Fostering civic engagement in Fairfield County

Oct 02, 2017

civic engagement in Fairfield County
Conscious impact through collective action. Photo courtesy of Callie Heilmann and Bridgeport Generation Now.

Ask your neighbors why they stay home on election day, and chances are you’ll hear this answer: they feel true change is out of their grasp, and believe their vote can’t make a difference.

A growing number of leaders in Fairfield County are now taking action to change this perspective. From canvassing to turn out the vote to organizing action networks that empower community members to lead change, a movement of civic engagement is beginning to flourish across the region.

There’s never been a better time to join the movement than right now, say organizers. In presidential election years, when more voters turn out, the old adage “every vote counts” may fail to ring true. But in 2017, an election year when voters choose local representatives, every voice – and vote – does indeed count.

“In the past two municipal elections in Stamford, recounts were required which resulted in a tie and a win by one vote, respectively,” says RJ Mercede, Manager of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence. “One vote literally made the difference in electing the legislative power for a city of over 120,000 residents.”

Empowering community members to fuel change

Nationwide, there is a growing recognition that community leaders don’t just arise; they need to be developed. That means providing training and tools to help people make an impact.

Locally, this recognition is turning into action. This spring, the grassroots social action network Bridgeport Action Now hosted a well-attended two-day Civics 101 workshop to offer citizens a no-cost opportunity to begin getting involved in shaping community change. Participants learned about the city’s political history, got the scoop on budgets and current priorities in city government and Bridgeport school districts, and explored opportunities for taking action.

“The goal of the network is to bring together Bridgeport residents to strengthen the community and increase civic engagement,” says Adhlere Coffy, a core member of Bridgeport Generation Now and a Data Scientist for Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. “We advocate for many advancements in Bridgeport. Chief among them are good governance, justice and equity, democratic empowerment and livability.”

The robust model being put to work in Bridgeport is also beginning to take root in Stamford, where community stakeholders are planning a similar workshop for early 2018 – bringing together a diverse group of nonprofit leaders, city employees, clergy, university faculty and artists. A pre-survey for the event received more than 150 responses, promising strong interest.

“The pre-survey clearly indicates residents want to learn more about the key drivers of city government, including education, the budget, and economic development,” says Mercede, who is supporting event coordination.

Foundations big and small are increasingly directing funds and resources to stimulate this very sort of civic engagement. On the forefront is the newly launched Obama Foundation; in Connecticut, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving has dedicated one of its newly established Spark Funds to encourage and support residents in becoming active participants to bring about meaningful change in their neighborhoods. Through small grants, the Fund supports leadership trainings, community meetings and projects led by residents.

The aim is to support what Coffy calls an essential goal: to continually evaluate and improve people’s capacity for participation in their own community.

“It is only through this continued progress that we will achieve a community that realizes its potential and benefits all its citizens,” says Coffy.

Coaching women to lead change through public office

Today, the push for women to gain greater representation in legislative forums has gained new energy. And locally, organizations are stepping in to guide and support potential candidates.

“Post the election, we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of women interested in running for office – many of whom possess great passion, but lack the requisite skills to do so,” says Tricia Hyacinth, Director of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls.

To help fill this need, the Fund for Women & Girls partnered with the Women’s Campaign School at Yale to host a daylong training in October 2017 on “The Basics of Political Life.” Targeted to women who are interested in running for public office, the training gives participants a chance to hear directly from other women in politics and receive guidance on topics ranging from what to consider before committing to a campaign, to crafting an inspiring message.

“Our goal is twofold: firstly, to help local women launch successful political lives and secondly, to offer an empowerment tool for turbulent times,” says Hyacinth.

For women who want to continue laying the foundations for their political aspirations, a weeklong intensive program hosted by Women’s Campaign School in June 2018 will offer further support.

It’s exactly this type of support for civic engagement that can be a key tool for creating exponential change, says Juanita James, President & CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.

“The Fund for Women & Girls has a long history of addressing women and girls’ most critical needs in Fairfield County,” says James. “By supporting women in working for policy change, the Fund can potentially make an even greater impact for more women and girls across the region.”

Take action: three steps for civic engagement in your community

Ready to get involved? Here are three ways to become an active participant in shaping the governance and future of your neighborhood:

  • Find an action network or training near you.
  • Donate to fund change in your community.
  • Get out and vote!