By Frank F. Fleischman III, Lead Editor

I think every writer or artist wishes — once in their lifetime — to address a high school or college graduating class. It seems to be a wonderful way to impart one’s wisdom and to speak about what one finds important. Being a civic activist, a gadfly and a provocateur who steps on a lot of toes, I doubt I will ever be invited to address a graduating class from Belleville High School.

But hey, I can dream.

Dear Graduates of the Class of 2023,

I’m going to preface my remarks with a promise, or rather a disclaimer. Most graduation speeches focus on how proud your family, friends and teachers are of you and contain grand pronouncements to you about how bright and wide-open your future will be as you enter young adulthood. Your families are rightfully proud of you, and I’m sure they have told you so. Who am I to take that away from them by saying the same?

I will, however, use a word that you no doubt have also heard from your parents, your teachers and other well-wishers: responsibility. I’m sure you’ve heard that you need to be responsible – about driving, about being to work on time, or by making sure you study hard in college.  

Yes, graduates, I am about to add another responsibility to the already long list:  you have a responsibility to be informed, to be vocal, and to be involved in the politics of the community you reside in, wherever that may be.  

Now, you’re probably wondering exactly what I mean by that. Does he mean voting? Well, yes. I’ve proudly voted in every election – local, state and federal – since I was 18, so I believe voting is important. Voting is a basic duty of an adult citizen, but I say you need to go beyond the basics. I’m exhorting you to attend town or city council meetings, those of the school board, the planning and zoning boards. I want you to ask questions, demand answers, write or make videos on whatever social media platform you prefer. I want you to “make good trouble,” a common refrain among those in the American civil rights movement. In short: as adults, you are responsible for making sure your community’s leaders are accountable, responsive and act ethically and with transparency. To do so, you must act politically.

Politics Isn’t The Problem; Apathy Is

I just heard exasperated sighs, groans and even audible eye-rolls from some in the audience, no doubt some of whom are your family members and friends. I also saw some of the councilpersons and even school board trustees in attendance shift uncomfortably in their seats. How dare he inject politics into this important event?

I dare for two reasons. First, because getting involved locally is a greatly effective ways to tackle the larger problems our nation faces, and secondly, because many of those problems can be traced back to unaccountable public officials. That lack of accountability is a direct result of people not getting involved — not believing in their own power as citizens and voters. It’s a deadly cycle called apathy. Some people will tell you that politics makes everything worse; they’re wrong. Apathy makes everything worse.

Some people will tell you that politics makes everything worse; they’re wrong. Apathy makes everything worse.

Years ago, residents could rely on local media to call out local officials for their misdeeds or bad decisions. Many local newspapers have been acquired by large media conglomerates which have either shut them down or cut their staffing and budget to the bone. Those few outlets that have survived on their own are timid about reporting about local officials because they fear expensive lawsuits or losing advertising dollars.

In some cases, citizens could file suit in civil court to stop bad government decisions, but attorneys and court costs are expensive and the court system takes a long time. If all else failed, someone could complain to state officials, but the state bureaucracy is slow in responding and taking action, if they act at all.

It’s up to people – informed, active and courageous people who believe in their own values and sense of power – to bring political arrogance and self-serving behavior to heel. As you enter adulthood you, graduates, are among those people.

Belleville Has The Same Political Problems As Does All Of America — Just On A Local Scale

Belleville – your hometown – and its politics are a microcosm of American politics. What do I mean? Many of the political problems we face as a nation are present here in Belleville. Apathy. The corrupting influence of money. Special interests. As I said before, those problems are better addressed on a local level, because your community’s leaders live in the community, not far off in Trenton or Washington, D.C.

Look at Belleville today. In the municipal election last year, less than 15 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a vote. That’s bad, even for a town with a traditionally low voter turnout. For decades, Belleville has been raw meat for different political forces, dedicated to gaining and exercising power for their own political and sometimes personal benefit.

Belleville also has a notorious history of elected officials behaving unethically, shamefully and in a few cases illegally. Yet, because few people have stood up to challenge or call out the bad behavior, it continues. Such is the sad result of apathy.

Belleville also has a notorious history of elected officials behaving unethically, shamefully and in a few cases illegally. Yet, because few people have stood up to challenge or call out the bad behavior, it continues. Such is the sad result of apathy.

