Local newspapers, with their staff of reporters, kept us informed of government decisions and other happenings in our towns or cities. As social media grew, subscribers to local papers shrunk. The paper kids biking through our neighborhoods is now a fading memory.
Journalists who reported on the community’s ongoings gave us the same story. We didn’t always agree on how to resolve issues, but we had the same facts. With the demise of local newspapers, what remains is incomplete information, false information, and opinions on social media platforms. Television news, except PBS Newshour, can be better described as opinion shows than “just the facts, ma’am.”
In this state of things, an opportunity arises for those of us of a certain age. Although we can’t bring back the meadowlarks and warblers in our backyards or forests, doggone it, we can get informed on issues that matter to our community and volunteer our time and energy. “A well-informed electorate,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “is a prerequisite to democracy.” It’s certainly true today.
Croydon is a town of 800 in New Hampshire where one resident’s action shook the community out of its usual political indifference.
On a snowy March morning of 2022, thirty-one residents and a three-member select board met to approve the town’s $1.7 million school budget. The money paid for the colonial-era schoolhouse for kindergartners to fourth graders and tuition for older students to attend schools of their choice, public or private. read more
A childless couple, Mr. and Mrs. Underwood, moved to Croydon in 2007. At the meeting, Mr. Underwood stood up and called for cutting the education budget by more than half. (Croydon had previously shut down the police department.)
Mr. Underwood contended that public education was a failed experiment, citing stagnant student achievement scores and rising costs. He said that school activities, such as sports and music, were not essential to “participate intelligently in a free government.” Extra-curricular endeavors, in his view, “crossed the boundary between public benefit and private charity.” Mr. Underwood convinced enough people, and the budget-slashing amendment passed 20-14. read more.
The residents were angry with themselves for failing to attend meetings, fulfilling their democratic obligation and assuming someone else would take care of it. Many felt they deserved what happened. Conservatives, liberals, and non-affiliated began meeting and researching what they could do. Under New Hampshire law, they could petition for a special meeting to overturn the earlier vote. On May 7, Croydon residents met at the local YMCA for the special session. They needed 283 votes in favor. The turnout was 379, and of those, 377 voted in favor of overturning the budget. Two voted against it.
“Showing up. That’s the big lesson,” said Chris Prost, 37, a Croydon resident who runs a small brewery from a barn at the back of his house. “And not just showing up, but also knowing what’s going on.”
Apathy snuffs out democracy. Retirement doesn’t have to be about retreating. It can be time to become more engaged in the democratic process. Some of my friends have found their niches, like serving on local library boards and volunteering to restore local nature areas. The provincial government is the closest to the people. By attending council meetings, we can affect matters in our communities: animal management, public health, traffic, parks, trails, drains, libraries, and more. Without us in attendance, boards are free to act without oversight.
We, persons of a certain age, lived through the Civil Rights and Women’s movements and saw the window of Justice open and now looking to be closing. We were better consumers than citizens. We moved towards individualism to the detriment of the whole world. I believe that many of us are ready and want to help. There is no time to lose.
Retirement years can be a time to step up to look out for the younger generations. Retirees can be informed of how elected officials are budgeting tax dollars and hold the elected accountable by showing up for local school and council meetings, etc. Without the local press, we can be the feet on the ground looking out for the common good. We can do this!