Do You Want Meaningful Change? Turn Your Attention To Local Government

Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG

As our country faces a series of crises, some new fractures along with the deepening of established cracks, one throughline is becoming increasingly clear: We exist in a series of systems that do not work equally for our population, and we need meaningful change. 

The collective American conscience typically focuses its attention on nationwide leaders, such as presidents and congress members, when seeking this change. In 2020, our attention has shifted to local leaders. From COVID-19 to police brutality and systemic racism, we are more frequently hearing and learning the names and choices of our governors, mayors, councilmembers, attorney generals, DA’s, and police chiefs. 

Why is this? Local officials dictate the policies and budgets that affect us the most directly. They are our first line of government, often making decisions that take precedence over national law. We’ve seen this in city and state-level responses to COVID-19 and in how the National Guard is responding to protests in some cities, but not in others. The management of public safety, including how entire police departments operate, lies in the hands of local officials. In many ways our governors, mayors, and local leaders have more decision making power than the president. 

Recent campaigns here at Picture Motion have drawn our attention to the drastic level of impact we can have at state and local levels, for a variety of issue areas. Through Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America we’ve learned that public schools are almost entirely dependent on state and local revenue, and there is no national policy requiring public preschool. For Ours to Tell, we saw that even amidst our fight to protect Roe v Wade, we can’t prevent individual states from using the COVID-19 crisis to ban abortion. With Surge, we heard from women candidates and elected officials on the difficulties that women face when running in local elections and how vital it is for women-identifying voices to be heard in government. 

Photo by Samuel Braslow, LA Mag

As we address systemic racial injustice and call for criminal justice reform, we must also recognize that those with the most power reside at home. Here are four ways you can take action: 

  1. Research your local representatives. Very few residents know much about how their own city and state government works, and that’s purposeful. With nationwide attention falling on executive orders and congressional hearings, local elected officials often get away with passing unnecessary budget increases and debating policy out of the public eye. Now is the time to start holding them accountable - look up your local officials and their updates to local policies. Read up on their platforms and the platforms of their opponents this November. Look at what local activist organizations such as Black Lives Matter think about their track record. Education is the first step in reform. 
  2. Donate, or even better, volunteer for local campaigns. Some PicMo team members have been inspired to volunteer for local city council campaigns by participating in issue area and policy research, skill sets we can transfer from our day to day work on PicMo impact campaigns. Volunteering for a few hours a week is manageable with a full time job, and even simple tasks like texting or sharing a social media post can make a real impact. 
  3. Raise awareness around the power of local government. Most local officials are elected every year with little citizen involvement. In most major cities, fewer than 15% of voters turn out to cast a ballot for mayor and for lesser-known positions, the turnout is even lower. Pay attention to your local candidates and share their names at protests, on social media, and with family and friends. Hold yourself and others accountable for knowing all the names on the ballot and how they can create meaningful change for you.
  4. Communicate with your local officials: Local elected officials are all more likely to respond to protests and demands for change than federal officials. Their inboxes are more accessible and staff are often required to digest every message -- and they don’t have secret bunkers to hide under. A few weeks ago, Picture Motion’s LA team got involved with a public movement to send emails, phone calls, and social media requests to City Council President Nury Martinez asking for the adoption of the people’s budget. This motion would move majority funding from the police and instead fund necessary public services as well as aid and crisis management during COVID-19. Councilmember Martinez is often unresponsive to constituents' requests, but after this large public movement she motioned to cut the LAPD budget on June 3rd. 

Local policies often set the precedent for action on the federal level. Meaningful change is happening but we can’t let the momentum stop here. Our local elected officials have the power to take action, and now it’s up to us to hold them to it. 

Every local government is different. To learn more about yours, we recommend visiting the official sites of your state, county, city, and district. Go to https://www.usa.gov/local-governments to find it, and Ballotpedia.org/Local_Politics for updates on local officials and local policy.

By Zoe Malhotra, Impact Strategy Coordinator - She loves inspiring civic action and community engagement, as well as getting deep and creative within a variety of impact spaces. She makes documentary films as well!