By Guest Columnist ROHIT MALHOTRA, founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta
Last year ended with one of the most polarized and contentious elections in recent history. A very important narrative emerged from the dozens of national debates, tweets, and rallies: the issues that are systematically dividing us as a country are local.
From our struggling school systems to a lack of affordable housing to chronic homelessness, these challenges are directly impacted by decisions made at a local level. This should drive the public to increase our attention beyond just four-year presidential election cycles and focusing in on local elections.
Fortunately, the city of Atlanta has an opportunity to do just that in 2017. In 2017, the city of Atlanta will elect a new mayor, city council, and school board. These elected positions will lead the charge to envision what Atlanta will stand for as a city for the next decade.
Engagement in local election cycles is a challenge for cities nationwide, including Atlanta.
In 2013, the entire country experienced record low voter turnout at a local level, and Atlanta’s story was no different. In our last opportunity to elect a mayor, city council, and school board, voter turnout sat at a mere 15 percent, after a previous mayoral election decided by only 714 votes.
A study by the Knight Foundation focused on voters aged 18 years to 29 years found that 75 percent of their focus group respondents didn’t participate in local elections because they didn’t have enough information about who was running and 62 percent said they didn’t participate because they didn’t know about the issue areas related to the election.
Those are solvable challenges.
The reason people do not engage at a local level is not because they don’t care. They care a lot, but they show that love in informal forums and circles, rather than just town halls and formal meetings. Especially right now, after such a polarizing and controversial national election cycle, people are talking about what’s happening in our cities and neighborhoods and they want to be more engaged.
That’s why, in 2017, the Center for Civic Innovation will focus all of our attention on the upcoming elections in November. All of our programs and events will focus on informing the public about the issues and the candidates in this upcoming race. We’ll host leadership breakfasts on a monthly basis with each mayoral candidate, and we’ll also convene panels with current and former city leadership to better understand the roles and expectations of these elected positions.
To kick things off, we are partnering up with the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta to leverage their Ideas Challenge program to support individuals with bold ideas to increase engagement in the 2017 elections. Through this program, we will support five creative ideas in implementing creative approaches to bring attention to the elections, and one of those ideas will be given $10,000 to be fully implemented with a city-level partner.
We aim to partner with many more philanthropies and community level partners to create new opportunities to do things a little different this time around, at a time where local election engagement could not be more important.
Two years ago, the Center for Civic Innovation was built on the idea that when people are empowered with information and opportunity, they can drastically shape the future of their city. For the past two years, we’ve been able to bring together thousands of people through creative town halls and conversations on what is happening in Atlanta.
In addition, we built a home for social impact organizations who have, in a very short period of time, showcased Atlanta as a home for social entrepreneurship, attracting attention and praise from all over the world.
One of the most important things we’ve been able to do is to begin investing in emerging leaders in this city. Through a fellowship program, we’ve supported 32 community leaders across this city, from a barber providing mentoring services in Vine City to an artist using murals as a way to talk about community. We’ve worked with groups like MailChimp, Food Well Alliance, ChooseATL, Invest Atlanta, Westside on the Rise, Google, and so many more to support a new wave of talent in Atlanta.
There’s a refreshed energy in Atlanta. You can feel it. It’s a sense of ownership among people that is helping us look back at our city’s history and explore everything it can be in the future.
We see this with a rise in entrepreneurship across industry areas, a new TV show that showcases a side of this city that the rest of the country needed to see, and a stronger strategy among social impact organizations and philanthropies to look the problems that this city faces dead in the eye.
Atlanta still faces staggering levels of income inequality and a school system in need of reform for students today and the ones coming in tomorrow. This next election provides an opportunity for new leadership to grow what has been working for this city and start to look differently at what is not. Our goal this year is to dramatically swing the pendulum of voter turnout and participation from a disengaged low toward an exciting and historic high.
Editor’s Note: In addition to his work with the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, Rohit Malhotra served as an Ash Innovation Fellow in the White House Office of Management and Budget; was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, where he is the youngest serving member in recent history; and was named as one of Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 30 Under 30.