The New Civic Engagement

I know I do a lot of criticizing and complaining on this blog. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there are emerging signs of improvement, too.

A lack of civic knowledge and engagement is at the heart of so much that is wrong in America. It often seems that the only people who are engaged are the malcontents and bigots–the people so angry and so threatened by social change I can almost hear them screaming “stop the world, I want to push you off.”

It’s less noticeable (they aren’t organizing armed insurrections, after all) but thoughtful, civic-minded people are also engaging, and in very productive ways. Let me share two uplifting examples.

The first is a book sent to me by a reader from Encinitas, California, titled Potholes, Parks and Politics. Several years ago, Lisa Shaffer moved to Encinitas, which is a mid-sized city near Santa Barbara. She was disturbed by the incivility and “good old boy” ethos of the then city council, and she ran for and won a seat on that body when one became open. She and another Council member, Teresa Arballo Barth, subsequently decided to write a guidebook for citizens who wanted to get something done locally–but didn’t want to have to run for public office to get that something done.

Shaffer and Barth have done a fantastic job. They have anchored their guidebook in the importance of three things: civility, clarity and communication. They explain why and how to properly define the problem–it isn’t always what it seems. They also stress the importance of identifying who actually has the authority to solve a particular problem. (Sometimes, as Indianapolis folks know all too well, local government lacks that authority.)They lay out the process for contacting those authorities, making one’s case, and achieving a result, and they do it with easy to understand examples and definitions. They provide a “toolbox,” explain how local government works, define arcane terminology, provide lists of resources–and do it all in less than 100 pages, in an incredibly readable book.

It can be ordered through Lisa’s webpage, and I enthusiastically endorse it.

The second example is closer to home, and it warms the hearts of all Hoosiers who looked longingly at what Stacey Abrams and her collaborators achieved in Georgia. It is called–appropriately–HOPE. You can access its website here.

HOPE stands for “Hoosiers Organized People Energized.”

The numbers tell the story: Indiana has two million unregistered Hoosiers. That number includes 316,000 Black, Latino, Asian-American and Indigenous citizens. It doesn’t include the 270,000 young people who will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2022.

HOPE is a 501c3 organization formed to find and register them–to expand Indiana’s electorate and increase the state’s embarrassingly low  turnout. HOPE has a partnership with, giving it expanded capabilities to verify and register Hoosiers. The organization will also work to streamline the registration process and create effective ways to ensure that previously ignored Hoosiers have a voice. The organizers have done their homework–they’ve consulted with people in several states–not just Georgia– that have effectively expanded their electorates, and they are ready to apply those measures in Indiana.

The organization has also recruited an impressive list of advisers. (I am honored to be one of them, but there is always room for more–and, of course, always a need for funding.) (Hint, hint.)You can sign up and/or donate at the website.

Expanded turnout will create a more balanced General Assembly, and enable us to send fewer embarrassing Neanderthals to Washington. I have written before that even with the Indiana GOP’s extreme gerrymandering, there would be far fewer “safe” districts if more voters cast ballots. The districts created by our gerrymandering map-makers depend upon information reflecting previous turnout. If we can turn enough non-voters into voters, we can change the results in several of them.

America is clearly at an inflection point. We have multiple problems, many of them seemingly intractable. We can either throw in the towel, give the country over to the crazy Q people and Trumpers and Christian Nationalists–or we can get involved. We can ensure that under-represented people are registered and able to vote, and we can give citizens the information and tools they need to make not just local but also state and national government responsive.

It is enormously comforting to know that these efforts are proliferating. America may be down, but we aren’t out. Yet.


Gerrymandering And Indianapolis’ Potholes

Today is the day the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two political gerrymandering cases–one from North Carolina and one from Maryland. Given the current composition of the Court–and its politicization in this Age of Trump–I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the Court will find the practice unconstitutional.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that gerrymandering is destructive to democracy. It’s one of the most significant reasons that the United States is ruled by a minority, one of the reasons why studies consistently show that measures supported by 80% or more of Americans don’t translate into policy–and why policies supported by the much smaller percentages of citizens who are wealthy and well-connected are much more likely to become law.

But it took my husband’s remark at a recent anti-gerrymandering house party to bring home the connection between gerrymandering in Indiana and the thousands of potholes residents of Indiana dodge every spring.

