April 5, 2023

In defense of the boring, unsexy, and unpaid

After eight years, this week, my term ends on Queens Community Board 2. Maybe you know what a community board is; after all, there are 59 of them spread around the five boroughs, each with about 50 community members sitting on them. But, most likely, you don’t. Why would you?

The community board isn’t the sexiest thing. It’s an unpaid, appointed advisory group that weighs in on zoning, bike lanes, and liquor licenses. They talk about landmarked historic districts, vote on outdoor dining applications, and send wish lists of budget priorities to city hall. They meet in fluorescent-lit senior centers and dusty elementary school auditoriums. It’s not quite West Wing material – this is as far down in the weeds of government work as you can get.

These meetings could be long. Very, very long. When I first started on the board, my now-wife and I were just dating, and I repeatedly made the mistake of planning to meet up for dinner after a board meeting. Finally, after the third month in a row of 11:00PM adjournments, she told me to forget it – she’d see me over the weekend instead.

I’m not painting an enticing picture here. But I wholeheartedly recommend you join your community board (or whatever other similar body might exist wherever you call home).

You see, this is the kind of stuff that makes for a full, rich life. It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but the work we do in building and serving our communities through a community board or PTA or Rotary club or Girl Scout troop or chamber of commerce or whatever is the nutritious part of life. It’s the part that makes you feel good after you’ve done it.

I’ve recently noticed a new low-grade trend with Gen-Z TikTokkers. A year or two out of school and now finding themselves in the well-worn grooves of working life, they’re grappling with a gnawing angst: Is this all there is? For five days a week, do I just go to work, go to the gym, watch Netflix, and go to bed?

They’ve found themselves at the end of the moving walkway. For the first 20-some-odd years of their lives, the invisible hand of society pushes them forward. Unless they screwed up or jumped off, the assembly line kept moving from middle school to high school to college. They chose a major, did an internship, and landed a job. And then the ride stops. Only a few months or years later do they notice this lack of momentum though – and that’s when the dread of monotony seeps in.

(In an oblique parallel, this is the same thing that has recently happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many of those fighters have found the transition from battlefield to bureaucracy tedious and demoralizing.)

To their credit, many of those exhausted influencers have made it a self-imposed challenge to find hobbies or try new things each day after their 9-5s. However, in that mix of diversions, I’d advocate that many of them find their own version of a community board and spend some energy improving the places and spaces they call home.

We need the nutrition. And these organizations and groups need us.

recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that the number of Americans who view community involvement as “very important” was the lowest of any value surveyed. While more considered it “somewhat important,” the total still lagged far behind other values, most notably money.

If we don’t view these activities as necessary, then we’re ceding the decision-making to those that do, and those people may or may not be who you want calling the shots.

I was easily one of the two or three youngest members when I was appointed to the community board. At the orientation, I remember seeing a board member from across the borough get a citation for 40 years on their board. It was wonderful to get to know and learn from many of these more senior neighbors – but it wasn’t so wonderful for younger and more diverse voices to be left out of the conversation. As of 2021, 40% of community board members in my borough were over 65 – and women, Latinos, Asians, and immigrants were all statistically underrepresented. We're all better off when we address this, and it takes all of us to do that.

My time serving in this particular capacity is done for now, but I still plan to stay involved wherever and whenever possible. And I’m encouraged that the new members taking the reigns represent the perspectives and values important to me and the city I call home.

After these eight years, I feel like a better person for having done my part, and I think that small part helped make my community a better place as well. I hope you find something that makes you feel the same way.


About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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