It's time to dig in

garden shovel in dirt

By Greg

It's clear that this presidential election season left a lot of people discouraged and fearful. Even if you were OK with the outcome of the vote, there's still a not-small chance that you don't feel good about how the whole process played out. As a nation we didn't wrap ourselves in glory on this one.

The uncertainty about what happens now -- the anxiety -- is understandable. I've felt it in a way that I don't think I've ever felt about politics before. And I can't even imagine how people who already felt threatened because of some of the rhetoric during the campaign now feel. There's a lot for all of us to consider about how we ended up here.

So, it might feel like a time to withdraw. But what I've tried to remind myself is that now is actually the time to dig in, to steady ourselves for the ongoing push to make the sort of country in which we want to live.

And a good place to start is on a local level. Here are a few ways to do that.

Local? Why? This happened on a national level.

The consequences of this presidential election are going to play out on the level of huge national or international systems: healthcare, global trade, climate change, and many others.

And, yeah, these are important -- really important, for both the nation as a whole and for individuals, people we all know in our daily lives. Hearing Republican leaders talk Wednesday about how they're set on repealing the Affordable Care Act straight way, I immediately thought of my friends who recently arranged health insurance coverage for their young family thanks to one of the mechanisms in place through Obamacare. They're now potentially facing a much more uncertain outlook for a key piece of their family's security.

It's just that these issues are often so big that as individuals it can be hard to make a dent in them. That's not to say it's not worth trying -- it is. But you can't move a mountain by yourself. And the work of getting enough people headed in the right direction to move that mass can often be a frustrating experience because it feels like nothing is ever actually happening, even if you're successfully shifting the mountain an inch or two per year.

Local issues can also be difficult, especially when they're tangled with these larger national and cultural-level problems and patterns. But the scale is a lot more human-sized -- more like trying to move a pile of dirt rather than a mountain. And when you take action, there's the real possibility of seeing a result. Especially if you get a few other people to pitch in and help shovel.

Also: You live here. What better place to fix or improve than the spot on which you currently stand?

So here are some ideas to dig in locally.

Talk with your neighbors

Woodlawn Ave sidewalk perspective

Let's start with an easy one. You probably already do this, saying hi in passing. It's worth going beyond that, though -- to ask how your neighbors are doing, to lend a hand when they need it, to listen to their stories.

That might feel weird at first, especially if you're reaching out to people who don't immediately appear to be like you. I totally get that. I'm a naturally shy person. But I also know from my job, when I need to be professionally not-shy, that people are often appreciative to have someone ask how things are going and then genuinely listen.

It doesn't have to be some super-deep, serious conversation. Maybe you're just talking about the tomatoes your neighbor grows in the backyard. Over time those little conversations add up, and eventually you have a real relationship, maybe even a friendship. And your neighborhood is stronger for it, because now people are sharing info and concerns, talking about ways of solving problems, feeling like they belong, and even having some fun. (One of my favorite memories of this past year was the impromptu Fourth of July party we had in our backyard with our neighbors. It just kind of happened -- one minute we were chatting in the yard and the next thing we knew we were all eating barbecue together.)

I say this acknowledging that I could do a better job of it. I know a pretty good share of our neighbors from walking Otto, but there are people on either end of our street that I recognize but don't know their names. And there's no good reason why I shouldn't.


This one is a little bit harder because for many of us it means changing our routine or adding something to an already busy schedule. I'm guilty of being reluctant to step up for that reason.

That said, there are a bunch of opportunities in this area -- and organizations dedicated to helping us connect with those opportunities.

If we want things to be better, then we should lend a hand.


polling place sign

You know this. But make it a habit to show up for every election. Some of these local elections turn on a shockingly small number of votes -- a few hundred people (or even fewer) can make or break a candidate or an issue. (Recent example: The Albany High School renovation vote.)

Think about running for office

We need more people -- and a more diverse range of people -- in the pool of potential leaders and representatives. If you're thoughtful, respectful, fair, and good with people maybe you should think about it. Really.

It might seem like a big jump. And it is. It takes time and effort and, frankly, some guts. But you don't have to start off running for Congress. Maybe there's an open spot on your library board. Maybe the right person for that spot is you.

If you're not up for running for office, there are other ways to help. You can encourage a friend you think who'd be good. You can volunteer with a campaign. And we can all examine the reasons good, qualified people might decide to not run -- and then think about ways to remove those obstacles and get those people in the game.

Go to a public meeting

Ever been to a city or town council meeting? How about the school board? Or the planning board? Or your neighborhood association? Or a community planning session?

You should go sometime because on the local level you can get an up-close look -- like, literally from just a few feet away -- at how the gears of government actually turn. And you often have the opportunity to tell the people who run the government what you think.

