IDEA #54. Attend a meeting of a village, town, or city government or committee. They’re free and open, and they happen all the time (check village, town, or city websites or call offices for schedules). Then find an adult with whom to discuss the experience.
Whatever one’s local government might be, a surprising amount of its activity takes place before the public eye. Although most citizens attend local hearings or committee meetings only when they involve some aspect of their own lives, for public officials such events are part and parcel of the way that decisions are made in the public interest. Open Meeting laws require that public agencies at all levels make their decisions where citizens can observe—and sometimes comment upon or even participate in—the process of government.
Municipal websites or local newspapers are often good sources of information on meeting dates, times, and agenda, but a call to the town office could also supply this information. In some communities there is a public bulletin board in the town hall or even the public library listing all meetings and even the members of the various committees, commissions, and boards that keep the municipality functioning. If the student is fortunate enough to live in a community governed by a town meeting structure—these are still very much a part of life in small-town New England and in a few other places—he or she can witness democracy in one of its purest forms during “meeting season,” often late winter.
There is much to see at such events. Seemingly innocuous proposals to build this, repair that, or make a particular purchase can reveal deep rifts in the way the community thinks about particular issues or show who has power in the community and who does not. Such meetings are also wonderful opportunities to develop an understanding of the often complex and seemingly circuitous ways in which adults make major decisions as well as to learn the degree to which speaking and acting in public—skills stressed in schools—are important to average citizens as well as to orators, preachers, and other public figures.
For the thoughtful young observer, the number of public bodies holding public meetings is also a good indication of the complexity of the systems by which even smaller communities are managed. Anything that helps make visible the unseen machinery of local government is likely to make the young person more alert to both issues and processes.
The young person should have an interesting experience, and talking it over with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult could help clarify areas of confusion or even spark further interest.