I want to get involved, but…
It was sometime in 1988 when I became involved in my first organization outside of school. I was then a Junior in high school and was not all that involved in student activities. I was looking beyond the school, beyond graduation at the world I knew I was going into. This was before I knew that I was going to get a scholarship to my first university, so I was looking at graduate schools and organizations that supported people like me — mainly the visually impaired.
There was a chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in my hometown which had a population of around 75,000 people at the time. The chapter was pretty small and typically around 20 people would show up to meetings. It was not long before I decided to help organizing the chapter. In 1990 I graduated from high school and went directly to college after the summer break. For about a year I would ride a Greyhound back home to go to a meeting and hang out at my parent’s home for a few days. I would be gone for the weekend and back in time for classes on Monday.
The college town where I was then living was almost half the size of my home town, around 48,000 people when college was in session, and had no chapter. Things were going fine with this for a while until one day I showed up at a meeting to find out that I had been elected the chapter treasurer. While I was extremely irritated at the breach of procedure, I had not been at the meeting when I was elected so could not reject the position. I knew that it was important and that I was the most qualified of the members at the time. After a few months of commuting and dealing with the bank remotely (remember this was the early 1990s) I had enough and turned all the paperwork back over to the chapter president. I had enough and needed a break to focus on college, especially since I just had switched majors.
After graduating and moving closer to the state capital, I once again became involved with the NFB. This time I was commuting using public bus and light rail and the trip was a lot more pleasant and shorter. While in that chapter, I was involved in the state convention and became involved in lobbying for the first time (except for a trip to Washington D.C. I had made in 1990 to talk to a few members of Congress).
People have asked me how, when and how much they should become involved in interest group organizations. There is no single answer that fits all people other than whenever you feel that you are able to dedicate some time. You need to decide how involved you want to be. Some people I have known make second careers out of participating in nonprofits, charities, art organizations, or running for various local offices such as school board.
How to get started is an easier question to answer. Just show up and introduce yourself. I started with the NFB just by showing up at a meeting which was being held at a pizza parlor. Believe me when I tell you that if you show up and say that you want to be involved the chances are that one way or another you will be.
Many meetings are public and their times and locations are listed on websites, social media, newspapers and local television channels. If you want to listen and learn, great! That is what I did for my first few meetings with the NFB. I was a lot more quiet and reserved than I am now. However, if you are there to voice an opinion, be sure to come in knowing the topics which are going to be discussed and follow the rules set down by the organizer. If you come blazing in without being informed, you will go out the same way.
What to get involved in can be difficult for many people; especially me. There are so many ways to get involved and so many good organizations to be involved in. It all boils down to answering the question, “What do I really care about?” As it turns out, my answer was the community in which I live. That one answer has several aspects to it, but mainly focuses on public safety, the environment and access to creative tools and spaces for everyone. This is why I have often been involved in local government, libraries, Amateur (Ham) Radio and the Maker community.
Opportunities are everywhere; even in smaller communities. They can be as varied as volunteering for public libraries or sitting on the board for the Aging and Disability Resource Center. In fact, the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Central Wisconsin is actively looking for volunteers in several counties with opportunities ranging from help with the Meals on Wheels program to sitting on the advisory council.
I look at it this way: if you want to be involved in your community there are so many ways to get involved and so many people that need your skills and experience. All you need is the desire to act.