#EngageLocal: ESAL Goes Live on Twitter

By: Lina Zhu
May 19, 2019
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“I’ve found civic involvement to be a slippery slope. If you are willing to volunteer and do the work, you’ll be presented with many opportunities to serve,” tweeted David Harding (@ProvoDave).

Getting involved in local policy can happen in a number of ways, exemplified by Harding and the participants in ESAL’s (@ESAL_us) first ever Twitter chat, #EngageLocal. On May 9th, 2019, a select group of scientists and engineers gathered remotely coast-to-coast to answer questions about how they engaged with their city, regional, or state government.

Harding, who has a Ph.D. in materials science, got his start by speaking up about the need for safety improvements at a dangerous traffic intersection. From there, he became involved in small projects that helped him build a “can-do” reputation. This allowed him to serve on local advisory bodies and naturally culminated in his election to the City Council in Provo, Utah, where he has been a councilor since 2015.

Chris Tokita

Some, like Chris Tokita (@ChrisTokita), already had national experience. Currently a doctoral candidate in computational biology at Princeton, Tokita had spent two years prior to his PhD program as a Fellow in federal science policy. At Princeton, he stumbled into a local opportunity when he called the office of his New Jersey state assemblyman. He joined the Assemblyman’s staff as an intern soon after.

Admittedly, it takes extra effort to find roles like these, Tokita explained: “We're often not aware of what kind of agencies/orgs are active in our local level. But with some extra sleuthing, you can find them.” He encouraged those interested in local engagement to proactively ask around their community.

Kendra Zamzow

For yet others like Kendra Zamzow (@earthchemistry), her job as an environmental geochemist at a non-profit in Alaska is inherently political, and knowing the regulatory scene comes with the territory. Zamzow serves as ESAL’s own Alaska chapter lead.

When moving from the science world to the policy world, they all found certain skill sets to be adaptable. In general, they benefited from an ability to handle data and numbers, and importantly, a capacity to translate large amounts of information into concise explanations. Tokita even wrote a bit of code to help analyze legislative topics in New Jersey. He tweeted the following graph as an example of what scientists and engineers can bring to the policy table:

Of course, serving one’s community is not without challenges, as we heard from the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA), an advocacy group that grew out of the 2017 March for Science movement. Tweeting from @MKE_science, they acknowledged that sometimes their work demands sacrificing other leisures, but they recall the reasons for having such ambitious goals in the first place: “Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America. And we don't talk with each other enough. It's my hope that science can be a medium to bridge that gap.”

All of our Twitter participants made personal gains by learning how to build healthy professional networks. “Developing good relations with people coming from different perspectives was an unintended consequence,” tweeted Zamzow. She provided technical expertise in a working group on water quality, which resulted in recommendations to be used by Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

David Harding

Harding, the city councilor, agreed with the value of teamwork and added that the ultimate reward is seeing the result of your efforts: “The best thing about getting involved is interacting with smart, passionate people who care about the community. It's very rewarding to see projects come to fruition and feel that you are having an impact.”

Similarly, Tokita played an influential part while interning for his state assemblyman. The policy research he conducted on autonomous vehicles was used to craft a bill in the Assembly Science Committee, and an unexpected bonus was the extra boost of productivity he received in his own doctoral research. Taking a break from his normal mindspace to work on policy left him feeling more focused and empowered.

The examples set by Tokita and our Twitter chat participants have shown there is no single trajectory for acting locally -- what they all share in common is the potential for real impact!

To see more from the ESAL Twitter chat, follow @ESAL_us and the hashtag #EngageLocal.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 05/19/19
Updated: 09/14/22
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