As Common Cause’s Julia Vaughn had just explained, most residents of Indiana live in the state’s metropolitan areas–in cities. But thanks to the way gerrymandered districts have been drawn, a majority of policymakers in the Statehouse represent predominantly rural areas. And that, as my husband pointed out, leads to state distribution formulas that significantly favor rural areas over urban ones.

My husband spent six years as Indianapolis’ Director of Metropolitan Development. His experience with the state’s fiscal favoritism for rural areas angered him when he dealt with it then, and it has continued to be an abiding irritation. But as often as he has fulminated about the unfairness of those distributions, I had never made the connection between them and gerrymandering, until that house party discussion.

Especially when it comes to money for the state’s streets and roads–and schools–Indiana’s distribution formulas are more generous to much more thinly populated rural areas of the state  than to the cities where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live. And that won’t change so long as the state’s districts are drawn to keep the GOP in control–because GOP voters live predominantly in the rural areas of the state, not the cities, which tend to vote Democratic.

Even a cursory examination of Indiana’s House and Senate districts as currently drawn will illustrate the degree to which urban Hoosiers are unrepresented, the degree to which urban areas have been “carved up” and the resulting portions married to rural areas in order to dilute the voice of city-dwellers.

There’s a lesson here.

It’s important to reform gerrymandering in order to reclaim “one person, one vote,” and to reverse the damage being done to the country every day by the current plutocracy. But if that goal seems too abstract, if the connection between a “gamed” and dishonest redistricting process and everyday life seems vague–think about the connection between equal representation and distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim, or flatten a tire.

With or without the Supreme Court, gerrymandering has to go.


On The Other Hand, Good Things ARE Happening

The news, and my comments on that news, have been pretty bleak of late, so I thought I would look for evidence that good things are also happening in the world. (Probably even in the U.S.)

And I found some things!

I particularly looked for technological breakthroughs that might mitigate climate change or otherwise represent environmental progress, and this one struck me as especially promising, not least because I’ve been driving in “pothole city”–aka Indianapolis.

Jambulingam Street, Chennai, is a local legend. The tar road in the bustling Nungambakkam area has weathered a major flood, several monsoons, recurring heat waves and a steady stream of cars, trucks and auto rickshaws without showing the usual signs of wear and tear. Built in 2002, it has not developed the mosaic of cracks, potholes or craters that typically make their appearance after it rains. Holding the road together is an unremarkable material: a cheap, polymer glue made from shredded waste plastic.

Jambulingam Street was one of India’s first plastic roads . The environmentally conscious approach to road construction was developed in India around 15 years ago in response to the growing problem of plastic litter. As time wore on, polymer roads proved to be surprisingly durable, winning support among scientists and policymakers in India as well as neighboring countries like Bhutan. “The plastic tar roads have not developed any potholes, rutting, raveling or edge flaw, even though these roads are more than four years of age,” observed an early performance reportby India’s Central Pollution Control Board. Today, there are more than 21,000 miles of plastic road in India, and roughly half are in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Most are rural roads, but a small number have also been built in cities such as Chennai and Mumbai.

According to this and other articles, so-called “modified” asphalts, consisting of virgin polymers (and sometimes ground-up old tires), have been used here in the U.S., and have been found to perform well: Illinois has used them to build high-traffic roads used by lots of trucks, and Washington State uses them for noise reduction. They tend not to buckle in extreme heat the way conventional roads do.

But the modified asphalts being used here are pretty costly–they can increase the cost of a road anywhere from 30-50%. The paving being used in India costs less than conventional roads.

While polymer roads in the US are made with asphalt that comes pre-mixed with a polymer, plastic tar roads are a frugal invention, made with a discarded, low-grade polymer. Every kilometer of this kind of road uses the equivalent of 1m plastic bags, saving around one tonne of asphalt and costing roughly 8% less than a conventional road….

In India, plastic roads serve as a ready-made landfill for a certain kind of ubiquitous urban trash. Flimsy, single-use items like shopping bags and foam packaging are the ideal raw material. Impossible to recycle, they are a menace, hogging space in garbage dumps, clogging city drains and even poisoning the air.

That same plastic trash has become a huge hazard in the oceans.killing marine life and littering previously pristine beaches. In the middle of the Atlantic, there is an area that spans the distance between Virginia to Cuba called the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch: it has  up to 26 million plastic particles per square kilometer.

Turning plastic trash into cheaper, longer-lasting roads–now that should make us smile! (At least until civil engineers and construction special interests block adoption of the technology here….)