People-sized politics

Dawaune Hayes on the separation of – and enduring hope for – the people and their institutions.

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When we think about national politics, they often have a larger-than-life appeal. We are shown big personalities with multimillion-dollar budgets, talking about how they are going to fix problems and transform our entire way of life. It is important that these discussions are being had on a giant stage so more people can hear and engage with the messages that are shared. Yet, what these grand exhibitions neglect to show us are the little conversations between neighbors that make social change possible. 

The improvement of society does not begin with the representative. At least, it shouldn’t – because most people’s everyday experiences are not thought of in “political” terms like policy, procedure, and campaign donations. Rather, they’re thought of in food, shelter, well-being and “How will I make it to work tomorrow?” terms. Life is about the balance of our material needs and the experiences we get from them.

So why don’t our politics begin where our human existence does? We must make politics people-sized again.

I make this proclamation as someone who covers locally elected bodies like the Omaha City Council. The meeting time (2 pm on Tuesdays), the formality of the venue (suits, ties, and podiums), and limited outward communication (the meeting is not live-streamed online) all act as barriers to the public. Therefore, deliberation and decision-making lack the nuance of diverse life experiences. I talk to residents and neighbors frequently and many aren’t even aware of who our councilmembers are, let alone what time they meet and where.

The City Council, and other bodies like the Planning Board and County Commission, are people who live and work within the Omaha and Douglas County limits, yet the process can feel distant and gigantic. Since there are few ways to engage with these groups outside of going to their meeting on their terms, if you are not physically present to speak, your perspective won’t be either.

This separation can alienate people from their environment – especially when a community is suddenly mired with construction with no idea how it got there. 

When a brand-new apartment complex is built in a neighborhood, who approved it? In Omaha, first, it is brought to City Planning, which reviews a plan and works closely with the developer. Then, a recommendation is made to the Planning Board, which listens to proponents and opponents for things like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or sale of city-owned property. This is also the stage in which building design is most heavily discussed in public.

Once approved, the project moves to City Council which holds an additional public hearing and votes whether to support or deny the project. All of these meetings take place in a beige vintage chamber and can be on the heavy side of boring, but what they decide directly affects our lives.

We are but one species in a large, cohesive ecosystem. Our actions do not happen separately from us, every choice is connected and affects the lives of others. When we become aware of the scale at which our world is changed, we can become a part of that transformation.

Remember: During the election cycles, we are the people we are looking for.

An artist, journalist, and social entrepreneur, Dawaune Hayes brings people, ideas, and resources together for positive change. Dawaune worked in arts advocacy and communications before joining forces with The Omaha Star and 101.3 FM in 2018 to develop NOISE – North Omaha Information Support Everyone.

For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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