You voted; now what? Here’s how you can get more civically engaged in Fort Wayne and Allen County

Every four years in the U.S., there’s a presidential election, where residents across the country choose sides, double down on talking points, and cast a vote they feel might make a difference in the nation and even in their personal lives.

But despite the outsized amount of attention and media coverage presidential elections yield, it’s often state and local government decisions that make the biggest impact on day-to-day issues that affect citizens most. Issues like housing and transportation, labor market rules, tax policies, environmental regulations, and zoning regulations are all heavily affected by decisions made locally and at the state level.

Even so, many people rarely think about the roles local government or civic engagement play in their lives. So beyond filling out a midterm ballot by Nov. 8, what can you do to be more civically engaged in Fort Wayne? 

Exterior photo at the Courthouse.Understanding how your local government functions at the city and county level is a start, but it can be challenging. When Emily Almodovar became the new Public Information Officer for the Allen County Board of Commissioners this year, she says coworkers taught her to visualize city government operating on a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, leading up to the city council and the mayor. On the other hand, county government operates more like a pancake with a long, flat line of leadership where multiple departments, boards, and committees are on equal footing with one another. 

“We get a lot of calls and emails from citizens, asking the Allen County Commissioners to do XYZ,” Almodovar says. “But what citizens don’t always realize is that some of what they’re asking doesn’t fall under the purview of the commissioners; instead it’s controlled by various boards with a mix of appointees, including those appointed by county staff and people voted into office by the taxpayers.”

Emily Almodovar, Public Information Officer at Allen County, shows off a county government organizational chart.Almodovar reminds residents that whether the city or the county, taxpayers are still technically at the top of the pyramid or pancake; these offices are designed to serve them. She advises residents to “get curious about government,” and suggests everyone should check out their local county election board, as a resource for learning more about upcoming elections, such as who is running, where to vote, as well as who is eligible to vote by mail.

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While voting is the classic example of civic duty, there are a variety of ways to be involved in local government, including non-partisan options.

“Just be nice to other people,” suggests Dr. Andrew Downs, Director Emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. 

“Mow some grass; shovel a sidewalk; hold a door open,” Downs suggests. 

While it might seem too trite to be considered “civic engagement,” acts of kindness and friendship have a measurable impact in strengthening communities and decreasing “othering” individuals you don’t immediately identify with.

A Vote 411 poster in the elevator at Citizens Square.
Downs explains that when you get to know people in your community or neighborhood, “they are no longer the other that folks can point to and say it’s the other who has put us in a bad position. It is the other that is causing these problems. Now, this is a human being you know in some way.”

Neighborly interactions in communities build social capital, or networks of relationships, which bring people together and allow them to function most effectively. On the flip side, when neighborly interactions are lacking among diverse people groups, communities as a whole will suffer. 

This effect is replicated in nature. While “success” is often expressed in a competitive, individualistic, Darwinian model of “survival of the fittest,” even Darwin himself doesn’t support this model as a means of sustainable success. Instead, as Christopher L. Kukk, Ph.D. and author of The Compassionate Achiever: How Helping Others Fuels Success writes, “Darwin’s research shows that ‘survival of the kindest’ is more correct for explaining which species climb the evolutionary ladder efficiently and effectively.”

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Next on the civic engagement continuum is the option to volunteer. Melissa Beber, Director of Business Advocacy with Greater Fort Wayne Inc., suggests, “Finding your passion and then volunteering for a non-profit that matches that.” 

Non-profits are frequently searching for board members, and they often look to their volunteers to find them. Beber says volunteering for an organization can help you create and shape decisions within that organization. Volunteering doesn’t have to be limited to non-profit groups, nor does it have to be detached from overt politics. 

Emily Almodovar, Public Information Officer at Allen County, shows off a county government organizational chart.Downs says, “City and counties are full of boards and commissions that need people to fill them.” 

Many of these boards cannot contain more than a certain number of people from any one political party, so it may be a small way to explore the political waters, as it is technically a partisan role, but it’s a role that usually lacks the unwanted partisan bickering. 

So how do you find a board or volunteer opportunity?

Many places like the City of Fort Wayne and Allen County have an online form to submit if you’re interested in being on a board or commission. Some examples of possible boards and commissions to join include the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, or Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne. 

You can Google your county or city plus “boards and commissions” to learn what opportunities are available. Or contact the mayor or town manager’s office directly and tell them you’re interested in being more involved. 

Exterior photo at Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St.But without personal connections, Googling can feel fruitless. Fortunately, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s Leadership Fort Wayne program offers many opportunities to be engaged through nonprofit board internships and connecting with community leaders. 

