About 60 Ann Arbor residents convened Thursday evening at the Ann Arbor District Library to discuss civic engagement and hear from a panel of local leaders in a community forum focused on the state of civic life in Washtenaw County.

Mary Morgan, founder of the CivCity Initiative, a local organization intending to increase civic participation, moderated a panel about the importance of civic engagement and ways to increase involvement from Washtenaw residents.

Several residents expressed concerns about the low level of participation from Ann Arbor citizens in local politics. Many residents feel they have little power and their opinions wouldn’t be heard. Patrick Campion, the program director for WEMU broadcasting service and one of the panelists at the forum, said there were ways of engaging in civic life people often didn’t consider.

“In some ways, we need to bust a mystique that only a certain type of person can be involved at a higher level of engagement, and not just politics, but on community boards and things of that nature,” Campion said.

The panel emphasized the importance of civic involvement not only on a national scale, but also at a local level, such as in city council elections and even in public schools and libraries. Several panelists indicated a crucial step in increasing civic engagement in Ann Arbor was to increase accessibility to such involvement.

“I think we are in some ways purposefully complex in the way that we do business at even a very local level, and that again is a barrier to entry for a vast number of people,” Campion explained. “If you don’t understand how civic codes work, you can’t sit through a city council because you won’t know what they’re talking about 80 percent of the time. That’s intimidating to people.”

Another suggestion to increase accessibility was to improve the standard of living for Washtenaw County’s impoverished populations. Neel Hajra, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, said ensuring basic needs such as food security and childcare would give underprivileged individuals more opportunities to pursue municipal interests.

“Twenty-five percent of households in Washtenaw County don’t make enough to meet their basic needs,” Hajra said. “When you live in a vibrant community with so much good going on, it’s pretty easy to miss all the challenge.”

Several attendees were actively involved in community organizations working to increase civic engagement. Jeffrey Smeargle, a member of the League of Women Voters of Ann Arbor, spoke of his efforts to energize Ann Arbor residents before the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

“We need for the next eight months to beat this like a drum,” he explained. “We have to get really obsessive about big turnout in the election.”

The forum was the third part of a four-event series being presented by the City of Ann Arbor. The series aims to facilitate discussion about sustainability and civic involvement. The first two forums focused on electric vehicle usage and ways of tracking environmental sustainability goals.

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