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Getting involved 101

Learn how to register to vote, join a community board and organize a protest (without getting arrested).

Photograph: Syd London

How can I register to vote?
To be eligible to vote in New York City, you just have to be 18, a U.S. citizen, a city resident for at least a month, and not in jail or on parole for a felony. Forms are available online (vote.nyc.ny.us/register.html) and must be mailed or completed
in person (visit vote.nyc.ny.us/offices.html to find a location near you) at least 25 days ahead of the next election. If you’re registered in a different state or want to change your party designation, you’ll need to submit a new form.

How can I get involved on a local level?
To find civic organizations close by, search the city’s database (nyc.gov/html/cau/html/involved/civic.shtml). A good way to start is by attending local meetings or a public hearing. Each of the city’s 59 community boards has a monthly meeting that’s open to the public, which often gives neighbors a chance to voice concerns about issues like sanitation, traffic or new development. There are also hundreds of volunteer opportunities sorted by zip code on nycservice.org.

How can I join a community board?
Each community board has up to 50 volunteer members appointed by the borough president, with half of those nominated by city councilors. Applications are available on each borough’s website, and though anyone can submit his or her name, you’re more likely to be selected if you’re already active in a neighborhood or advocacy group; extra consideration also goes to those who regularly show up to meetings. “If you’re not curious enough to come [see how things work], I’m not sure how serious you are about joining,” says Robert Perris, district manager for Downtown Brooklyn’s community board. Another point to keep in mind: Borough presidents also look for diversity and specialized knowledge, such as architecture or public health, so make any unique skills known when you apply.

How can I organize a protest without getting arrested?
For park events with more than 20 people, the Parks Department needs to grant you a permit. You’ll be denied one only if the location is already taken, so be sure to plan far ahead of your preferred date. “The vast majority of protests don’t have a problem,” says Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union (nyclu.org). “But if you don’t nail down the location in advance, the protest is doomed to be small.” His advice holds especially true for popular days and locations—a Saturday protest in Union Square, for instance. There are no restrictions on sidewalk marches, but events with amplified sound, such as bullhorns or speakers, require sign-off from the Police Department.

How do I start a petition and get people onboard?
It may not be not legally binding, but a petition with hundreds of signatures is hard for higher-ups to ignore. Instead of using the old-school door-to-door method, you can create a proposal online and instantly share it with your networks. “It should be an issue that has personally affected you and would move others to action,” says Brianna Cayo-Cotter of Change.org, a website that provides a platform for impassioned individuals to mobilize. “The most effective petitions are about righting a clear wrong.” Write legibly and concisely, and directly target decision makers. Many Change.org petitioners—from fourth-graders to grandmothers—are brand-new to activism but have achieved goals like getting health coverage for mentally impaired patients denied treatments and ending offensive advertisements.

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