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OPINION: Engaged citizens make a difference

These are tough times in Alberta and it is only understandable if we find our strength and resolve wavering after these long months of hardship. But let us remember this: together we are stronger and we can harness our collective power to make a difference.

Global pandemic. Economic collapse. Partisan politics.

Albertans may well have reason to despair as we face 2021. But there is hope. Hope that comes in the form of people like you and me.

Engaged citizens are ordinary people who do ordinary things to make extraordinary change. Engaged citizens build a better world by engaging with social issues, working with each other and transforming their communities.

Being informed about current issues and how they relate to us and our communities is the first step to being engaged. What are the problems? What are the proposed solutions? Do they fit with our values, our vision for a better life for all Albertans and our desperate need to sustain the planet that human life depends upon?

Understanding and caring about the problems facing us can take us a long way down the road to addressing them.

Next, we can connect with like-minded people who care and want to make change. Whether this be through a group of friends, colleagues or one of the many organizations that exist in our communities.

Collectively we can make our voices louder, make the work lighter and support each other in reaching our goals. What one person can achieve alone is limited, but working together we make so much more possible.

Engaged citizens volunteer their time, skills or knowledge to improve their own lives, the lives of people in their community and the resilience of the living world.

They participate by voting in elections, volunteering in political campaigns of people who will represent them well in government and by running for office themselves. Ordinary citizens bring skills, experience and caring to political office that may be otherwise lacking in career politicians.

Engaged citizenship is about giving democracy legitimacy and strength. Thousands of ordinary, but engaged Albertans, took action in the past several months to object to funding cuts to education, health care and Alberta’s provincial parks.

Through protests, meetings with their elected representatives and the media, they let the government know their interests were not being represented.

Engaged citizens held their government accountable and made them focus on serving the needs of the people. They provided a necessary counterbalance to elected officials who, between elections, may forget who they serve.

Engaged citizens are also a necessary counterbalance to powerful corporate interests that threaten to undermine our democracy. Corporations organize to lobby for their collective interests with government, and if we don’t counteract this power, we risk our voices and interests being drowned out by the ultra-rich and powerful. In a democracy, government must be of the people, by the people and for the people.

Engaged citizens make communities stronger, healthier and more connected. They can meet needs of others in their community in a way that cannot be replicated by business or public services. In turn, engaged citizens enjoy an enhanced sense of belonging and well-being and a sense of agency in their ability to make change.

Engaged citizens can demand more direct involvement in decisions and policy-making. Through citizen juries, community advisory boards, and participatory budgeting, we can ask that our values and experiences get incorporated directly into policy decisions.

Several municipalities in Brazil allow thousands of citizens a direct say in setting the municipal budget. The result is improved quality and access to public services, increased support for democracy and increased tax revenues as citizens appreciate the value they receive for their contributions. Several major cities across the globe, like New York, Paris and Madrid have followed suit with participatory budgeting.

These are tough times in Alberta and it is only understandable if we find our strength and resolve wavering after these long months of hardship. But let us remember this: together we are stronger and we can harness our collective power to make a difference.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta.  Visit www.engagedcitizen.ca for more articles like this.