Civic Engagement is Essential
Our conversation with Beltran Highlights the Need for Civic Engagement
With rates of voter turnout in Los Angeles at a low ebb in recent elections, the city faces a crisis of civic participation.
Local leaders remain perplexed at how to improve the city’s lagging civic culture, and ideas have ranged from awarding cash prize to voters via a lottery system to increasing civics instruction in high schools and moving municipal elections to coincide with state and national elections.
During the course of her tenure of executive director of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, Raquel Beltran has worked to address the issue of unengaged voters in Los Angeles, drawing on her labor-organizing experience and work on political campaigns. Last week, as part of the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader series, she shared her thoughts about why Los Angeles has a serious problem with voter turnout, what civic literacy means to her, and what leaders can do to boost civic engagement.
Only 16% of Los Angeles registered voters cast a ballot during last year’s mayoral primary. As city officials and experts struggle to understand why so few citizens are voting, Beltran told an audience of students , faculty, and professionals that the answer may lie in better understanding the city’s changing population.
“In Los Angeles two-thirds of the people who live in Los Angeles don’t own their own home—they rent,” she said. “If you take a look at voting population, two thirds of that population are homeowners. If you want to engage [renters], you have to talk to them about what they care about. If two-thirds of a population is renting, what you do think there reality is? Is it water conservation? It might be transportation. To engage them, you have to talk to them about what’s important to them.”
Reaching out to different groups is an important part of increasing voter turnout, according to Beltran. But participation in the democratic process is about more than just casting a ballot.
“The only thing that changes voter turnout in my mind, based on my experience, is civic engagement,” Beltran said. “In the league, we’ve been shifting away our focus away from just working with voters to saying we want civic engagement. Voting is the end of the process; it’s not the beginning.”
Finding a way to engage different groups often requires tailoring outreach strategies to the needs and behaviors of different communities.
“ I don’t believe in creating meetings for them to come and talk about ballot measures or political issues,” Beltran said. “I don’t think that ‘s a wise strategy to take busy people and ask them to come to another meeting. If you want to be effective, find out what meetings are already taking place and go to those. That’s where the leadership is.”
While civic literacy is the goal of high-school teachers across America, Beltran thinks it may be time to think differently—and a lot more broadly—about civic roles and responsibilities.
“Civic literacy is often measured by a person’s ability to understand a city charter,” she said. “I say it’s based on their ability to get government to respond to their needs. It’s important to understand how government works, how to influence it, and how to make it responsive to your needs.”
Beltran cut her teeth organizing domestic workers in San Diego as part of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union, an experience that taught her about the importance of consistently following up with reminder calls to community members, among other practices. Though technology has changed outreach methods since then, Beltran has found that the lessons she learned under the tutelage of organizer Fred Ross are still effective ways to engage with the community.
“You have to have different strategies for different circumstances,” she said. “You can’t apply everything the same way. But the basics of working one on one, figuring out who the leaders are, having conversations with them, and building, building, building doesn’t change. The process doesn’t change in any community.”
Before leaving, Beltran urged the audience, including many students, to find a way to make a difference by getting involved in whatever arena feels most comfortable, whether it’s in the workplace, on a neighborhood council, or across the community.
“I always say do something.,” she said. “Do something. Find out where you’re comfortable, and just get into it. Enjoy it. If every single one of you does something at the level you can manage and something you’re comfortable with, that is a big change.”