“Leadership Fort Wayne is a great way to not just sharpen your leadership skills, but to get familiar with the local organizations that match your passions,” Beber says. “When you’re finished with the program, you understand how to be an effective leader, as well as opportunities to serve and make an impact in an area you feel strongly about.”

The program, which takes place during the workday, is open to GFW members and nonmembers alike. It requires a tuition cost between $2,000-$2,400 per individual, which can be covered by employers.

Portrait of Melissa Beber with Greater Fort Wayne at Citizens Square.Beber says getting involved in Boards and commissions is “a great way to have your voice be heard and to help make decisions without running for elected office.”

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If you have an inkling of running for office someday, first reach out to your preferred political party. 

“It can feel intimidating when you don’t know where to go,” Beber says. “But if you’re more politically inclined, get involved in the party of your choice, whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian.” 

Exterior photo of the Allen County Republican Headquarters on Main St.Political parties are eager for new volunteers, so it’s a good way to meet people and get connected. Party volunteers can be poll workers, or they can advocate for a specific political issue by attending hearings or meetings. They can also help a candidate run for office. But, contacting your local political party does not obligate anyone to run for office. 

In fact, volunteering with a campaign is a good way to see if that inkling to run for office grows stronger or fades away. Campaigns depend on volunteers and will have openings for a wide variety of skill sets. Every person has something of value to offer, whether it’s graphic design experience to create the candidate’s logo or the extrovert who loves meeting new people while knocking on doors to encourage others to get out and vote. 

“If you’re not getting involved, then your voice isn’t there,” Beber says. 

Choosing to run for an elected office is perhaps the most direct way to be civically involved. The more demographics represented in local decision-making, the better the policies and outcomes are likely to be for the community. 

Chad Wiershinzki, Executive Director of Allen County Democrats, makes a phone call at party headquarters at 7301 Decatur Rd.Unfortunately, not all demographics are represented with equity in the U.S. or in Allen County. While women are frequently campaign volunteers, they are seldomly the candidates. Even after the 2021 municipal elections were accounted for, women still made up less than a third of the nation’s mayors, city council members, and other local elected office holders, according to an April report from Bloomberg News.

In Allen County, women make up about 34 percent of the elected positions (10 out of 29), and the number of non-white elected officials in Allen County does not even rise to 1 percent (2 out of 29). These numbers include judges, who are considered state employees, but work in the county courts and are elected by county voters. 

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the demographics of Allen County are not well represented in elected offices, as Allen County residents are almost 51 percent female and just more than 21 percent non-white. 

To help move the needle on some of these statics, particularly when it comes to women in office and civic life, four local women, Faith Van Gilder, Rachel Tobin-Smith, Patti Hays, and Marilyn Moran-Townsend founded a group known as Advancing Voices of Women (AVOW). 

AVOW Co-foundersSometimes pervasive sexism or racism prevents voters from seeing women or People of Color in leadership roles and this can lead to them losing to less qualified opponents who “look the part.” Van Gilder says there’s a mindset we need to change “about what makes a good, qualified candidate who’s ready and prepared to take office.” 

AVOW is actively working to help people see the value of having women in leadership roles. Hays says women don’t need to wait until someone asks them to get involved. Tobin-Smith emphasized this point by sharing the words of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, who said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Women who are not planning to run for office, but are considering an appointment to a board or commission, can also benefit from AVOW’s support. Simply complete a profiles in public service form on AVOWS’s website. 

“There are entry points all along the way,” Hays says. “We only have doors at AVOW.”

AVOW's four Co-Founders with Kendallville Mayor SuzAnne in August 2021. From left are Patti Hays, Rachel Tobin-Smith, Marilyn Moran-Townsend, Mayor Handshoe, and Faith Van Gilder.​Even those too young to run for office or to cast a vote have ways to be civically engaged. Students can get involved with Junior Achievement, which is a good fit for young entrepreneurs, while aspiring politicians may look into joining their school’s student council. 

Additionally, students as young as 12 or 13 can apply to participate in the Page Program for the Indiana General Assembly. Both Republicans and Democrats have their own programs for the Indiana House of Representatives, as well as for the Indiana Senate. Interested students should check the Page Program of their choice around December to be considered for the next year’s legislative sessions. 

Also, students of all ages can enjoy learning about civic engagement by playing iCivics, a free online, non-partisan series of games and educational resources, founded by former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. iCivics is like an updated, interactive version of the classic School House Rock, minus the catchy tunes.

With so many options, residents of Northeast Indiana can be more civically engaged beyond election season.

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by AARP.