Updated: Nov 1, 2020
By Clara Pressey
Image via the Illinois Comptroller Office.
The best way that I can describe living in a small town is that it’s like being in the mafia — not that I have much of a frame of reference there. You know everyone. Everyone hangs out in the same places, and you definitely have to be careful what you say and where you say it, or it might get back to someone you’d rather it not.
Sure, sometimes it can be a little annoying. But the pride you feel when you’re sitting at that one coffee shop downtown where you always run into someone you know, and you’re watching people have fun on the streets around you and create a culture out of nothing — it’s indescribable. The indignation you feel when the city is planning to tear down that historic sugar mill that’s been out of use for decades is second to none.
The thing is, a lot of people knock small towns for being uncultured and unimportant, and I’m certainly not going to try to compare my small Coloradan hometown to New York, London, or Tokyo. But when those opinions are held even by the town’s own constituents, they tend not to participate very much in town community and politics. Which is a shame, because they could help create something a little bit closer to the cultural landscape they’ve been missing out on. To quote Martin Sheen’s character in The West Wing, “Decisions get made by those who show up.”
I assure you that small-scale local politics isn’t just about physical infrastructure. It’s about public art and funding for services like libraries, museums, rec centers, and historical preservation — and there are a number of ways in which people of all ages can get involved.
There are usually various city-wide committees, one of which is often a youth council, where teens can get help make decisions about how the city can best help them and their peers. There are also elections for local representatives and local campaign events for national politicians that are in desperate need of volunteers.
If direct participation in politics isn’t your thing, there are other ways to help out, too! Are you a member or passionate supporter of the LGBTQ+ community? You can help volunteer at and organize Pride events. Are you a book lover, or just think everyone should have access to books and computers? Try volunteering at your local library and lobby to get them more funding. If you are in any way involved in the arts, see if you can contribute to any public events or public-art initiatives going on around you. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a great list of ways to help your community specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic!
Eventually, when people see that they can shape their more immediate community and make it somewhere they’re proud to live, they’ll want to do the same thing in the country and the world. Local governments don’t have as much power as the federal government, and there are a lot of decisions that probably should not be left up to them, but they don’t just build community. They can help create civics-minded citizens of the planet Earth.
Written by writer Clara Pressey