Barriers to civic engagement stand in the way of good government, vibrant communities

  • Both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature listen to Gov. Chris Sununu during the State of the State address at State House on Feb. 13, 2020. Monitor file

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 9/17/2021 5:02:12 PM

For the better half of two years, Harrison Kanzler was regularly out the door before his wife and two young children were awake, and he would often return to a quiet, dark home — his family was already asleep.

As a state representative, Kanzler was driving the nearly two hours that it took to get to Concord from his hometown of Conway. He took the commute at least once or twice a week alongside his regular gig as a real estate agent, fielding calls and virtual meetings as he drove. The long hours were taking a toll.

“When my kids were so young, that’s a complete day I’ve missed with them, for reasons that they couldn’t understand. So it was tough,” Kanzler said. “But I really enjoyed the work. I thought it was very important work.”

When the opportunity to work five minutes away from home arose with a local housing coalition, he made the choice that was best for his family.

Kanzler’s story is one of many. Despite New Hampshire’s strengths, the state has its fair share of barriers that block or discourage people from engaging with their communities. It’s these stumbling blocks — long commute times, inadequate childcare, lack of information, feeling unwelcome or underqualified — that add up and weaken civic health in the Granite State.

Lower civic health, which is a measure of the civic, social and political strength of a community, equals less equity and democratic participation, engagement experts say. That lack of participation means organizations and municipalities alike are having trouble filling seats on boards and committees, leading to less people making the big decisions on a community’s behalf.

“The higher civic health is in an area, the healthier people are in terms of their own well-being, the more capacity there is to solve problems and the more transparent and fair the government is,” Michele Holt-Shannon, Director of New Hampshire Listens, said. “It’s really about that broader way we work together.”

Earlier this year, the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire released the 2020 New Hampshire Civic Health Index, outlining where the state is doing well, and where it needs some work.

“Think of a body that you’re taking to the doctor, where someone might have a weak ankle or they might have asthma,” said Quixada Moore-Vissing, a fellow at the Carsey School and co-author of the index. “Everybody has weaknesses in their body. In the same way, if we think about the body politic, all civic life has some strengths and weaknesses.”

The ‘fixable’ problems

If you’ve ever had concerns about your child’s curriculum at school, wondered about your town’s recent land development project, or wanted more funding for your county nursing home — these are all issues you can take part in as a resident.

However, doing so is often easier said than done. In 2019, nearly half of New Hampshire residents reported facing obstacles or barriers to community involvement, according to the Civic Health Index. Of those Granite Staters, 30% said lack of information was a “very important” obstacle.

An even greater percentage — 56% — said work and childcare was an obstacle. Transportation was an important barrier for 24%.

These are challenges that civic experts say are easier to address compared to more complicated issues like lack of trust or low diversity.

For instance, if a community is reporting a lack of information, that means municipalities and other civic bodies need to diversify their information streams, Moore-Vissing said.

“You don’t just post something online, you don’t just email blast, you don’t just have a billboard,” she said. “You try to do a range of methods for letting people know about opportunities for engagement like where to find the results of a meeting.”

Organizations can also consider changing their meeting structures to make them more accessible.

As a byproduct of the COVID-19 crisis, most community meetings are more accessible online. Engagement experts say they should remain that way to target barriers like work, childcare and transportation.

“As much as nobody wants to be on screen all the time, being at home on screen really has a big net,” Holt-Shannon said. “It makes a big difference and opens things up.”

At the State House, while there has not been a significant uptick in the amount of people testifying since public hearings went virtual, House Clerk Paul Smith said a new online forum — one for the House and one for the Senate — where people can sign-in in favor or in opposition to certain legislation did increase public input.

“The big difference was we heard from more people,” Smith said. “Even though we will be back to in-person hearings, we are going to continue to utilize the system where people can register their opinions online.”

Smith added that while testimony will revert to in-person only next year, the House will continue streaming hearings online. The Senate has yet to make a decision on this.

Livestream links can be found on the State House website, under “Links to Meeting Schedules.”

Changing how meetings are run can also go a long way toward making the gatherings more welcoming and dialogue friendly.

“I think our meeting guidelines, some of them really could be revamped and brought into the 21st century because some of them are 100 years old,” Holt-Shannon said.

She added that even reviewing the guidelines at the start of each meeting for any new attendees can help remove a barrier of anxiety.

Those sitting in on meetings for the first time might not know the “code” — things like how to get hard copies of the agenda (they’re at the front podium), where to sit (the first three rows are on camera), and why no one responds when you submit your testimony (rules say the council can’t engage in dialogue during public comment).

“I know people consider themselves servants of the public, but they often don’t consider themselves hosts of the meetings that they’re running,” Holt-Shannon said. “And the ones that do I think do better, do better garnering a little more support and a little more interaction.”

