You have a voice, so use it

Day 95–Oct. 6 (Cleveland, OH – Westlake, OH, 11.6 miles)

We do not have a perfect system of government in this country. Grave injustices and crimes can, and do, go unpunished and uncorrected. But that does not mean we should give up the fight. As imperfect as our system may be, it is also a system in which people have a right to protest, make public comment and demand accountability.

Yet far too many people are not registered to vote much less actually make it to the polls. Few people attend public meetings or hold their politicians responsible when they side with the needs of a few over the rights of many. We cannot expect change to occur if we do not stand up and demand something better.

Yesterday I spent the better part of the afternoon talking with people at the Bishop Cosgrove Center on Superior Ave. in Cleveland, a day center where homeless men and woman can get a meal and spend the day somewhere out of the elements. More than a few complained that the conditions at some of the men’s shelters were beyond filthy–infested with everything from cockroaches to fleas–and one didn’t even have a shower. And, I was told, public services are scattered across the city. To make matters worse, bus passes are not always available so those seeking services are required to trek on foot from one agency to another.

But, many of those I spoke with who were critical of the services they received were neither registered to vote nor had ever contacted anyone to file a formal complaint. I urged them to vote. I recommended they attend public meetings and ask questions about the gross inefficiency and budgetary waste likely involved in creating barriers to public services.

Later as I recounted my conversations with an acquaintance I was reminded of the obvious. It is not always easy to determine who to complain to much less find the time and strength to challenge authority. So, for those who are not sure where to go, here are a few resources (and I understand that many of those most challenged in this area may not have internet access):

  • Rock the Vote offers information about how to register to vote and to make your voice heard on legislation related to education, energy, healthcare, and voting reform.
  • Project Vote Smart is a good starting point if you want to learn about the electoral process or find your state and/or federal elected officials. It also offers extensive information about voter’s rights.
  • To learn who represents you in the U.S. House visit and to find your U.S. Senator visit
  • Federal Election Commission lists donations of hard money campaign contributions. MoneyLine takes it a step further and lists both hard and soft contributions. Knowing who helped finance a politician’s campaign is an important part of understanding how to make your voice heard.
  • and The Center for Public Integrity are two outstanding watchdog organizations committed to holding governments accountable.
  • American Civil Liberties Union has been working to defend the civil rights of Americans for nearly a century. It is an excellent resource.
  • Contact your local newspaper or television station. The media plays a powerful role as a government watchdog but it needs the support of the community it serves. Newspapers in particular are folding at an alarming rate so by supporting newspapers you are ensuring that the public service they provide will endure. Not every concern you have will merit an article so consider writing a letter to the editor.
  • Your local city or town hall or Web site will give details about public meetings and local laws under consideration as well as the dates and time for any public meetings. Local government has an enormous impact on the quality of services provided–everything from schools and roads to mental health services and recycling to job creation and affordable housing. Concerns should be directed to your local representative or to the head of the appropriate agency. And, while it can be argued that your vote may be but a drop in a bucket in a presidential or statewide election, your vote and voice can have a dramatic impact at the local level. So get involved!

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Spare change

rest in Cleveland, OH, 0.0 miles

As a general rule I try not to give money to panhandlers. It’s not because they’re not deserving. And it’s not for lack of compassion. I don’t give money because it doesn’t solve the problem. Instead I prefer to give money where it can be most effective.

Unfortunately, this is not always an easy thing to do–to ignore someone so obviously in need.

Many cities around the country have taken a stab at a middle ground so to speak. In places like Baltimore and Denver, Pittsburgh and Cleveland one can find parking meters designed to collect spare change to benefit the homeless. I saw a few dotted on the streets of Cleveland and I applaud the effort, no matter how small.

I do not begrudge those who give money to panhandlers on the street to ease their suffering. But giving small amounts of cash to a panhandler is unlikely to provide a roof over his or her head, or any real progress towards food and housing security. Further, when you give money in this fashion, it masks the problem and lets state, local and federal governments off the hook from their responsibility to ensure its populace is clothed, fed and housed. Money given to panhandlers is but a Band-Aid with no long-term benefits, and that allows governments to downplay the depth of the problem.

When you give money to a meter, the services it provides can be measured. The concept is not without controversy, but I can’t help but think it is a positive move to offer an outlet for those wishing to donate that can lead to meaningful services for people in need.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper