When the District of Columbia swore in its newly-elected mayor and council in January, about 300 ordinary Washingtonians also took an oath as representatives of local citizens’ groups called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions - or ANCs. Each ANC is made up of ordinary citizens, elected by residents of their immediate neighborhoods to represent the interests of those neighbors to the Washington City Council.
Washington residents Aaron Spencer and Ahnna Smith enter a neighborhood bar to meet with managers about an application to expand their business upstairs.
Spencer and Smith are ANC commissioners. They both have typical day jobs but volunteer as commissioners to represent the interests of their neighbors to the Washington D.C. City Council.
ANC commissioners help oversee the small but important aspects of local government, The ones that define the character of a neighborhood - things like liquor licenses, zoning applications and on-street parking.
Spencer and Smith were sworn into their local ANC last January in a large ceremony that included the swearing in of Washington’s new mayor and city council members.
Many city politicians began their careers as ANC commissioners but Spencer he says being a commissioner is a chance to give back to his community.
"I look at it more as a give-back," he says. "I don’t see it as a political start. I see it as a civic duty frankly."
Smith agrees. "Because it’s such a hyper-local position. You are really much more to the ground and connected to the people you are representing."
Lauren McKenzie was sworn in along with Spencer and Smith. "Nobody from my neighborhood was running. So that's actually why I picked up the ballot and started campaigning."
Lorenzo Morris specializes in urban politics at Howard University in Washington. He says ANCs are especially important in areas of local government where ordinary citizens often have a difficult time expressing themselves.
"ANCs are sort of hybrid vehicles to link the ordinary citizen in the local community with the government in such a way as to give them a special access," says Morris. "So they make no formal governing decisions but they have a special voice and a special audience with those on the council and in city governments who make decisions."
According to Morris, nothing quite like an ANC exists in any other major American city. That’s because Washington was founded as a special district to act as the seat of the federal government - and was never part of any U.S. State. The city is directly overseen by Congress and did not get its own city council or mayor until 1974.
"In other words, at every point citizens of D.C. have a reason to believe they form a community that’s deprived of some degree of democratic representation," says Morris.
So when ANCs were established in the 1970s, they helped ensure that the population of Washington - which has no voting representation at the federal level - gets a strong political voice on a neighborhood level.
McKenzie is getting more familiar with her neighborhood each day. She wants to focus on bringing family-centered businesses into her ANC district - which is much less prosperous than the one represented by Spencer and Smith.
"I think that we need coffee shops and restaurants," says McKenzie. "We need restaurants that are sit-down not take-outs. We don’t need liquor stores."
The three young ANC commissioners will represent their neighborhoods for the next two years. Citizen politicians - making a difference one street corner at a time.