After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, people who were shocked by the results laced up their boots and took up protest signs, heading to rallies in support of rights and liberties they feared would be lost under the new administration. Whether it’s fighting for the freedom of speech or civil liberties or immigration policies or access to healthcare, the sign-toting activism is being accompanied by a swell of interest in local politics and civic leadership as people – especially young people and women – are wondering how they can make a difference locally and more immediately, toward an eventual change on a national level. Some are even running for office.
My friend Meggan Levene, 33 – an impressive and enthusiastic person who has devoted much of her young life to volunteering and working in the nonprofit sector – was one of those people. And after the election, she got involved in local politics in her town of Brookline, MA: she launched an election campaign for the office of Town Meeting Member, and on May 2 – that’s right, this past Tuesday! – she won!
“I had been telling people after the election, as everyone was posting on Facebook and trying to organize, that one thing people could to do to make a difference was to run for office,” Meggan said when I spoke with her in advance of the election. “To make a change, you have to put your name in there, especially young women,” she said, noting women’s underrepresentation in political office. “All politics is local – issues bubbling up in a presidential election begin locally. I realized maybe, after telling people they should run, that I should run too.”
From when she was very young, Meggan recalled, she was always interested in public service, and made her career in public service, working at City Year and extensively in the nonprofit sector. “I knew I had a voice and something to contribute,” she said.
Meggan is a 12-year resident of Brookline, and thinks it’s “the best community in Massachusetts.” She chose to run for Town Meeting Member “because it’s the position that gets the closest to the constituents,” she said, explaining that Brookline doesn’t have a mayor, so the Town Meeting is the legislative body, with people elected from each precinct. Her precinct, Precinct 3, has 3,000 registered voters.
As the youngest person running in that precinct, Meggan positioned herself as bringing a new voice to local government. “It’s not so much about age, it’s more about adding some additional voices to the conversation who haven’t had the same experiences as everyone else.” While those voices are present in the town – it’s located five minutes outside the Boston border and is surrounded by universities, so many graduate students and young families make their home in Brookline – “but there aren’t very many people who are under the age of 65 who are involved in politics at the town level,” Meggan explained. There’s also a problem with affordability; Brookline’s rent prices are the second highest in the state, making it difficult for young families and seniors to think about the town as their long-term home.
“A lot of the concerns that people have – environmentally responsibility, climate change – are important on both a national and local level,” Meggan said, noting Brookline was one of the first towns to pass a plastic bag ban. “People are thinking in unique ways about how to act locally and think globally. Our neighbors are thinking about ways to make their own little paradise or space the best it can be so they can raise kids in a healthy place.”
While the prospect of going door-to-door to talk to local citizens might terrify some, Meggan said it was one of the things she enjoyed the most about the campaign. “I’m actually not speaking about myself,” she clarified. “I ask people I’m meeting what matters to them and what they care about. I get a chance to find out what’s important to the constituents, and have an opportunity to share my experience working in the non-profit sector and as a small business owner. They’re really smart people who are excited to see a new face.”
When I interviewed her, Meggan was still campaigning, and we talked about the possibility that she might not win. What had she learned from the process of running for office, regardless of the outcome. And in her typically upbeat and grateful fashion, Meggan spoke passionately about the importance of involvement.
“For me, the process has really been a learning experience. It has given me a lot of admiration for people who do decide to run for public office. You put your experience out there, but also your identity. You put yourself out there and it can sometimes be uncomfortable. But it’s important. I hope that more people take a risk and put themselves out there, win or lose. We’re lucky to have a democracy and I hope that more people, especially young people and women choose to get involved and engaged. Locally is where people can have an impact now. If everyone was feeling engaged and participated locally, I think there are a lot of things that could improve. If everyone shared their voice there might be a chance to solve some of the major challenges that we’re facing as country.
Meggan’s other mandate is to get more women involved in politics, generally, regardless of their political party affiliation. “Women know how to compromise, how to advocate and listen for things that are important. I also think that it’s really important just visually that there are more women involved so that we can set a good example for future kids who want to get involved. There is an opportunity for women to be equally represented and equally respected but it might take another generation. Diversity is celebrated publicly but it’s challenging for people who look different to crack the glass ceiling.” And to do so, she said, “the more people – especially the people who are different from our current elected officials – who hurl ourselves against it….will be charting the path for others to walk the walk. I hope that by running I can help other people to run as well.”
“Sometimes it takes a challenging situation to activate people,” Meggan reflected. “I hope that the challenging situations don’t last but I hope the political engagement does.”
Tips from Meggan: How to Get Involved in Local Politics
Through the experience of running for office, Meggan identified a few ways – and found a few resources – that can help you get involved in your own community:
- Towns and cities have local political committees. If you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican, go to the local offices of those parties and ask how to get involved.
- Young professionals, especially, are really valuable to local leadership and will be the future of the country. Call the town councilor or head of elections and start asking about how to get involved.
- Look at the election cycles on your town’s or city’s website and see whose office is open for election. The site may also tell you how to collect enough signatures to get your name on the ballot. Then start getting involved and telling people about why they should support you.
- Look for mentors – people who have run for national office, and they would also say put yourself out there and go for it.
- If you’re a new candidate, figure out how to tell your story and get voters to remember your name – do grassroots engagement at the local level.
Resources: How to Get Involved in Local Politics
- Republican and looking to get involved? Try the GOP Campaign Management School or the National Federation of Republican Women
- Democratic and looking to get involved? Check out this detailed article in Slate containing links to many helpful websites and resources including the National Democratic Training Committee, which offers free online training for Democratic candidates; and EMILY’s List, She Should Run, and Emerge America, which are offering training and resources specifically for women. Also, Run for Something.
- Have experience in public service, like the military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps? Try Answering the Call – New Politics Leadership Academy (nonpartisan)