What’s worse is that Belleville’s politics – like American politics at large – seems ruled by money and influence. There are powerful people who can deliver large amounts of money and voters to a candidate or sitting official’s campaign – and maybe even offer a personal benefit to them outside the public eye. Sadly, these powerful people often don’t have Belleville’s best interests in mind.

Some of our elected officials seem to have no problem doing the bidding of these powerful political bosses and campaign donors, the public and ethical behavior be damned. Those who don’t play that game — or at least to a lesser extent than others — by and large stay silent about it. Public integrity — the courage to advocate for what is right because it is right — is a virtue seemingly in short supply.

What I just described is a real problem in Belleville, and it’s why, for the past three years, I’ve had the pleasure of editing and publishing a blog dedicated to the values of responsible, transparent government, respect for Belleville’s unique history and small-town character and most importantly, encouraging residents and taxpayers to have the courage to speak out and hold their leaders accountable.

As you can imagine, not everyone is a fan of what I do. I’ve been called “cynical” and “negative” by some, and maybe they’re right. A little cynicism can be good if it’s kept in perspective. What I do requires conflict — calling people out on their bad behavior and decisions may not be “positive.” But the ultimate goal is to, by doing something allegedly “negative,” create a “positive” outcome!

Fight The Good Fight

Graduates, I’m not saying you must tread my chosen path. But as a member of the community with a responsibility to make it better or at least make sure it doesn’t get worse, you must take stock of your talents and use them to fulfill that responsibility. Some of you are writers, like me; some are public speakers, some are great at making videos and creating digital content. Maybe you’re good at all these things. Use them to promote change in your community!

You also don’t have to work alone at this. What I do is solitary work, though it’s often dependent on tips and information from others. But you’ll find if you work together with like-minded neighbors and residents, your voice becomes much louder. You will meet people with whom you have very little in common, except for the belief in good government and public integrity. That can be the basis of a good relationship.

This isn’t to say you’ll always win or get your way. Even if you have right on your side, you’ll lose some battles, but you’ll always gain something: you’ll learn a lesson, make an ally, or find out more about how things work in your community. The fight for good government on any level is never finished. You need to have stamina, believe in yourself and your values, and most importantly, keep a sense of humor about it all.

There will be wins and victories, large and small. One of the first issues I got involved with was opposing a plan to build multiple, 50-story buildings in Belleville about 10 years ago. Undoubtedly, this would have led to more traffic on the streets, stressed our already ancient sewer and water lines and brought more kids into the school system, increasing the size of the already large classes you’ve been in the past four years. All these problems would have translated into big tax increases on your parents, who already pay a pretty penny to the town and the school district.  My efforts and those of others, stopped that project dead in its tracks. If nobody had said anything, I’m convinced the Town Council would have approved it.

Another example that might be more of interest to you: Three years ago, a young man freshly graduated from Belleville High School ran for Town Council and lost. A few months later, he ran and won a seat on the Board of Education, making him the youngest school board member in the town’s history. With grit, determination, and a belief that you can make a difference, you too can run for office, and you just might win. And if you do, you’ll be watched and kept accountable by the likes of someone like me, so you’ll need a thick skin!

After hearing all of this, graduates, you may say to yourself, “But I’m not interested in politics.” There’s an old quote, widely attributed to the ancient Greek politician and military leader Pericles. It essentially goes something like this, “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is always interested in you.”

That is to say, you can choose to ignore politics, but those in power always want something – a vote, a contribution, a commitment, a tax payment – from you. If by chance they think you’re a threat to their power or agenda, they will try to discredit you or mock you. I tell you this: when that happens, there’s no greater compliment, no greater vindication of what you do, because you know you’re getting somewhere.  

Wherever You Go, Be Active In Your Community & Keep Its Leaders Honest

My fondest hope is that you go out into the world, make your mark and find a community where you feel deeply you belong. For me, Belleville has been that community — my home for over 25 years. Belleville is a great town, steeped in American history and a unique and special place. I deeply believe in this town’s greatness. I’d love for you to come back here to live, but I know that may not be in your plans. However, no matter where you go, I hope you remember Belleville, and continue to believe in its greatness.

I also hope that you take my words to heart. Be aware of what happens in your town or city, educate and inform yourself of the issues in your community, join with your neighbors and friends and demand that your leaders represent the interests of your community.

Congratulations to you, the Class of 2023!