Just a few lines into Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam’s seminal work about the changing face of civic engagement in the U.S., the author cites a city councillor, Carroll Swain, saying that “Some people today are a wee bit complacent until something jumps up and bites them.”
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But as any parent of a young child knows, many residents do want to engage on a regular basis—they simply can’t manage the logistics of doing so.
“Childcare is hard enough to afford during your working hours or on a rare date night—very few parents are going to spend extra money on it to attend city meetings,” maintains Lauren Smith Brody, a Penn alum and author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby.
And so town meetings around the country traditionally skew older, and often whiter, than their cities actually are. For years that was the case in Ithaca, New York—a city of more than 30,000 and home to Cornell University and Ithaca College—where meetings take place in the evenings, after schools and daycare centers close.
“If you just came and watched our meetings, you wouldn’t understand the full diversity of the people of Ithaca,” explains Mayor Svante Myrick, the wunderkind politician who, when sworn in at age 24, became the youngest and first African American to hold the position. He’s one of the biggest rising stars in politics, having overcome poverty and periodic homelessness to graduate from Cornell (where, at age 20 he served on the city’s Common Council), and is widely respected for his groundbreaking ideas, big and small—like turning his own Mayoral parking spot into the city’s tiniest public park (small) and proposing a plan to be the first U.S. city to have safe spaces for addicts to legally shoot up, under supervision (very big).
“There’s not one city challenge I can think of that doesn’t impact parents in one way or another—from safe roads, to paid family leave, to quality schools and healthcare facilities, and fair taxes,” Smith Brody says.
It was with genuine curiosity and his signature compassion that he and Deborah Mohlenhoff, chair of the city administration committee, had undertaken a years-long effort of thinking about how they could diversify what their council chambers look like. “We were always asking ourselves ‘Who’s not here?’ And then we wondered why are they not here, and what barriers could there be?”
After talking to families, the answer became clear: Childcare was the number one response across the board, Myrick says. So he, Mohlenhoff, and their colleagues devised a plan to knock down that barrier, repurposing some of the money they’d already budgeted for youth employment and through the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, plus an additional $10,000, to have one adult supervisor and anywhere from two to four teen helpers available to supervise kids in a room right below council chambers. Since rolling out the idea this month, they’ve had childcare at three meetings. The effort has been warmly, albeit slowly, embraced—at one meeting, no children showed up; the city is making plans to spread the word more widely.
It’s such a simple, common sense idea—and yet no one else has been doing it, a finding that shocked Myrick as his team did its research. “I think it’s circular,” he says. “Why was nobody doing it? Because young families with children weren’t coming to city council meetings saying ‘Hey, you should did this.’”
Since the plan was announced, however, Myrick’s been hearing from leaders throughout the country—in Virginia, California, Charleston, and Baltimore, to name a few—who are being barraged by residents wanting the same support. With good reason: “There’s not one city challenge I can think of that doesn’t impact parents in one way or another—from safe roads, to paid family leave, to quality schools and healthcare facilities, and fair taxes—and you’d better believe those challenges will be more thoroughly solved when the people they’re impacting are in the room,” Smith Brody says. “This is one small but important step toward building equity. And when you take good care of parents, you’re really taking good care of their kids. That’s not just a ‘feel-good’ morally responsible thing to do. It’s financially responsible. Those kids will grow up to support our economy and government one day, too.”
Consider this: Of the 16 Philadelphia City Council meetings posted online for May 2019 in Philly, all of them are at hours that would require anyone caring at home for a baby or toddler not yet in school to find childcare, or to bring their child with them. That prospect is harrowing to many parents. And it’s not just Council meetings that matter. Hannah Sassaman, policy director at Philly’s Media Mobilizing Project, argues that childcare should also be available at all points of civic engagement—like courts.
“Often the challenges with people [not] showing up to court have nothing to do with a person absconding, and they have a lot more to do with a lack of childcare or an inability to get time off from work,” Sassaman says.
As a community organizer, Sassaman and her colleagues work hard to make sure that their meetings happen at places and at times and with support that allow working people, parents, and caregivers to participate. There are often a few children wandering around, though they now more regularly implement paid childcare to take care of kids. It has benefits beyond just parent participation. “We’re trying to build cultures where kids get to really understand what their parents are doing and to learn that parents participating in shaping the policy for them and for their family’s future is how it should be,” she says. “The noise of children or the different ways of presenting human bodies and different phases of life, and different abilities, should be the price of admission for putting a public meeting together to help make decisions about our lives.”
“There is extraordinary brilliance in the experience and the minds of parents,” Sassaman says. “We should make meetings cater to them.”
Accommodating parents—and their children—would require a culture shift, but it wouldn’t be unheard of. Think of Australia, which in 2016 starting allowing mothers to breastfeed in Parliament; or the U.S. Senate, which in 2018 voted to allow babies up to age one into the chamber. Locally, it was just reported that Theatre Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards is fundraising to be able to offer babysitting to bring more diversity into the nominating pool. Sassaman wants to normalize the presence of children in civic spaces. She often brings her young children to city meetings, at times letting Councilmembers hold her baby while she speaks.
“There is extraordinary brilliance in the experience and the minds of parents, especially single moms of color who are the ones who struggle most, I think, to get to meetings because of how structural inequality works in this city,” Sassaman says. “They’re the folks in our city who are most impacted by the policy conversations, are the most impacted by changing a SEPTA route, they’re the most impacted by funding conversations around schools or public health or criminal health. They should be the ones shaping and governing our entire city and future. We should make meetings cater to them.”
Naturally, Myrick champions the notion of other cities getting on board. “It’s easy, it’s not expensive, it can lead to better engagement and better decision-making. There’s nothing to lose—and potentially a whole lot to gain.”
Photo by Dave Clemens, U.S. Army