Will your public comment make a difference? Sometimes it will. Though I think often the real benefit from showing up at these sorts of public meetings is two-fold:
1) You get to learn firsthand about what's happening -- and how it happens -- and you get a better sense of the people involved.
2) The people who are in power get to see that you're there.

That second part is important because I think we're all a little more cognizant about doing a good job if we know someone's watching. That's not to say local officials aren't trying. Actually, just the opposite -- I think most local politicians really do care and are making a good-faith effort, sometimes in difficult circumstances. But as a public we have a role in holding local officials accountable. It doesn't have to be a harsh or antagonistic presence -- we just need to let them know we're paying attention.

apd body camera meeting Brendan Cox
A public forum earlier this year about the Albany Police Department's officer body camera program.

I am often heartened by the turnout for some of these meetings, with crowds of people offering ideas and feedback on topics such as police body cameras and the way our streets are designed. There are a lot of people around here who care and are willing to put forth effort.

There are also times that, collectively, we could all be doing a better job of paying attention. Here's an example: One of the reasons that I started showing up regularly to cover Albany planning board meetings for AOA was that I was sitting at a meeting a few months back and realized I was the only member of "the public" who was there -- everyone else there was either a member of the planning board and city staff or someone directly involved with a project before the board.

Is that a problem? In most cases, probably not. A lot of what happens there is relatively routine. But some of the projects that come before that board represent big, neighborhood-influencing changes with millions of dollars on the line. And lots of people care about the outcome of these projects.

That's just one example. I'm sure there are many others.

Subscribe. Read the news.

Back in the day (whenever that was), newspapers largely filled this observer role. As you might have heard, though, the newspaper business is cratering -- hard -- as digital giants such as Facebook and Google drain away ad revenue. That's prompted newspaper companies to make serious cutbacks in staffing. Or if they're not letting people go, they're squeezing salaries, prompting talented reporters and editors to head for the exit.

These cutbacks matter. Fewer reporters mean fewer meetings, events, and issues covered. It means the reporters who remain are stretched even further, allowing them less time for in-depth or investigative coverage. Stuff -- important stuff -- falls though the cracks.

All this comes as the world needs more and better reporting about what's actually happening -- especially as Facebook and other social media platforms are happening to create ever more efficient systems for deploying falsehoods and making them stick.

So one way to push back is to become a subscriber to your local news organization (the term "newspaper" is almost antiquated now). They need the support more than ever.

Sure, they're not perfect -- and if you think they can do better, by all means, tell them how. (Seriously.) But right now they're the best we've got. If they go away, it'll be hard to replace them -- and we'll all be worse off.

These are just a few ideas. And they're not going to solve all the problems we're facing, far from it. Most of us are capable of doing at least some of these things, though. And we've gotta start somewhere. So let's make it here.

Greg Dahlmann is one of the founders of AOA.


Thanks Mary. Thanks Greg.

I’ll add that ‘If you see something, say something’ doesn’t just apply to suspicious people and packages in airports and train stations. It applies to discrimination, abuse, marginalization, and the like. These are the ‘soft’ violations of our principals and laws that need to be addressed and prevented.

I needed this today, thank you!!!

Thanks, Greg, for this and helping provide some constructive ideas at a time a lot of us are disappointed and need to figure out what to do.

I would suggest specifically that people identify one or two areas of progressive reform that may be a risk in the next 4 years and do something to protect, promote, or facilitate those reforms. Write a check to Planned Parenthood; volunteer to teach English to refugees, send a letter
advocating for stronger environmental regulations. Anything that is important to you where you don't want to see us go backward.

I agree with Greg about supporting local journalism, especially investigative reporting. I subscribe to the Times Union in large part to pay for Chris Churchill's salary. Somebody's gotta do it.

And if possible, reach out to somebody who voted opposite of the way you did. Not to change their mind, but just to be human. There is a man at my community garden who is an avid Trump proponent and he knows I'm a lefty feminist. But we share common ground, literally, as we talk about our gardens, share seeds and our harvest. When our conversations veer off into the political, I'll kid him about how he just took his crazy pills and then we go back to digging in the compost. Believe me, I am as guilty as anybody of stereotyping and maligning the opposite political camp in the abstract, and yet I know I'm pals with some folks who voted for a candidate I personally find appalling. Maybe we need to get outside the bubble of our like-minded social group to understand what happened Tuesday.