For municipalities, school boards or other community organizations that want to strengthen their civic engagement, Holt-Shannon said there are engagement specialists — like her own initiative New Hampshire Listens — that can aid in analyzing the organization, gathering data and providing guidance.

However, there is only so much a specialist can do. The thing that can’t be outsourced is building relationships, Holt-Shannon said.

“It’s being intentional. It’s meeting people, finding out who’s interested and inviting someone different,” Holt-Shannon said. “It’s pretty simple, but it is back to the basics of, ‘Are you building relationships?’ ‘Are you really trying to sustain working positive relationships with families?’”

Moore-Vissing said “rather than asking people to come to the table,” organizations should consider bringing the table to the community.

“We can do engagement at people’s workplaces. We can do engagement at bus stations. We can do engagement where people naturally are instead of asking them to schlep out to a public library at seven o’clock at night in the snow,” she said.

This kind of outreach could be surveying people about how collaborative they think their work culture is, or asking residents to identify on a map where they need more effective transportation. Another example is asking people to vote on which community priorities they would like to see funded by local government.

Feeling unwelcome and declining trust

Growing up, Palana Belken never saw herself going into politics. It was when she came out as transgender in 2016 that her perspective shifted.

“At a time when the federal government was about to begin rolling back protections for trans-Americans, my mere existence (became) political,” she said in an email. “I was finding love and acceptance in my life, but I knew how many folks did not have that support.”

Palana threw herself into efforts to pass transgender non-discrimination protections in New Hampshire and expand identification options for non-binary people on state identification cards. Along the way, she met elected officials like state representatives and school board members.

She saw how excited they were to create change, and how hard they fought for it. Most importantly, she realized they were everyday New Hampshire people like her.

So while at first, the prospect of campaigning and going door-to-door in a city she had just moved to was terrifying, she came away with a “wonderful” experience and went on to be elected to her first position in public office.

And yet, now a member of Rochester City Council, Belken said she still feels a degree of unwelcomeness.

“I have been a city councilor for two years now and I still feel unwelcome sometimes,” Belken said. “I’m running for Mayor, and if elected, I would certainly anticipate some level of unwelcomeness as a queer person newer to the city.”

Feeling unwelcome, feeling unqualified, feeling like you can’t make a difference: it’s these broader cultural issues that experts like Moore-Vissing say we’re collectively facing as a nation right now.

“That’s where I think the deeper work needs to happen in communities,” Moore-Vissing, who co-authored the 2020 Civic Health Index, said.

Unlike previous studies, the most recent index included data about how people feel. Of the 48% of New Hampshire residents who reported facing barriers to community involvement, 18% said feeling unwelcome was a very important obstacle.

Another cultural issue is a widespread decline in trust — both in New Hampshire and across the country.

Between 2001 and 2019, Granite Staters’ trust in the national government declined by half, from 30% to 14%. Trust in local government fell from 52% to 44%, while trust in neighbors fell from 89% to 79%. Trust in local news media declined less dramatically, from 61% to 57%.

Trust is “the basic ingredient of social capital,” the index states. New Hampshire’s decline in that ingredient, particularly between neighbors and across demographic groups such as age and race, “could lay the ground for discrimination, misunderstanding, and potential conflict among people different from each other.”

Part of mending that culture is engagement initiatives by nonprofits, schools and the state government, but Moore-Vissing said grassroots efforts at the local level are just as, if not more, critical.

The co-author added that even if local organizations create programming, there might be a history of mistrust in the community that can’t be healed in a day.

“A mistake that a lot of communities make I think is just assuming, ‘We’re gonna build this process and people will come,’” she said. “Totally not true, and part of the reason for that is that in a lot of communities, there’s a history of disappointment.”

For residents who want to get involved but hesitate in the face of feeling unqualified or lacking experience, Belken put it simply: if you are a registered voter over the age of 18, “you are as qualified to run for office as any other person of the same status.”

“Believe in yourself. Go for it,” she said. Belken added that the first steps are looking for other people who have done it and finding organizations that can support you.

Kanzler said he “absolutely” felt unqualified as a freshman lawmaker in Concord, but he learned to pick things up along the way.

“The fact that you have lived in a place for so many years, that is the only qualification you need. Because that is what you’re doing. You are representing your area,” he said. “You have your ideas on what’s going on. You have your thoughts on what could make the area better. Go promote those, why let someone else do it for you?”

Reaching across racial lines

Trust is built across many different bridges, one of them being across racial lines. With New Hampshire’s largest population of color being youth, Moore-Vissing said education is a key component.

The index found that education was “the most consistent, stable predictor of civic behavior of all types.”

That means the study showed that higher education levels and civic education specifically equals more civic engagement across the board — including voting, knowing how to engage with one’s community and believing that you matter to your community.

“I think when you combine (equity and diversity) with education in general, to me that sets up more of a fertile soil for communities that are welcoming of people in a new generation, that understand how to navigate equity and the value that diverse communities bring to their geographic area,” Moore-Vissing said.

