Right now, the challenges to American democracy seem insurmountable. States, cities, and even neighborhoods are increasingly divided. Elected officials struggle to represent broad constituencies. For many, government remains mysterious, opaque, confusing, and antiquated. Citizens and lawmakers are rarely encouraged, and even more rarely offered the opportunity, to confront and discuss opposing viewpoints.
I experienced this in my own classroom. In 2016 I taught 6th grade in SE Minneapolis. My students obviously could not vote, but they wanted to somehow be a part of the election. When Donald Trump won, many of my students were upset — ranging from anger to sadness to utter terror — based on a number of Trump’s campaign promises that would negatively impact their families. As a class we brainstormed how to best respond. We decorated safety pins to show support for those who felt vulnerable. We created posters and signs to put up around school that emphasized love and togetherness.
However, the students still craved access to the political process. Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who represents the area, came in to speak with the class. The students brought up issues like potholes in the streets and problems with the sidewalks. The students felt like their voices were heard and that simple act gave them a sense of ownership in their government.
Afterwards, I tried to live out the advice that I gave my students. I taught during the day and bartended at night, so my schedule was not conducive to “9-5 advocacy.” I could not attend my City Council Member’s office hours, because they are always scheduled on the same evening on a night that I work. I tried going to an organized neighborhood event to discuss a possible redevelopment project in my community, but I never got a chance to share my ideas — I spent 2 hours at a loud and unorganized meeting, and my voice was never heard.
These experiences made me think about how hard it is to actually participate. I have a lot of resources that many people do not — I am a white, heterosexual, Christian, male; I have reliable transportation, good health, no childcare expenses. If I am struggling to get involved, I could imagine how difficult it must be for others.
Because of these barriers, many people turn to posting comments on Facebook and retweeting articles on Twitter as an outlet for their voice, but does that accomplish anything? Are policymakers paying attention to these forms of “activism”? How can people truly be heard in their community, in a way that works with their busy lives?
I knew there had to be a better way, so I stepped back from teaching and founded PeopleSourced Policy.
PeopleSourced Policy refocuses citizens and lawmakers on a policymaking dialog that is issue-driven and nonpartisan. Playing the role of convener and facilitator, we use a combination of online and in-person engagement strategies to bring together citizens and lawmakers around common issues and goals — setting the table for a collaborative, solution-oriented conversation.
PeopleSourced Policy will show that using online tools to “crowdsource” public policy input is effective for both citizens and lawmakers. We will supplement our online process with in-person engagement efforts: panel conversations, town hall meetings, educational materials and community outreach. To accommodate the various schedules and responsibilities that our community members juggle, we will livestream as many in-person engagement events as possible, in addition to archiving these videos on our YouTube channel for later viewing.
We are also gamifying policy, in order to make it more approachable and fun. We have developed policy games to be played in local communities as a way to get community input on topics such as transit development and city planning. We have also created k-12 STEM and social studies units to help the generation of citizens engage in public policy. We will also accept public comments via prepaid, mail-in postcards in English, Spanish, and Somali. Although feedback via postcards cannot match the detail of direct interaction at a town hall, it provides another easy step and accessible way to gather public input, bridge the digital divide, and deepen the utility of the information.
The on and offline ideas and comments we collect are then ranked by other Minnesotans through a ”like” and “love” system that allows the most popular ideas to float to the top, offering elected officials, advocates, and analysts the ability to identify and act upon constituent input, diminishing the existing bias towards special interests, and allowing all community members an opportunity for voices to be heard.