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‘You In the Blue Shirt’ – How Watching a Neighborhood Council Meeting Changed My Life

EMPOWERMENT - FIRST PERSON REPORT-Nine years and one month ago, I took my young son to watch our Neighborhood Council in action. Actually, our little civic affairs field trip was more for my benefit than his, because he was intensely focused on his portable gaming device. 
So we sat near the back of the nearly empty assembly room of the LAPD’s emergency dispatch center in West Hills, watching 25 folks sitting behind two rows of tables say “aye” when their names were called, stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, take votes on minutes and financial matters, and talk about their opinions about priorities for the city’s budget. Not exactly thrilling stuff.
I slumped in my chair as my son played Pokemon.
Then the president, a shaved-headed gent with an extravagant waxed moustache, said something about elections and the need to enlist candidates.
“You in the blue shirt,” said the man, pointing in my direction. His name plaque identified him as Charles Gremer. “Do you want to be a candidate for the West Hills Neighborhood Council Board of Directors?”
“Me?” I replied, fully aware I was the only person in the room wearing a blue shirt.
“Um, OK. But I’ll lose.”
And so it began.
Three weeks later, I stood in front of a small audience at Justice Street Elementary School, nervously explaining what I’d do if elected to serve the people of West Hills, the community where my family had lived for more than a decade.
“I’ll do what I can to make this a better place,” I said. “And maybe, some day, West Hills will be known as more than ‘the community to the west of Canoga Park.’”
The election that immediately followed our little candidates’ forum proved me a bad prophet. I was elected to the Board, though this was hardly a surprising outcome. There were, after all, only 12 candidates for 12 open seats.
At the next meeting of the West Hills Neighborhood Council, I took my seat behind one of the two rows of tables in the front of the room at the LAPD’s dispatch center.
It felt unreal. I’d always been a shy, awkward and introspective fellow. Let’s just say that I wasn’t the student council type in junior high school.
Nevertheless, I was determined to make this work, so I forced myself to say something at this meeting and every meeting afterward. I must have said a hundred foolish things. (No doubt I still say foolish things, though I hope less frequently.)
Being a journalist, I joined the Communications Committee, taking on new projects with each passing year. I developed a weekly community calendar and a monthly newsletter, both sent to the community via e-mail. I used my graphic design skills to produce countless handbills.
Branching out, I became active in our annual autumn festival. I helped form a nonprofit group that shows outdoor movies — not the typical children’s fare, but movies that were made at the locations where we show them.
In recent years, I’ve also worked with other Neighborhood Councils to organize a regional outreach plan for NC elections. I helped wherever I could, composing fliers, newspaper ads, postcards, lawn signs and other materials for anyone who needed them. Our elections became much bigger affairs, with many more candidates and voters.
In this year’s election, I had the pleasure of working closely with the new generation of staff at EmpowerLA — people like Alisa Smith, Stephen Box, Kevin Taylor, Glenn Bailey and the new Interim General Manager, Grayce Liu.
And I’ve gotten to get to know, and become friends with, City Council members and members of the California Legislature and the United States Congress.
My son still plays video games, but he’s proud of his dad, and he likes to pitch in for the community when he can. But the most thrilling development of all happened just a month ago as I write this. At its meeting on Nov. 7, 2012, the Board of Directors of the West Hills Neighborhood Council elected me as its president.
As for me, it’s enough to say I am now sitting in the seat once occupied by Charles “Chuck” Gremer, who pointed at me that night, nine years and one month ago, and said, “You in the blue shirt.”
(Daniel Brin is West Hills Neighborhood Council President/Co-Chair. This article was provided by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.)
Vol 10 Issue 98
Pub: Dec 7, 2012

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