This article perfectly articulates a lot of what started bubbling up in my mind after the initial shock and deep disappointment wore off. I would go one step further and advocate for, and will personally be committed to myself, keeping my dollars local, wherever possible. I’m not necessarily seeking to adopt a protectionist perspective through this or spite big business (for the most part), but for me this goes back to what Greg articulated and that is getting to know one’s neighbors and community. I’ll skip the politics and won’t regurgitate my own opinions on some of the big issues that drove this election, but I do think that more than ever it is important for all of us to reinvest in our communities, where possible.

When I support local, whether it be an upstate farmer, the neighborhood bee keeper, the artisanal cheese maker, or the series of local restaurants around the block from my house, it goes deeper than keeping my hard earned dollars local. It reinforces community well-being by linking neighbors in a web of economic and social relationships, and often fosters vibrant cities that interlock with their rural partners, with mutually inclusive benefits. This strong web spills over with support to local causes, the preservation of local decision making and more effective management of local impacts, whether social, economic or environmental. I’ve long sought to support local, but find myself more committed to this notion and wanting to try doubly hard to understand my neighbors’ successes, and more importantly, where they struggle.

With food in particular, I’m particularly sensitive to knowing where it comes from and this naturally leads to supporting local, community farmers. I have had many rewarding conversations with these same farmers and getting a better perspective of the challenges they face in providing me with my daily meal; something one doesn’t get when they grab something off the shelf from the market. I’ve learned from these conversations that many of these challenges result in local products that cost more than what can be found at the chain store. Sometimes, these conversations lead to profound shifts in my own thinking or cause me to re-prioritize my stance on the issues of the day, by getting me out of my own bubble (e.g. I may support particular environmental regulations to keep my community clean, so I should be willing to pay the price these regulations impose on a local product, rather than letting some other community to be spoiled so that I can by that same product at a discount).

Certainly, I can’t expect someone who is economically disadvantage from being able to adopt this position, to the fullest extent at least, but I’m personally blessed with being able to support my local businesses and community members, often and broadly. Therefore, I’m recommitted to doing so and hope others in my position do so to. I think this support can add up, spilling over into reinvigorated small businesses, who can hire folks with well-paying jobs, allowing them to likewise support a regionally economy that bolsters one another. It won’t happen overnight, it certainly sounds idealistic (I’m sure some folks will bemoan that I’m trying to advocate for a hipster revolution; I’m not), and its unrealistic to expect that everything can be done locally, but it’s the only pathway I can see at present that can holistically work. We’ve already seen that the corporatist’s model has laced too many holes and ditches in communities across America, resulting in deep, raw anger and confusion on how to move forward. I think it’s time to pivot!!

Thanks Greg. We can do this, together.

I think we should all just transform our minds to think like the opposite. Take away all your preconceived ideas and put yourself in the shoes of the other to see what they are truly thinking. Forget your own selfish wants, needs and goals and look at it from the other side. Maybe try to discover why this person cares so deeply about climate change, or why that person is afraid of globalism, why does this person support abortion, and why would that person worship Jesus so strongly. Do it without bias and nonjudgmental ...keep your thoughts completely out of the equation and see what drives people to think or act differently than you......

Thank you Greg. This is a terrific list, and I want to thank All Over Albany for sharing so many constructive ideas for moving forward. I also appreciate that you cover local like the planning board meetings and zoning updates. It's not just that you do it, you do it in a thoughtful and a engaging way.

I would add three more things to your list.

1) Give money to non-profits that work on causes you care about, if you are able. The purpose is two-fold. Some of the larger organizations are going to advocate for fairness or environmental protections at the federal level. Others, especially state or local orgs, will do the work that the federal government may no longer be doing as programs are defunded, Land protection, for example.

2) There are other ways to support a local campaign in addition to running or volunteering: sign (or carry) nomination petitions or give money to the campaign. Every candidate who would like to run for office needs a certain number of signatures from registered voters. People can be uncomfortable people with this, but they shouldn't be. It's a necessary part of our participatory democracy and only helps more people get on the ballot. Running a campaign costs money (you wouldn't believe how much those signs cost), so if you care about an issue, or believe in a candidate, give a little if you can afford it.

3) In addition to volunteering for nonprofits, you can be appointed to public boards and commissions that give you a role in local decision making, e.g., planning boards, conservation advisory council, zoning boards, police review boards, assessment review boards, etc.

Thank you again!

Is there something the Capital District community can do to welcome or help assimilate the growing immigrant populations in our area?

@Allison -- contact the local branch of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. They will tell you about many volunteer opportunities.

USCRI Albany
991 Broadway
Suite 223
Albany, NY 12204
Phone: 518-459-1790

Also, check out RISSE (Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus) located in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany.

Allison, go to the servealbany link as Greg provided in the piece, there is an org listed there for immigrant assistance.

Thank you, Greg. This was exceptional advice.

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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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