Making a difference in your city (during a pandemic)

Last fall, long before we were all at home baking bread from scratch, I stumbled across an advertisement for the Lansing Citizens Academy. Drawn in by the cute new Lansing city logo and the name, I submitted an application and soon found out I was accepted!

I spent the next three months attending weekly civic engagement sessions with two dozen fellow Lansing residents, learning about how the city functions, meeting local government officials, and getting an inside look at places like the fire station and the Board of Water and Light grid control room. We met for two and half hours each week over dinner, conversation and presentations. It was a big commitment, with a full time job and a 10-month-old baby at home, but I met interesting people, learned a lot about my chosen hometown, and was challenged to get more involved as a citizen.

Here I am posing with Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and my daughter at the Citizens Academy graduation ceremony.

Attending the Lansing Citizens Academy helped me think of my city and my neighbors differently. I saw how important it is to be involved in your community, to speak up on things that matter to you — and that city employees are there to listen. I realized how my profession (working at a local university) isn’t like everyone else’s, and that we can learn from the worlds we each inhabit, at work or otherwise. I recognized that my neighbors and I are on the same team, desiring to make our city a better place to live for our families. I left the program inspired to get involved, join some local commissions, and be a better citizen.

Then, COVID-19 happened. All my big plans of attending planning meetings to save my neighborhood pool and getting to know neighbors at community events were halted by social distancing and state-wide safety measures. I started this blog as one way to connect with my community, but I have been unsure how else to move forward.

I saw that the Lansing Citizens Academy is accepting applications for the 2020 program, and reached out to their coordinators to see what they’re doing differently this year and what exactly citizen engagement can look like in the middle of a pandemic.

The very kind DeLisa Fountain, Interim Neighborhood Resource Coordinator for the City of Lansing, chatted with me, and here are a few updates that I learned:
1. Participants will be required to wear masks and check temperatures before sessions begin, and sessions will be offered virtually as well as outside or at large enough classrooms to maintain physical distance;
2. there will be 11 sessions instead of 10, to accommodate a session focused on the Lansing Police Department. The LPD has its own Citizens Academy, but this session will be a great intro to that opportunity; and,
3. the City is working to increase diversity in the experience by choosing minority-owned caterers for the refreshments offered at Citizen Academy sessions, and encouraging participation from the refugee community in Lansing.

I asked DeLisa, what community engagement is possible when it feels like everything is cancelled?

She responded that though many things are cancelled, there are so many great conversations are going on. You can still attend virtual City Council meetings, share a public comment, talk to your representatives and find out what they are working on. Boards and Commissions can seem scary at first, but they are open and would love your involvement. Meetings are currently being held on Zoom, so it’s an easy time to jump into things.

“It’s so easy to impact things, but we don’t think our voice matters. We think of the City as huge, but it’s all these little pieces that go together to make City Hall work, and it can’t work without residents and resident civic engagement.”

DeLisa Fountain, City of Lansing

I left my conversation with DeLisa feeling inspired to get back to work in being an involved City of Lansing resident — will you join me?

Applications for the 2020 Citizens Academy close at 5pm on July 31st. Apply now!

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