The power of committed citizens

During my three-year career in journalism, I believe I’ve attended more government meetings than many local government officials … I’d even add than a few entire councils combined.
In North Carolina, I covered four city councils, two boards of county commissioners and one school board for nearly two-and-a-half years. Every Monday, Tuesday and sometimes even Thursday for three weeks out of each month, I went to meetings with my press badge and my little reporter’s notebook. I listened to budgets, topics like how many pigs should a resident be allowed to own in the city limits, banning dogs from parks, grant applications, building a veterans’ monument, developing a new town seal and so much more. I saw great accomplishments happen, massive verbal fights break out between council members, and residents and town officials crying. I even watched a resident tell the town attorney that no matter what the law was “that’s not how we do things” in that town.
But, while I was there documenting it all because it was my job, hundreds of residents missed out.

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Dressed up in newspaper!

Since arriving in Arcadia, I have attended several DeSoto County School Board and Arcadia City Council meetings, as well as two DeSoto Board of County Commissioner meetings. And, there is a stark difference between those meetings and the ones I went to in North Carolina.
People.
Yes, DeSoto residents regularly come out to their government meetings. Once upon a time, I was the only person sitting in the audience as government officials debated and decided the fates of issues directly affecting residents. Now, I’m surrounded by community members who don’t mind taking the time to listen in on their elected officials’ thoughts, discussions, accomplishments and hardships.
Now, I wasn’t always alone at those meetings. There were two or three regulars for a few towns. At the school board meetings I attended, there would be well over 30 or 40 people in the room at the start of the meeting. The school board members would hand out a variety of awards and recognize student artists who contributed to the art gallery in the school district’s administration building.
Immediately afterwards, however, a mass exodus of people flew out the doors right as the business part of the meeting began. Usually, if I walked into a council chamber where many people were present, it meant that a group of residents had a complaint. Then the council members would spend 15 to 20 minutes going over an issue they had already discussed and decided on a few months ago, but no one had been at the meeting to tell the council members their opinions.

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The Arcadian’s political Q&A forum for the primary election

It is refreshing and exciting to see DeSoto County residents so engaged in their local government. Many residents I see at the meetings do not speak during public comment, making me assume that they are there just to listen and stay informed, not because they have complaints. In fact, quite a few residents use the public comment times to talk about something happening in the community and make an announcement. Only a few times have I heard complaints.
And, I’m not saying complaints are terrible. Complaints are great as long as they are presented in a level-headed manner in order to show opposition and another side of the story. But, what I love about DeSoto County is that the engagement is mostly positive and encouraging.
I also see a lot of sharing of news stories and tidbits from the meetings on Facebook accounts. Not only is that individual informed, but by sharing information through social media, he or she is encouraging neighbors and friends to be educated as well.
Your civic engagement in local politics makes your elected officials better politicians. They are better informed of what’s happening in the community, they are more aware of your concerns and they appreciate your support and dedication.
I’m delighted to no longer be the only member of the audience. As one who remains unbiased for my job, my presence acts as a “watch dog” but not as a someone who can present opinions, criticism and praise. So, it’s nice to be joined in the ranks of usually not-quite comfortable chairs, listening to the hushed whispers of residents as decisions are made. DeSoto County is a stronger community because of its active involvement and commitment to civic engagement.

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Lessons from the Brew Crew

I don’t drink coffee. Or lattes, cappuccinos and other warm caffeinated beverages with fancy names.
But, that didn’t stop me from joining Arcadia’s Brew Crew at The Last Chapter Coffee House once a week to catch up on gossip and learn a few tricks of the trade.
The Brew Crew is a group of DeSoto County residents who get together to drink coffee, steal bacon off each other’s plates, collect change for the school district and run through a slew of topics until breakfast turns into lunch. Then, they literally go to lunch together. They celebrate what so many people have lost in today’s age — face-to-face personal relationships and spending money at a local business on a regular basis.
Luke Wilson, the Arcadian’s cartoonist and columnist, began the Brew Crew with Kenneth Carlton.
“We were chatting on Facebook how we ought to come to town and chat sometime,” Wilson said. “We thought it’d be more fun in person. We set a date, and a couple of other people got in on it.”

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Me and Luke

In October 2011, Carlton and Wilson met with two other people for breakfast at The Last Chapter Coffee House. The next week, more people showed up. These days, it’s not surprising if 30 to 40 people are talking, laughing and sipping coffee on Wednesday mornings at the coffee shop in downtown Arcadia.
“Kenneth suggested that, the Brew Crew. A lot of people say you should be meeting at a bar if you’re going to call it that. But, it’s about coffee brewing. And, it’s always a lot of fun, so we’re having a ‘brew haha’ down there,” Wilson said with a wink.
Lately, political candidates will show up and say hello to the Crew.
“A few others we see only at campaign time, at election time. Some will make one appearance and think that’s bought them all these votes,” Wilson said.
The Crew also gets together for Christmas parties, barbecues and fundraisers. On occasion, they will host a raffle. Wilson said that no one really wants the item, but they like to compete against each other to see who will win it while raising money for a good cause.
The Brew Crew gatherings became so popular, they started a Friday group known as Deja Brew.
“After a couple of years, we enjoyed it so much that we said we need to do this more often. So we started meeting Fridays all morning long. Same folks but like a smaller version of the Wednesday group,” Wilson said.
On the few times I’ve attended, I sat down with a smoothie and listened to the gossip, opinions, history, lessons and life talks of those around me. Usually, I don’t say much because I’m still too new to offer anything. I just grin and listen.
In one hour alone, topics ranged from an annual citywide toenail chewing contest to who passed away over the week to how to properly eat a mango. One gentleman brought in mangoes and was allowing people to take them home. He told me to grab one, too, and said I needed to eat it in the bathtub because mangoes can be juicy. He added that I needed to make sure I wasn’t allergic because it’s related to poison ivy.
I thought he was pulling my leg. But, as he continued to show concern, I realized he was telling the truth. He honestly wanted me to eat it without my lips touching the skin so they wouldn’t swell up like a fish. He also said to eat it chilled and that it’s tasty in ice cream or salsa. Last Friday, we mostly discussed the Arcadian’s Political Forum with the primary election candidates, and who we believed “won” each race’s question-and-answer session.
Normally, a group like that is not my cup of tea, no pun intended. But, there’s something about the friendliness and vitality of the people of Arcadia that keeps drawing me back to Brew Crew. While I may not drink coffee, I am enjoying the stories (both true and embellished) and advice of the people who have learned the art and benefits of friendship, communication and small-town community.

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A photo of Deja Brew from the group’s Facebook page