New Hampshire ranks 46th in the country for connecting with people of different racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, according to the index.

While the state’s lack of diversity could be one explanation for this finding, the survey question asked people if they connect with someone of a different racial, ethnic or cultural group at least one of three ways: in person, on the phone or online.

“That’s what I found the most upsetting about that statistic,” Moore-Vissing said. “When I saw that it’s online and on the phone, that was a little more concerning to me.”

One of the first steps toward building diverse connections is learning more about racial diversity in New Hampshire, Moore-Vissing said.

However, she said the state’s poor data infrastructure for collecting information about people of color makes that more difficult, an issue perpetuated by “the myth that people of color don’t live here.”

“That narrative has never been true. New Hampshire has never been an all-white state,” she said. “And by not collecting data about people of color, we don’t have information to address people’s experiences and to know how to strengthen programming or to create a more welcoming atmosphere.”

Moore-Vissing added that a diverse community doesn’t just cross racial lines, but includes people of many life experiences, ages and political stances.

“I actually mean diverse, right? Where you’ve got a black refugee, a Latina from Chicago, and a guy who’s 65, white and who’s a conservative who’s lived in New Hampshire all his life. That’s the diversity I mean. There’s strength in that kind of community,” she said.

Moore-Vissing said municipalities can foster diverse connections by creating more opportunities for people to interact with each other: events like community gardening, neighborhood clean-ups and dinner programs where people come together for food and discussion.

Young people and ‘the loneliness factor’

As the state with the second-oldest population in the country, New Hampshire’s civic health takes on a unique layer.

Young people are “critical to New Hampshire’s long-term civic and economic health,” according to the index, yet a recent survey from nonprofit Stay Work Play reported that almost one-third of young people — those between the ages of 20 and 40 — said they would probably or definitely leave the state within two years.

“The numbers and the demographics being what they are right now, it’s not just employers who are searching for employees. Whether it’s towns or civic clubs or other institutions, everybody needs people,” Stay Work Play Executive Director Will Stewart said. “Look at town commissions and volunteer boards. In a lot of towns right now, they’re not able to do the work that needs to be done because they can’t find the people to do them.”

Kanzler, who was born and raised in Conway, had been in the minority as a New Hampshire lawmaker under 40. Previously a high school history teacher at his own alma mater, he originally ran for the position after hearing from one too many students that they were leaving the state after graduation — and not looking back.

“I wanted to see more kids stay, because I stayed. And I’ve so far been very happy with that decision,” Kanzler said. “I just had two children. I would love them to go to college and go and see the world but ultimately want to come back to New Hampshire, because it is a wonderful place.”

The ongoing departure of young people from the state is an exodus Kanzler had already experienced firsthand. When he graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2009 amid the recession, none of his friends were able to afford housing, and he watched them leave one by one.

“If there had been housing opportunities, could they have stayed here? They’re very intelligent people. Could they have started new nonprofits to target different issues our community has, would they have started new businesses that would have offered services that we don’t currently have here?” Kanzler said. “Every time someone who knows intimately the needs of a community leaves, that’s a lost opportunity for the community.”

Stay Work Play’s survey also found that a staggering one out of five respondents did not have a single friend in close proximity to them, and one out of four were isolated from family. Stewart said this is an issue they call “the loneliness factor.”

“We’re working to create those connections among people, and ultimately get young people to put down roots here,” Stewart said. “A big part of that is feeling like you belong.”

According to the index, millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, are less likely to be civically engaged and vote than other generations. And while the state’s millennials connect more with friends and family than any other group, they show lower rates in connecting with their neighbors, knowing how to get involved and feeling like they matter to their community.

“It’s imperative that we find the people and get them on board and engaged, or we’re just not going to have the ability to function at an optimal level,” Stewart said. “Looking forward five, ten, twenty years from now, it’s going to be very challenging to do the things we need to do as a civic society.”

Stewart added that municipalities often rely on “passive” strategies such as posting events on their websites and calling it a day. He encouraged civic bodies and nonprofits that need committee members and board members to reach out to young professionals networks and other social platforms to share opportunities.

“I think we can’t afford to be passive anymore. We need to be very proactive about reaching out to young people,” Stewart said. “We can’t rely on the same things that we’ve always done — just being there and expecting them to come. We need to go to them. A lot of people are just waiting to be asked, so we need to ask them.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

Jenny Whidden is a Report for America corps member reporting on the New Hampshire State House and racial justice legislation for The Granite State News Collaborative, a statewide multimedia collective of nearly 20 media outlets and community partners working together. Prior to starting at the GSNC in June 2021, Whidden, of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, covered the Illinois State House and the pandemic for the Chicago Tribune. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University, where she was managing editor of the Marquette Tribune, the award-winning student paper. Whidden has reported for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit site.



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