As national politics spiral into tragedy, many people are turning to more local levels, where a sense of political agency is still within grasp. But as our eyes and hearts move closer to home, consuming news of the California Republic and the city of Los Angeles, there is an overlooked opportunity to have an immediate impact on our communities– the Neighborhood Councils.
Many progressives are quick to overlook a neighborhood council’s utility, but the most available means of political empowerment is to engage with your neighborhood council, go to the meetings and run for office. And while neighborhood councils function only in an advisory capacity , certain NCs have been adept at grabbing the attention of their otherwise unresponsive City Council representatives. This opportunity should not be taken for granted.
Essentially, a neighborhood council is a government-funded opportunity for citizens to lobby the government. This is a small, but not insignificant, opportunity to lobby against those who have endless funding (think land owners and developers) and an agenda that disregards the wellbeing of the public. There are many City Councilmembers who welcome the input of the Neighborhood Councils. For those who don’t, a Neighborhood Council with a heavily progressive agenda can be a strong organizing tool for community resistance.
Furthermore, each neighborhood council is given around $40,000 in discretionary funds each fiscal year. They can use these funds either through direct Neighborhood Council initiatives or by approving Neighborhood Purpose Grants to constituents dedicated to community improvement.
Neighborhood Councils can have a direct impact on issues of homelessness, crime, cleanliness, addiction, community spaces including parks, gardens and community centers, the arts, farmer’s markets, and in nearly every other facet of our lives. A great example for community empowerment is with the Sunset Triangle Plaza, where a coalition of neighborhood leaders, including some effective Neighborhood Councilmembers, led the charge to close down a portion of Griffith Park Boulevard and open it up as the first-in-Los-Angeles public pedestrian street plaza.
There are functional NCs and dysfunctional NCs, but they both have one thing in common: a depressing lack of millennial and progressive representation, both in the audience and on the governing boards. Neighborhood Councilmembers are often property owners and members of the Baby Boom generation or older. It is they who, in functional NCs, are currently defining the agenda for our neighborhood councils. And it is they who, in the tragically dysfunctional neighborhood councils, are pitifully squandering an opportunity for community empowerment.
Progressive and millennial activists should flood neighborhood councils with new members. They should flood council meetings with attendees. In the rare examples where this has happened (such as the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council) the impact has been immediate (their endorsement and support for the formation of the Skid Row Neighborhood Council).
But there is more than an opportunity to have progressive representation on the councils. There is actually a chance to shape a council’s agenda. In many cases, the bureaucracy of these fledgling government agencies is floundering. Contentious councils descend into ego squabbles and narrow-minded agendas. What is needed is an insertion of youthful energy, progressive values and thick skin.
Yes, thick skin. The most well-meaning, good tempered, insightful and ethical members of neighborhood councils are often ganged up on and quit. Because while there are well-meaning people on neighborhood councils, the position also attracts aggressive, narcissistic people with petty needs for power and a retrograde sense of right and wrong. And, unlike say, the LA City Council, all Neighborhood Councilmembers are volunteers.
The answer is not to go to war with the narcissists on the neighborhood councils but to render them irrelevant by rising above and pursuing high minded, ethical, altruistic agendas. Neighborhood Councils are still a very new thing in Los Angeles. We can be part of the experiment in progress. Don’t let those neighborhood councils that are riven by narcissism and conservatism cast a negative light on an opportunity ripe with potential.
This is an opportunity for progressives to grab the reins.