Civic Engagement in Today’s World

civic engagement in community

Wherever I go, I hear that Americans don’t trust:

  • Government
  • Churches
  • Big business
  • Schools
  • Any entity big enough to reduce their needs to a number

Why? Generally, because their needs are not being met by these entities.

Losing Small-town America

My parents live in a small town in southwestern Iowa. I grew up in a small town in western Minnesota. When I connect to either of these rural areas, I hear stories of loss and frustration. At Thanksgiving, my parents talked about losing their local pharmacy. This change necessitates a trip to a town 20 miles away to pick up prescriptions and over-the-counter medical supplies, only to do business with a Walmart or a Walgreens or some other corporate pharmacy that doesn’t know them. They lose the personal touch of living in a small town.

Whether it’s big box retail, availability of adequate healthcare, corporate farmers who don’t live or work in the area, or the closing of local businesses that aren’t able to get products in small enough quantities at affordable prices, small-town America feels disenfranchised, cut off and unheard.

Rural vs. Urban vs. Suburban Solutions

Like small-town Americans, people with disabilities are often offered solutions designed to fit urban and suburban centers. The solutions assume that people will have access to mass transit of some kind, that affordable, accessible housing exists in enough supply to fill demand, and that specialized healthcare is available. Our reimbursement systems assume that rural living is less expensive, and so the reimbursement Laura Baker Services and others in rural areas receive is 3% less than similar organizations in urban and suburban areas.

When I listen to my parents’ stories and read the challenges my friends in my hometown face with accessing the services I take for granted, I understand that corporations far from those places determine policies and practices for those small towns. I understand the frustration, the distrust, and angst that cause people to vote in ways that seem counterintuitive to getting their needs met.

People on the Margins Matter

We live in an age where we want to quantify everything. We want to be able to measure return on investment, and we think we should be able to do that with peoples’ lives. In the name of getting the biggest bang for our buck, we select policies that do the greatest good for the greatest number. We marginalize any group that doesn’t fit into the middle. We sensationalize the stories of abuse and minimize the stories of success – after all, they aren’t sensational enough. Who’s interested in the stories of things going well, day after day? We long instead for crisis, passion, emotional fervor.

The people on the margins matter – whether they are black, immigrant or LGBTQ; whether they are from a small town, or they are poor or they have disabilities. I’ve said this before and I’ll keep it saying it:

When we make the people on the margins fight against each other, we are on the wrong path.

When we create change without looking at the whole picture, without considering all of the people impacted, we are on the wrong path.

Engagement is Important: Share Your Voice

As one of many strategies to address equity issues in Minnesota, Governor Dayton ordered government agencies to create civic engagement strategies with their constituencies. I have served on the Governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, Civic Engagement Subcommittee for the last two years. We completed our Civic Engagement Plan in fall 2016. It can be found here.

On Saturday, February 11, Laura Baker Services will be hosting a meeting for people with disabilities, their supporters, and Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and Deputy Commissioner Rowzat Shipchandler, Minnesota Department of Human Rights, to talk about how Minnesota’s government agencies can do a better job of hearing and supporting the needs of ALL Minnesotans. We look forward to engaging in the conversations and advancing the dialogue. We also fervently hope that these efforts are able to continue as administrations change.

Understanding the needs that our differences represent is important. So is understanding that we are stronger together, united by common purpose and goals, and inclusive of all the people who feel marginalized. In the spirit of coming together, there are many ways to get involved at LBSA and take part in engagement that makes a real difference.

Get Involved

 




About the Author

Sandi Gerdes

Sandi Gerdes, executive director of Laura Baker Services Association, has a 30-year history of leadership in the disabilities community. A longtime advocate for choice, Sandi has developed numerous innovative service programs tailored to the unique needs of the individuals the organization serves.


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