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How to Quit Complaining and Get Involved

Wish your neighbourhood was more walkable? Have some feelings about the bus stop in front of your house? Become a part of the solution with these tips.

By Lisa Szabo, ’16 BA

April 13, 2021 •

When you want more of a say in civic life, where do you start? Aside from typing out 280 characters and sending them into the socialverse, it’s not always clear how to voice your opinions — or who will hear them. Local is a great place to start, says Stephen Raitz, ’19 BA. Raitz is an urban planner in the Edmonton area and secretary of the Queen Alexandra Community League. “Municipal government is often the one people understand the least,” he says. But it arguably affects people the most in their day-to-day lives. Raitz offers tips to help you get your ideas into the ears of local government and influence municipal decision-making in a tangible way. 

1: Get involved early

Municipalities often ask people in the community for input before making big decisions, such as deciding to revamp a community park or build a subway line. If you have concerns about a proposed idea, Raitz advises bringing them forward early at a designated open house or community engagement event. At that point, decision-makers are looking for feedback from the community and still have the time to make adjustments to the proposed plan. The earlier you can get involved in the conversation, says Raitz, the better chance you’ll have of influencing the outcome.

2: Find a seat at the table

Consider bringing your suggestions forward to a city council or committee meeting. It’s not as scary as it sounds. “Council meetings are central to the governing of a municipality,” Raitz says. They’re the arena in which cities make their big decisions — say, budgets or land-use bylaws. Committee meetings, on the other hand, often deal with more specialized concerns such as traffic safety. Many municipalities offer citizens the opportunity to speak at these types of events. The specific process for speaking will vary, but the nuts and bolts are similar in many Canadian municipalities. You register to speak at a city council or committee meeting using an online form like this one. You’re slotted into the agenda and given a few minutes to share your thoughts. 

3: Offer solutions

Whether you’re at an open house or a council meeting, frame your position in a positive light. “We all want solutions,” Raitz says. “We all want a better city.” So rather than dwelling on the problems that re-zoning a strip mall will create, focus on the culture and entrepreneurship that will be preserved by allowing small businesses to stay. Like many people, members of local governments are more likely to lean into solutions and tune out negativity. 

4: See it as a learning opportunity

Chances are you won’t sound like Martin Luther King Jr. the first time around, but you’ll get better. Each time you speak at a council meeting, write a letter or show up at a community engagement event, you’re learning a little more about your municipality’s decision-making process, says Raitz. And the more you practise, the more comfortable you’ll become. If it’s your first time speaking at council, let them know. “If they see new people speaking to an issue, it legitimizes the issue,” he says. It shows that people in the community care.

5: Follow your interests

There are a hundred little ways that local government affects your life. “There’s probably at least one that you’re passionate about,” Raitz says. Following that interest is a great way to get involved with community organizations or local decision-making — something he says everyone should consider. But that’s just the start. “You’re going to learn so many other things, like how a city operates and how we fit into it.” We’re all constantly building our cities, Raitz says. You may as well have a say in yours. 

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