Birmingham Hosts Civics Workshop

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Hot button issues like bingo in Alabama or healthcare reform nationally are drawing a lot of attention to government and whether it's helping or hurting people.

One Birmingham city councilor is hoping all of this debate will draw more citizens into participating in their government.

If ever a picture of a crowd explained why an event is needed, the scene inside the Birmingham City Council chambers Monday was it. A workshop on getting citizens more involved in government hosted at city hall, and only a handful of voters showed up.

"It's just teaching residents how to communicate and have your representative and city councilor work for you," said Birmingham City Councilman Johnathan F. Austin, who hosted the event.

Austin says he organized Monday's workshop to encourage people who live in Birmingham to make communication with their elected officials a 2-way street.

"Communities that work together are cleaner communities," Austin said. "Communities that work together are safer communities."

But with a low turnout, neighborhood leaders say there a lot of obstacles to more involvement.

"Apathy and cynicism, those are the last 2," said Leona Payne, president of the Jones Valley Neighborhood Association. "And I think we're gonna have to try and encourage them to return in order to gain their faith, they've actually lost faith and trust, and these are things we need to work on seriously."

"I think it's because they feel like they can't make a difference," said Kerri Williamson, Monday's guest speaker and the Program Director for the Alabama Center for Law and Civic Education. "And I think we're seeing that that just isn't true. Your vote makes a difference, your vote makes a difference and even if this healthcare debate didn't go the way you wanted it to, you had a voice."

Austin says heated debates like the one in Washington this weekend over healthcare reform may be the kind of nudge needed to push people into getting involved, even if it's to voice their frustrations with what's happening.

"If healthcare is something that will bring people out or let them understand and get their attention, then of course we can piggyback off of that and say look---while you can not go to Washington, D.C., you have a representative there who was lobbying on behalf of you," Austin said.

Austin will host 5 more workshops, each from 5:30-6:30pm on April 19, May 17, June 21, July 19, and August 16.

(Reported by: Jonathan Hardison)