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Offering Childcare at City Meetings May Be Key to Diversifying Civic Engagement

Both Ithaca, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are experimenting with policies to bring parents back into city politics.

(Photo by shameersrk)

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Since becoming mayor of Ithaca, New York, eight years ago, Svante Myrick has been become known for many things, most obviously being a young, black elected public official in upstate New York. By his own admission, some of his policy ideas are gimmicks, like turning the mayor’s designated parking spot into a pocket park. (Take that, greenhouse gases!) Myrick also takes pride in knocking on 30,000 Ithaca doors and interacting with residents on social media, both tactics that go over well in a lakeside college town famous for its hipsters, gorges and hippie vegetarian restaurants.

This month, however, Myrick institutes a new policy that may make waves far beyond Cayuga Lake. On May 1, Ithaca began offering childcare at all city council and commission meetings.

“We don’t think anyone else has done it,” Myrick said.

The 32-year-old mayor doesn’t have children — “not yet” — but after eight years in office, he’s increasingly concerned that so few parents of pre-school and school-aged children are involved in city government.

“The same people show up at all the meetings, and that can lead to mistakes in decision making,” Myrick said. “That’s something that’s been haunting me. … The city looks different than the meeting room. [The city is] a lot younger and it’s less white. … We set out to see how we can get more people involved in local government, and this is one of the policies we’ve come up with.”

Ithaca may be the first city to officially offer childcare at all meetings, but it’s an idea other cities are considering. In January, Pittsburgh launched a pilot program to provide childcare at 15 city forums and budget hearings. Dan Gilman, a 30-something dad serving on city council, championed the experiment to encourage young families to stay civically engaged, and to stay in the city rather than move to the suburbs.

“This is something that the city had been wanting to do for a while,” said Tiffini G. Simoneaux, the early childhood manager in Pittsburgh’s Office of Neighborhood Empowerment. Back in December 2017, council approved an RFP seeking a provider who could offer childcare both at meetings and at city hall on days when schools are closed but Pittsburgh’s government is open. The program finally got underway in January, and parents are using it.

“We just had spring break,” Simoneaux said. “There were kids here all week.”

Gilman also pushed for lactation suites in city buildings and teamed up with local dermatologists to supply free sunscreen at Pittsburgh parks. After becoming the mayor’s chief of staff last year, Gilman took paternal leave to help care for his second child, and he took some flack for it: Critics on Twitter and Facebook accused him of wasting taxpayer dollars, Simoneaux said. But many residents support Pittsburgh’s family-friendly policies, and other cities are watching to see how the childcare program plays out.

“I had a call from Montpelier, Vermont, fairly recently,” Simoneaux said. “They asked to see our RFP.”

Pushing for childcare at meetings fit Gilman’s ethos as a millennial father, and Simoneaux’s own goals as a city employee whose job requires getting input from parents.

“When I first started in this job, I would go to community meetings and I’d see a lot of college students, and I’d see older, retired people. I did not see anyone from their mid-20s to around 40,” she said. “Now we’re starting to see new people at meetings. People are using the childcare service.”

Simoneaux and Myrick’s observations that older residents dominate meeting rooms aren’t just anecdotal, they are a quantified national problem, says Lisa K. Parshall, an associate professor of political science at Amherst, New York-based Daemen College who also serves as a local government fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Parshall pointed to a recent Boston University study based on analysis of several thousand meeting minutes. The research — just published in March — determined that residents most likely to participate in planning commission meetings across America were “older, male, longtime residents.”

Achieving more diverse participation is a “potential buffer against existing political inequalities,” the researchers wrote, especially with regards to housing policy.

“[Offering childcare] at meetings is a solution to this problem,” Parshall said. “Despite the mythology of local government being more open to participation, there is a culture of local government that I think tends to shut out participation … The reality is that at a lot of these meetings, it’s a small cast of characters, oftentimes older folks and longtime residents.”

Watching a livestream at home — if one is available — does not give residents the same level of input, Parshall said. And the problem is not just a matter of parents and caregivers rarely showing up to voice concerns, it’s that weekday evening meetings deter people from running for office or serving on a commission. The schedule is predicated on 9-5 workdays and one parent easily being able to stay home with the kids, Parshall said.

In other words, the model for American local government is the 1950s nuclear family.

Parshall warns that there’s a “silver tsunami” coming, especially in smaller cities and rural America, where older officials are retiring or (yikes) dying in office. They aren’t enough young leaders who resemble Myrick, Gilman and — to cite a high-profile presidential candidate — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg waiting in the wings. “You have older public servants who are over 65, you have older generations of leaders and public workers. They’re aging out, and there’s not the influx of newer younger folks to replace them,” she said.

Myrick and Gilman both hope offering childcare will encourage their millennial peers to become civically engaged. Each city is going about the logistics differently, however. Pittsburgh hired a pop-up childcare provider — founded by local working moms — called Flexable. The caregivers come with appropriate pediatric safety training, their own insurance policies and age-appropriate materials for children two and up. The city budgeted $43,875 for Flexable’s services in 2019. Parents interested in attending a forum or hearing where childcare is provided can register their kids online.

In Ithaca, teenagers already employed at a city-run community center are watching children at a converted city hall conference room. The teens have already been through training programs and are covered by an existing city insurance policy, Myrick said. He budgeted $10,000 for the program. Under New York law, the ratio of child-to-caregiver is 10-1 when a parent or guardian is in the same building. At least two teens stand ready to babysit in a converted conference room for the first 30 minutes of each meeting. If no one shows up, they’ll get paid to go home, but Myrick doubts that will happen — Ithaca has four volunteer commissions, and multiple members have already told him they plan to bring their kids.

Lisa Farman is another Ithaca parent now seriously considering bringing her toddler to city council. Evening meetings are a challenge for Farman and her husband. She serves on the faculty council at Ithaca College; he’s on the board of a local nonprofit. They’re both fans of Myrick, especially his positive interactions on social media and openness to input from residents. Now thanks to the childcare policy — which she learned about on Twitter — Farman might actually watch him run a meeting in real life.

“I’ve been feeling pretty strongly — ever since I had a baby — that holding these types of government meetings at night is automatically exclusionary,” Farman said. “There are going to be categories of people who cannot participate, and it’s so great that he’s recognizing that. If the government is going to be deciding on local policies that will impact families, but families can’t go to the meetings, then we are just going to have business as usual.”

Myrick and Gilman hail from a generation of men who are taking on a greater share of childrearing and household tasks, Farman noted. Realistically, offering childcare at meetings may stand a better chance of gaining acceptance if framed as a “family friendly” policy rather than as a women’s issue, she said, but the semantics are less important than the potential end result.

“Having more women — who have traditionally had primary caregiving responsibilities — get involved in local government could really change things on a bigger scale. If more communities adopted these types of policies that make it possible for women to get involved, I think we could see much broader changes, and overall government policies that better reflect the [American] people,” Farman said. “This is opening the doors.”

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Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate and more than three dozen other publications. 

Tags: city hallpittsburgh

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