The sole mention of sea-level rise in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s $6.8-billion proposed county budget was that it was an “unfunded capital plan.” Five high school students, backed by 75 people from 35 different community organizations, decided that was unacceptable.
Representing five different districts throughout the county, the students spoke up at last Thursday’s Miami-Dade budget hearing and made the Board of County Commissioners listen.
“I am speaking today to demand immediate action on climate change, specifically the rise in sea level,” said Coral Reef High senior Miranda Pertierra. “When is this administration going to take this threat seriously?” she asked, glancing at Mayor Gimenez.
Their activism paid off, quite literally, as the Board approved some $300,000 for sea level rise resilience. Though still less than the $500,000 they’d asked for, the Board also agreed to hire a climate change resilience officer at an additional $75,000 annual salary.
In another demonstration of local activism, a 700-strong group gathered for Chalk-tacular, transforming the asphalt now covering Dan Paul Park, the once promised park behind the American Airlines Arena, with chalk art and messages. The event was organized by Engage Miami, a non-profit working to develop a culture of engagement throughout Miami. They were determined to call attention to Miami-Dade County’s 20-year-old promise of building a 3-acre green space included in the deal to build the arena. The protest carried over into an online conversation when organizers encouraged attendees to tweet at Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez during his virtual town hall using #AskMayorGimenez.
This is just one example of grassroots activism giving birth to something tangible. Emerge Miami has been meeting as a loose, non-hierarchical community organization for 10 years. Two months ago, the group launched Engage Miami as a formal non-profit, complete with an executive director and paid staffers.
Engage’s goal is to become “a steward of localism, environmental stewardship, equality and accessibility,” according to Justin Wales, founder and longtime member of Engage Miami and Emerge Miami, among other things.
“It’s a fight for the soul of Miami,” said Gabriel Pendas, Engage Miami’s Executive Director. Pendas believes civic engagement is a citizen responsibility. And he’s trying to make others, especially millennials, feel the same way.
Breaking the habit
“We need to pay attention to these issues before they’re at a critical mass, where sea-level is about to rise or the parks budget is about to be cut,” Wales said.
Pendas and Wales agree Miami has to break its habit of passive acceptance on local government. The way to do that is to pay attention at one of the most well-established avenues for having a voice heard: local election polls.
Mayoral election voter turnout is quite low across the country, hovering at just 21 percent according to a study published in 2013 surveying 144 large U.S. cities. In Miami, local voter turnout is slightly less than the national trend, with just 20 percent of registered voters showing up to local elections this year, according to Miami-Dade County 2015 election results so far.
“I saw that there were a lot of policies pushed through by commissioners that were not for
the people,” Wales said in regards to policies in City District 2, which covers Downtown, Edgewater, Coconut Grove, Brickell, and parts of Wynwood and Overtown.
And that’s a problem. There is a huge disparity between those who vote and those who actually make up the general population. And when only one group votes, only one group is heard. This can lead to skewed prioritization of public spending and even marginalization of poor or minority communities.
“I’ve seen how hard-working Miamians who don’t see their values represented in local government are just moving away,” said Sara Yousuf, one of the founders of Sweat Records, Emerge Miami, and Engage Miami. She says this pattern among young professionals is not sustainable for the county, nor does it solve any local issues. “What addresses something is actually taking initiative yourself, getting together, and organizing people,” says Yousuf.
Miami-Dade County’s registered voters are roughly 42 percent Democrat and 28 percent Republican. So who represents these voters in political office? Of the 24 members of the legislature that represent South Florida, 13 are Republican, and 11 are Democrat.
These results mean that our elected officials aren’t representing the masses, but rather the select few. That few tends to be older, whiter and richer than the general population.
Right here in Miami-Dade, registered voters falling in the 18–40 age range tended to be more Democratic. Same with the 41–65 age range. The 66+ group, however, was the only group that had a larger number of registered Republicans.
So if our population is largely Democratic, why is our legislature GOP-led? Because we’re not voting.
“We don’t deserve anything that we don’t work for,” says Pendas. “So we have to earn that voice, and we are going to do it right.”
Too boring, too busy
Millennials worked to get President Obama elected — but even the White House admits that “most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than with the federal government.” So why aren’t we working for it when it really counts?
A recent report by the Knight Foundation and Lake Research Partners discovered the three biggest obstacles to voting.
- I don’t have enough information about the candidates.
- I don’t know enough about local issues.
- There’s not enough news coverage of local elections.
A U.S. Census Bureau report asking registered voters the reasons why they didn’t vote last year in the general election showed 28.2 percent were too busy and 16 percent were just not interested in the election.
Women’s Movement Now Miami Director Mara Leventhal adds that ballot language is pretty cumbersome and difficult to interpret, which, along with limited information about judges and municipal races, can prevent full participation. “It means that a very small number of voters determine the outcome of important local issues,” she said.
Demystifying local elections
“We are trying to turn Miami into a young city,” Wales said. “Young in terms of ideas … and progressive policies that will attract the best people to Miami.” For the past few months, Emerge members have planned events to bolster community involvement in November’s Miami City Council elections.
In another effort to demystify local politics, the League of Women Voters focuses on informing and organizing Miami-Dade citizens to register and vote in all elections. They hand out voter guides, host candidate debates, and provide electoral information.
To learn about upcoming events, visit the Emerge Miami calendar to join in on their weekly meetings Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at Sweat Records. To get started, check out Ladyfest, at MADE at the Citadel this Friday, where you can learn about local issues through workshops, music, and art. Or take part in an Environmental Leadership Workshop next month at Miami-Dade College.
The League of Women voters has also organized a few relaxed and fun community forums as the race for District 2 heats up.
And finally, something to pencil into your calendar for a few weeks down the line. Miami is taking part in the international People’s Climate March on October 14 at 5 p.m. at Government Center.
Most importantly, get out there and vote. To start, you can go online and register. There are three big elections happening on November 3 — the Homestead general election, the Miami municipal general election, and the Miami Beach general election.