and advocated for years to secure a public park on the library parking lot. Currently, 12,000 square feet have been allocated for a public park. “Public use of public land is more than the park to which the Library Green Conservancy has limited itself,” says Haber. “It is (also) for the creation of a public center in town, a multi-function civic center, aligned with the library, with meeting rooms, cafe, city gallery, and museum, as a gathering place for all ages and communities.”

The “Public Option Proposal,” which Haber submitted as a response to the city’s offer to sell the Library Lot to a private developer or development team, is likely to carry this question into the next City Council elections, according to Haber.  “Let the people decide,” says Haber, a long-time advocate of participatory democracy.

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