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Stories of how people in cities, towns, regions across the country are contributing to their communities … uniting them. With all the talk of democracy under threat, America Amplified, WUSF and public media stations across the nation wanted to see what was working.

Everyone seems burned out on civic engagement, except one guy in Juneau who keeps stepping up

Will Muldoon smiling into the camera with an art image of buildings and a mountain the background
Paige Sparks
/
KTOO

 In Juneau, Alaska, there’s a concerning lack of interest in running for local office or serving on the city boards and commissions that hold the community together. Is it possible that the pandemic has burned us all out — even on civic engagement? For at least one guy in town, the answer is, not yet.

In Juneau, Alaska, no one challenged any of the seats on the city council or the school board this year. There’s a lack of interest in running for local office or serving on the city boards and commissions that hold the community together.

It was different last year. In the fall of 2021, there was still a district-wide mask mandate in place when seven candidates for school board participated in a forum ahead of the local election.

Watching at home, Will Muldoon realized that at least two candidates were running just to overturn the mask mandate. He knew he had to do something.

He said 25 people called him — some he didn’t even know — encouraging him to run. He ran for school board twice before — the first time, when he was only 18 years old.

“So that kind of felt like critical mass for me,” he said.

He launched a write-in campaign less than two weeks before the election. And he won. It was the first time someone in Juneau had won any election as a write-in in almost 30 years.

Muldoon works as a data analyst for the state of Alaska. He doesn’t have kids, but he is passionate about civic engagement. He serves on six boards and commissions for the city and the state. The school board takes the most time and energy, though.

“The one thing I really didn’t fully consider was just how much of your life it takes over,” he said.

Two people wearing masks being sworn in
Paige Sparks
/
KTOO
Juneau resident Will Muldoon serves on six boards and commissions for the city of Juneau and the state of Alaska. In 2021, he won as a write-in candidate for school board after entering the race less than two weeks before the election.

There are the meetings, of course, but there’s also homework between the meetings. And hours and hours of reading emails each week from constituents. Muldoon says people don’t usually write in to tell board members they are doing a good job. In fact, the tone is often less than civil.

“It’s tough, because I think with schools in particular, I feel personally that it’s not my job to tell people how to raise their kids, or even really have an opinion on that item,” he said.

But it is his job to make policies informed by the public on the schools’ role in their kids’ lives.

Muldoon says people often ask him if he enjoys serving on the school board.

“‘Enjoy’ is never the word I’m going to use in my top five adjectives,” he said. “I think the work is valid. I think it’s important. It’s also impactful to me on an individual level — like, it’s tough.”

But he’s still enthusiastic about recommending people run for local office. He was discouraged when no one challenged him or anyone else for a seat on the school board this year.

“It’s been a difficult year,” he said. “I get choked up thinking about it. But I also wish I was more eloquent in conveying the enrichment and fulfillment that comes with that.”

It’s a pretty thankless job — the stipend for serving on the school board in Juneau is $270 a month – as is serving on any city board or commission as a volunteer or even as an elected official.

But all of these roles are mission-critical for democracy.

He recognizes that the last few years have been hard on everyone. The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health and led to burnout in both work and life, which includes our volunteer work and our civic engagement. But he also recognizes that we can’t make life easier for each other if people don’t step up.

“Do I want to be on six boards next year? Probably not,” he said. “Do I want a couple of more folks in our community to be on at least one or two? Yeah, I think so.”

And Muldoon’s advice is always going to be to run, even if you lose.

“I wish that people would run and not be afraid to lose,” he said. “Because losing is not fun that night. It’s not fun that week, but it isn’t fatal. And if your end goal is to be engaging, and advocating for the things that you believe in, losing a real good door opener for that.”

This story comes from America Amplified, a CPB-funded initiative  that includes North Country Public Radio to support community engagement journalism in public media.

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