For many people outside the United States, the White House and Congress typify American government. But to most Americans, the local governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they deal with the most. And alongside these local governments are groups of citizens that press them for changes meant to make life better.
In this opening segment of a new weekly series, VOA's Jeffrey Young takes a close-up look at Montgomery County, and its central city of Rockville, in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland. It is a generally prosperous suburb outside the nation's capital, with a better than average overall education and income level - but it has problems as well.
Montgomery County, Maryland.
It is just to the north and west of Washington, DC. Almost a million people live there, and it continues to grow.
Montgomery County looks quite different in various parts of its nearly 1,300 square kilometers. "The north end of the county is farms. It's a rural part of the county, although the housing is being built farther and farther north, and filling up," explains one resident. "But in the southern end of the county, it's very urban, very much like the city of Washington, D.C."
Because of that, Montgomery County has its share of big city problems such as crime, traffic and development sprawl.
Neighborhoods reflect a wide range of family incomes. There are single family homes that are grand and others more modest; some are new and others have stood for a century. There are also many multi-family dwellings. And while the county appears prosperous at first glance, it also has areas of poverty and substandard housing.
But most residents, regardless of the house and neighborhood they live in, want public safety, a good education for their children and the opportunity to make their lives better.
People have moved to Montgomery County from all over the world, bringing their languages, cultures and faiths with them.
"One of my neighbors is Anglo-Saxon, another is from the Middle East, yet another is from China, and we are originally from India," says one county resident, "so it's a very diverse county here."
Another county resident puts it this way: "So many different faces!"
This international mix makes the county vibrant. It also makes including everyone an important goal.
The county has its own government, as do its towns and cities, such as Rockville. These local governments, not the federal government in Washington, provide schools, roads, public libraries and other things people use and need every day. These local governments make themselves accessible through public meetings, while area newspapers and TV cover the issues the county faces.
But there is more to Montgomery County than just residents and government. There are also groups of citizens working to help others, whether it is providing recreation, turning out the vote or sharing food with the hungry.
"People helping people," says one volunteer, explaining why he helps out. "That's what the word 'community' means."
Whether it is helping others directly or interacting with local governments on important issues, there is a lot of citizen activism in Montgomery County and the City of Rockville. In upcoming segments of this series, we will explore how people work together to make life better.