I have had many people ask me how or why I became involved in the community and it invariably leads to a second question of how they can become involved. It has only been a few years since I took a dive into working on various community initiatives. My experience may not be a fit for everyone, but here is what I learned about how to start your involvement:
FIND A PASSION
Find something you’re passionate about. For me, it was biking and increasing Rochester’s standing in bike-friendliness. Do you want to see improvements in our schools? Would you like to see more public pools or a splash pad? Are you very happy with the Public Library and hope to see it grow and expand? Do you have concerns about city spending and increasing taxes?
Whatever your passion, there may be an easy way to get involved already, such as a city board/commission or a grassroots community group. The hardest part is showing up, so go to a meeting and check the group out before you officially join. If a group is worth joining, they will be delighted to see you there. Who knows, they may recruit you directly to help with a project or join a committee.
SHARE YOUR TALENT
One way that I have stayed engaged is through sharing my talents and skills. I’m an amateur graphic designer and have helped design websites, print pieces and logos and have taken photographs for some local organizations. If you have a particular skill that would be useful to a group, don’t be afraid to speak up and share it. The skill doesn’t need to be anything complicated either. Sometimes groups just need an organized person that can take reliable meeting notes.
WHERE TO START
Neighborhood Associations are great places to get involved and meet your neighbors. Rochester has a vast network of active neighborhood groups. If you don’t see one listed for your neighborhood, see my “DIY” section below.
Rochester has loads of community events happening each weekend and many week nights, especially in the summer. These can be great places to learn about local groups without the commitment to join. Go to a gallery opening at the Rochester Art Center, see a film at the Rochester Public Library, or relive some history at the Olmsted County History Center. Probably the easiest way to find local connections and events is through social media. For Rochester, you can do a search on #rochmn on either Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see hundreds of event listings and postings from local groups.
If there isn’t a group devoted to your cause, make one. I’m serious. Find a few people that share your views and gather them up. You don’t even need to have regular in-person meetings, which can be difficult for busy parents. Set up a Facebook page, start a group text and get people talking. Don’t stop at just talking about it. Create a plan and set a deadline to take action. It is amazing how much influence a group of passionate citizens can be on making change!
For example, in Rochester, a group of community members in the Cooke Park neighborhood decided to see if they could remake the very run-down tennis courts in their local park into pickleball courts. They worked with the Rochester Parks Department to get permission, make plans for the renovation and even raised the money to make it happen. Those pickleball courts are now busy with people of all ages playing the game on every nice day. A small group of impassioned people activated a park that was previously unused.
MAKE A COMMITMENT
If you’re looking to jump right in and get involved in a big way, I’d suggest participating in a community leadership program. Rochester has three: Leadership Greater Rochester, Collaborative Leadership Fellows Program, and Emerging Leaders in Giving. These programs do require a fairly large time commitment, but many local employers provide support for employees to participate.
If you’re interested in just dipping your toes into the pool of community involvement, one easy way is to join a community discussion. The Post-Bulletin does Dialogues, the Med City Beat does What’s On Tap, In the City For Good hosts discussions on DMC-related topics, Rochester For Justice does Town Hall events on social justice issues, and Rochester MN Mom’s Blog has Happy Hours. Though getting started can be hard, everyone involved had to start somewhere. You are not alone, so don’t be afraid to get out, join in and connect with new people. Our community will be better for it and so will you!