Complaining vs. real engagement

Published 9:52 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

When I was in high school, my favorite class was English. Considering my current career, it’s obvious that my interests haven’t changed much. What has changed is my opinion of my then-least-favorite subject: American government.

It was one of the last required classes that stood between me and the freedom of graduation. And I was dreading a whole year spent on something so confusing and boring.

I’m still pretty sure the U.S. Constitution is written in some sort of code deliberately intended to confuse high schoolers and adults alike.

Email newsletter signup

Luckily for me, we had a great government teacher. Despite being in his 60s, the man had more passion and energy than many of us teenagers. With him teaching, it was hard not to get excited about a subject that would have previously made me yawn, though there was still plenty of yawning in the class. We were high schoolers, after all.

But Mr. T, which we called him even though he bore no resemblance to a certain well-muscled member of a famous team from the 1980s, was on a mission to encourage every one of us to be part of the government our ancestors had worked so hard to create.

So while we were busy counting down the days to graduation, Mr. T was busy getting ready for his favorite day of the year. As the school year came to an end, Mr. T told us that we would all get a great surprise on the last day of class.

We were excited, expecting a pizza party as a reward for finally reaching graduation. On the last day of class, we all filed in, excited at the chance of getting real food instead of the depressing fare the cafeteria offered.

And waiting on all of our desks were applications to register to vote. I’m pretty sure the groan that erupted from all of us shook the walls.

But for Mr. T, voting was the first step on the path towards civic engagement, which he said was the only way our confusing government could ever work. And I stress first step because voting isn’t the only aspect of engagement necessary to guarantee a successful government. Mr. T. taught that attending school board and city council meetings was just as important.

As he so often told us, “Voting is just an excuse to complain. Engagement is how we can make the real change.”

It’s this lesson that often runs through my mind when calls for public input during school board or city council meetings are regularly met with silence. We can’t really be surprised when we don’t get what we want from representatives when we don’t bother telling them what we want.

An opportunity to do just that is coming up on Feb. 2, when you can tell Suffolk leaders what you think of their plans for your city. Officials have gathered recommendations together for public construction projects in 2012 for public review. To view the full plan, visit and click on the icon that says “2012 Proposed Capital Improvement Plan.”

It’s time to stop complaining and start engaging.