With the coronavirus pandemic raging, there’s never been a better time to re-watch television shows. One of the best, “What We Do in the Shadows,” features a villain archetype we’ve seen before — the energy vampire. On the show, Colin Robinson is a vampire who consumes other people’s energy, boring or frustrating them into a coma. The show centers on him and his housemates’ adventures in being bad neighbors on Staten Island.
Robinson attends his weekly City Council meetings, agitating the participants and council members with the most inane nonsense he can dream up. In one episode, after adjusting a squeaky microphone several times, he says, “When it comes to zoning ordinances, I have a few thoughts. Ordinance: what does it mean?” He is never there to make Staten Island better — only to feed.
No one is as evil in real life as Robinson is on the show. Still, I often think of him as I listen to local government meetings featuring public comment. These meetings are frequently hijacked by folks insisting on creating chaos, promoting harmful agendas or stealing energy from other equally important issues in the community.
Take the process around California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). AB 2016, passed in 2016, mandated that California create an Ethnic Studies model curriculum to be used in high schools across the state. In 2019, a group of volunteers who applied for positions on the committee met to design the curriculum. They inserted the discriminatory Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel into the draft curriculum by presenting it alongside domestic-focused civil rights movements without mentioning any criticism of it. No one knew or cared enough to stop it until after the draft curriculum was released.
That’s how a curriculum meant to educate California students about communities of color became yet another battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a true energy vampire of a topic. Since then, all public meetings about the curriculum have featured an overwhelming number of comments about Israel and Palestine. Korean, Armenian, Sikh Americans and others shared legitimate concerns about inclusion, but the conflict has remained at the center of the debate, obscuring other necessary changes to the curriculum.
But we don’t have to give way to the Robinsons of the world. We can prevent these situations by getting involved early and often with our school boards, local governments and state agencies. These bodies make important decisions affecting your personal life. It’s easy to rage against federal government shenanigans, but when do we object to zoning ordinances that prevent affordable housing from being built? Show up to a town hall meeting to discuss taxes? Join the conversation about a day of commemoration for a community icon?
Government meetings can be excruciating, but if we don’t show up to make our voices heard, those who benefit from our disengagement fill the void. The absence of pro-Israel voices on that volunteer committee for designing the Ethnic Studies curriculum was just the tip of the iceberg.
If we don’t show up to make our voices heard, those who benefit from our disengagement fill the void.
Democracy is not just a system of governance. The late Congressman John Lewis once said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.” Our government’s ability to function depends on our willingness to participate, hold elected officials accountable, and make “good trouble.” It is crucial to educate ourselves, friends, families and communities about how local government works.
Tough conversations around controversial issues will always require time and energy — but they don’t need to take over every conversation that involves government or legislation. It’s true that “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Getting involved early also means we get to set the boundaries of the conversation —not hustling to respond to damaging laws or processes. Our involvement keeps our community and us from being on the proverbial menu and prevents the creation of more energy vampires.
It’s also necessary to think about the inequities that make participation difficult for many. Racial injustices clearly play a role in this, as do other intersectional identities. For example, working parents (especially working moms) have a much harder time attending public meetings — someone has to take care of the kids. Shift workers who don’t get out until or 7 or 8 P.M. can’t just leave early for a meeting that starts at 6 P.M. Many people in rural communities can’t just hop on a Zoom call if they don’t have broadband internet. This list goes on. W. E. B. DuBois remarked, “a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.” As we re-engage with and rebuild fractured government bodies, it is incumbent on us to build a system that protects everyone — not just a few.
Reclaiming our governments will take hard work and commitment. If we want local governments to work for all of us, we need more people from all walks of life to get involved. I think we are up to the challenge.
Lauren Post is the senior researcher and content manager for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization.