What We As Citizens Can Do Beyond The Ballot

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(NewsOne)– Well, the midterm elections are over and –at least for this go-round—the people have spoken.

In the aftermath of the elections, I want to talk about what citizens can do beyond the ballot to ensure the health and vitality of our democracy. After all, elections only come around every few years, so it would be foolish for us, as concerned citizens, to put all of our eggs in the electoral basket when there are plenty of other things we can do to contribute to our democracy.

We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work NOW. We need to make our community relevant NOW.

This important work is characterized by the term, civic engagement. For those of you who don’t know, I run a nonprofit organization known as the Jamestown Project that focuses on engaging people in the life of our democracy.  Our mission is to quote-unquote “make democracy real.”

And while we certainly promote the importance of the vote in representing the voice of everyday citizens, the Jamestown Project emphasizes that the vote is just one of many powerful instruments for influencing the society around us for the better.

A civically engaged person is one who understands that the vote is not the end of his or her democratic commitment but actually the beginning. Accordingly, civic engagement comes in many forms, including voting, volunteering, becoming involved in a community based group or local PTA, organizing or speaking out on issues affecting your neighborhood, starting an online vehicle that brings attention to a cause, or initiating a dialogue to bring diverse groups together.

To give a more specific example, there is a woman in Yazoo City, Mississippi some of you may have heard of named Leola Dillard who epitomizes the ideal of civic participation. The former schoolteacher began mentoring underprivileged children a number of years back to expose them to the world around them, and give them experiences they otherwise might not get.

But she didn’t stop there. In the late 1990s, Dillard began holding a Free Flea Market for Needy Families in her yard where area families could access much needed items at no cost. The Flea Market was a big success and has now run 12 years straight attracting huge crowds, national attention and numerous service awards. In fact, Dillard was recently honored by the state of Mississippi with a 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Oh, and one more thing… the still active, civically engaged Dillard happens to be 98 years old. She was born in 1912 and is still independent, living alone, cooking for herself, travelling and staying active.

You see, our democracy has to be more than just about whether the Democrats or Republicans are controlling the Congress or the presidency this time around. It is more important than the latest political scandal, trend or movement.

We should never let an election prevent us from empowering ourselves to directly bring about the change we seek. The inspiring Leola Dillard –someone who has lived through countless elections and political administrations– didn’t wait for a politician to come along before she began serving those in need.

Neither should we.

Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show.  Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com

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