It Pays to be Involved in Your Community

Michael Phillips
Illinois Valley Community College
Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College
Author Profile
published Apr 11, 2017 2:00pm

I have had the opportunity to tour a flood disaster area with the governor and local officials, hang out on the floor of the state House and Senate during session, and have dinner (twice) with a U.S. Senator. Each of these opportunities has allowed me to share the perspective of a geoscientist with the people who make decisions on our behalf and speak to specific bills and policies that impact education and the geosciences. These opportunities (and more) are the fruit of being active in my local community and getting to know the local leaders when I wasn't asking for anything but rather offering my assistance in areas well beyond geology.

One of the difficulties facing many geologists as they respond to scientific controversies in their communities is a lack of trust. Controversies such as removal of evolution from the local school curriculum rarely arise overnight, and if we choose to wait until "disaster" is staring us in the face, our reactions will range from tut-tutting in the halls at work to sending out fiery missives to local papers and officials or even taking on the role of the educated knight riding in to save the community from the uneducated and underinformed dragons! However, it should be no surprise that such last-minute efforts are often not well received by people who have been involved for months or even years developing the policies we are determined to rectify.

A much more effective approach is to be a part of the process from the beginning. Becoming an active member of a local board or civic organization allows the scientist to establish a good reputation and presents opportunities to participate in the development of community policy instead of reacting to the announcement of policies that are counter to good science. When scientists are involved in their local communities on a more consistent basis in a variety of roles, they can participate in developing solutions as a trusted insider when potential controversies arise.

The social networks within a community have long been an important source of policy. Unfortunately, in today's mobile society, it is common for professionals to move into a community but not become part of its social or decision-making structure. Taking the time to identify, join, and participate in community organizations such as youth sports, professional and social clubs, school support organizations, and other groups helps build strong communities, allows participants to be more informed and build personal relationships.

There is never time to do everything, but the variety of options allows each of us the opportunity to work within our own comfort zone.

- As educators, one of the most logical things to do is to look for opportunities to educate. Children are always a curious and enthusiastic audience. Visiting local classrooms is not only a good way to support local schools, but it is a recruitment tool and can also be a great experiential opportunity for our students. When parents are present, I make sure to talk to them as well as the children.
- There are also many opportunities to educate adults by giving presentations to professional and civic organizations, clubs, libraries. This is a great way to establish your expertise with people who are already interested in knowing more about the earth, and it often leads to invitations to other opportunities. There is always time before, during, and after to have causal discussions about related topics and community activities and concerns.
- Community service activities such as highway, park, or river clean-ups or having an information table at a community event is another way to reach many people and involve students in service learning.

It is crucial to get to know your elected officials and their staffs as well as agency and department representatives. Political leaders are constantly in search of good sources of information about local issues. The best approach is to stop by their offices to find out what the local concerns are. You can then provide information they can use in the form of a written summary or other documentation. Provide information they can use even when it is not directly solicited and personally deliver it to their office if you can. No one likes to be blind-sided at a public meeting, even with helpful information. It is also good to remember that flooding someone with piles of unexplained information is not very helpful. It is important to take the time to provide summaries and key data and offer to provide more if needed.

It is a natural step to become more deeply involved in organizations and activities that you care about.
I would hope that every geologist seriously consider serving a term on their local school board, city council, or zoning board. These boards function best when there is a wide variety of expertise making the decisions. It is a large commitment of time and effort and can be frustrating at times, but I have found serving on my local school board rewarding and enlightening.

In whatever role you choose, it is important that you do not hide your light under a bushel basket. People are curious about the earth and how it works, sharing your professional enthusiasm in a social setting is usually welcome (as long as you don't overdo it...) And, remember that people respond to symbols. Wearing a trilobite pin on your suit or a geology t-shirt to a community activity reminds people who you are and what you do.

Helping kids with their rock collections and talking to the Chamber of Commerce about flooding builds the relationships and the foundation of trust necessary to communicate effectively when controversial issues arise. Over time, you may become the local authority, the go-to person, on geological and other scientific issues.

To get started, it is a good idea to ask yourself some of these questions.
- What are you comfortable doing?
- Who do you like to work with?
- What do you like to talk about?
- How much time do you have?
- What works with what you are already doing?
- What can your students do?

The benefits of community participation are numerous: from simply knowing neighbors to helping people understand and appreciate their physical surroundings to helping ensure the quality of education in the local schools. Potential "controversies" can be averted when issues are addressed on the playing field, over dinner or drinks, in someone's office, or in the board room. Questions arise and can be answered quickly by the local geologist who is in the room or a quick phone call away. In the case when a controversial topic is not averted, it is much better to be present as a known and respected community member than as an outsider. The investment of time pays off in the development of friendships and the satisfaction of sharing knowledge. Becoming involved in the community is worth the effort.

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