Once upon a time, there was a French political scientist named Alexis de Tocqueville. He visited the United States and studied our style of democracy. The natural ease with which Americans gather together and get stuff done impressed him. My point is, last November, I helped organize a debate for city council candidates, and the natural ease de Tocqueville observed was definitely at play.
Given this is my first post for Civic Nebraska, let me provide some context. I am Astrid Gabriela Munn — just your average Swedish-Guatemalan girl from the High Plains. I grew up in Scottsbluff, then studied journalism at the University of Nebraska. For the past three years, I have practiced personal injury law in my hometown.
Since my return, I have dabbled in the public affairs de Tocqueville considered so remarkably American. For instance, I helped revive an annual cleanup day in Southeast Scottsbluff — our historically Latino and Native neighborhood — and I worked with consultants and residents to envision our neighborhood’s redevelopment. I am not doing this as part of a job. I am just a civic busybody. I toy with the idea of running for office, but I want to bone up on the whole representing-people-on-an-individual-basis-before-trying-to-represent-a-constituency deal.
If you are not familiar with Scottsbluff, you must visit this scenic gem hidden off the Interstate and experience all of its quirky, multicultural glory. Unlike most Latino communities in Nebraska, which are still relatively new, Scottsbluff has been home to a significant Latino population since the early 20th century. Historically, the southeast quadrant of Scottsbluff — a/k/a East Overland — is our neighborhood, and many families with Native and German backgrounds also call it home.
Although it has an elementary school, several churches, and a commercial district that includes restaurants, bakeries, and a bike shop, some residents have expressed to me at focus groups that they feel the neighborhood gets left behind in community dialogues and general upkeep. Conversely, I have had non-East Overlanders tell me that they would love to explore the neighborhood more, but the sense of otherness is too extreme to let them comfortably enjoy our santeria shops and beef tongue sandwiches.
No stranger to these sentiments, social change wunderkind, and fellow Panhandle native Valeria Rodriguez proposed that her new non-profit, Empowering Families, host a forum. The nine candidates running for Scottsbluff City Council would come to the Guadalupe Center — East Overland’s main gathering place — and answer questions from neighborhood residents.
It was a win-win situation: East Overland would enhance its inclusion in local civics, and the candidates would familiarize themselves with this oft-overlooked constituency. After we settled on a date, place, and time for the forum, the Empowering Families board members and I went to work.
It is tempting to draw out the “work” into a dramatic montage here, but the truth is that organizing the forum was relatively simple. Invite the candidates. Publicize. Draft some questions. Put out some coffee and creamer. Sure enough, people and the press showed up, and community leaders quizzed candidates about affordable housing and the dog poop smell coming from the nearby sugar factory.
It was not glamorous. It was not seamless. At one point, we had to rearrange some furniture because my giant hair blocked a candidate’s view of the audience. But I consider it a success.
In only a few weeks’ time, we took an idea and turned it into action. For me, the biggest hurdle was overcoming the notion that we needed permission or an invitation to Do A Thing. But the Americans who were running book drives and raising barns in de Tocqueville’s time probably were not waiting for someone to call them and invite them to apply for an Exciting Opportunity, and then wait for an assignment. They probably nailed up some notices, put out some coffee, and just Did The Things that impressed de Tocqueville so.
My dearest peers — if we can break through the self-doubt that is in all of our heads and the small-town naysaying that we have all heard, we can definitely Do The Things, too.
Astrid Munn is an attorney with the Robert Pahlke Law Group of Scottsbluff. A native of Scottsbluff, Astrid began her career as a journalist. She earned her JD from Washington University in St. Louis and previously practiced law in Maryland.