We welcome a guest post from Larry Schooler, manager of the public engagement division for the city of Austin, Texas.
When is a referendum a good idea and when is it the wrong thing to do?
Citizen referenda bypass elected representatives and “the people” (or those who choose to vote and have the right to do so) decide.I am concerned that yes/no kind of referenda are not a good ideaunless there is a strong lead-up for effective deliberation and the kind of question really is a yes/no choice.
I’m thinking about this based on actual or possible referenda not just for the June big event in the UK knows as “Brexit”, but also in Minneapolis, and my hometown of Austin.
What about the referendum in Austin, Texas, on transportation networking companies like Uber and Lyft? The measure was drafted by the companies and when it failed, two of the largest companies left the market entirely, though both sides have signaled the conversation isn’t over. What did that accomplish?
And what happens if a referendum moves forward in Minneapolis to require police officers to carry liability insurance? It may not even make it onto the ballot if the City Council says it’s illegal under state law, which could prolong the fight even longer in an expensively litigated process.
It is clear that referendum measures drafted by citizens, reinforced by petition signatures, are here to stay. I think they serve as an important “check” on the power of elected officials. But a “referendum on referendums” is in order.
I heard a minister say once that we sometimes fixate on things that appear to be urgent while missing or neglecting things that are important. A good example is an elected official in a NC municipality (not my current employer) who questioned whether the long-observed tradition of pre-meeting dinners should continue for Council and staff. There wasn’t much time between the end of the work day and the beginning of the evening Council meeting, so providing a meal at City Hall seemed like a convenient way to solve a simple problem.
In an effort to be fiscally responsible, the well-meaning official asked about the cost of the meals (about $3,000 annually) and made a motion to end them. It seemed like a good idea, so the officials voted to do away with the practice and save a little money. A few meetings later, the meals returned after everyone agreed that they were worth the cost after all.
Compare that to a common scene in cities and towns across NC each spring and summer: multi-million dollar budget proposals–presented in public meetings–that attract little attention.
Maybe we as citizens are too busy to be part of the process.
Maybe we’re not interested.
But maybe, we’re not sure what to ask or where to begin.
Here’s some basic information that should provide a better understanding of how municipal budgets are created.
I have been a housing activist in Greensboro for almost 30 years, creating organizations to build homes and to advocate for policies and funding that promote safe, affordable housing.
The broad impact of good places to live:
Imagine unprecedented collaboration to assure opportunities for all in our community to have good places to live.
Count the new jobs created by the investment in building new houses and apartments and in repairing deteriorating housing.
Consider the stability of employees without the stress of possible eviction or injury from dangerous housing.
Celebrate the academic achievements of students who don’t miss class due to housing-related asthma attacks or have to move multiple times in a school year, so they can—YES—prepare for college.
Calculate the property tax dollars generated by appreciation rather than decline in property values. Welcome the family values of parents and children reunited from costly foster care because they now have good homes.
Be relieved about neighborhood safety when blighted areas become bright spots, without boarded buildings and vagrancy.
Rejoice when homeless service providers not only cooperate in connecting individuals to necessary resources but when the housing resources actually exist for them to have permanent homes.
Do a victory dance when a person’s zip code does not determine one’s life expectancy or the number of trips to the hospital or the risk of getting arrested.
OK, now that you can imagine the transformation, let’s work to become a part of it.
I’ll talk about the opportunities and challenges in Greensboro for the quantity, quality, affordability and other success factors for housing that works for everyone. I’m glad to see engagement on critical housing and social needs with many community partners.Continue Reading
The reporting-back communications loop in community engagement is more important than ever. If public participation means to involve those who are affected by a decision in the decision-making process, then participants need to know how their input has affected change. The outcome of their engagement gives meaning to their participation.
The Town of Chapel Hill (pop. 59,000) embarked on a new era of community engagement when it launched the largest community planning efforts in its history in 2010 with the development of the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan. The plan is a reflection of the people’s values, aspirations and ideas. The outreach was excellent with having achieved the goal of touching 10,000 people during the yearlong visioning process.
Collaboration with neighborhood leaders is an instrumental component to the success of engagement initiatives for local government. The partnership, sharing of ideas and exchange of knowledge can lead to lasting benefits for the community. The City of Charlotte’s Neighborhood & Business Services (N&BS) department has spent over a decade building programs to help communities thrive through engagement, trainings, board retreats and awards.
The Neighborhood Leadership Awards only recognizes superior work in Charlotte communities, particularly those communities that receive assistance through the City’s Neighborhood Matching Grant program for projects such as community gardens, neighborhood watches or playgrounds.
However, the program is part of comprehensive approach to impact neighborhoods several other components such a semiannual board retreats for communities. Continue Reading
I have the good luck to be teaching a summer course in Vienna, Austria this summer. I thought it might be interesting to talk about the role that universities in European countries play in the communities and countries where they are located.
Community engagement has become an important issue at American universities, although, as I have written in previous posts, there remains much work to do in order to build true partnerships between communities and universities. I wondered:
Are universities here in Vienna, or elsewhere in Europe, talking about these issues as well?
Do they approach the questions the same way we do in the United States or are they concerned with different issues?
What could we learn from looking at other approaches to community-university partnerships?
I’ve only been here two weeks and haven’t had time to fully explore these questions, but I will share a few preliminary observations. Continue Reading
I have spent the past few months settling in to my new role with the NC Growing Together Project, (NCGT) which aims to bring more local food products into mainstream wholesale markets across North Carolina.
One of my roles is to engage planners, economic developers, and small business assistance providers in understanding the local food supply chain in North Carolina and identifying ways to create an enabling and supportive environment for farms and food entrepreneurs.
It’s been a really fun experiment to flip the engagement process upside down – thinking about creative ways to engage the local government staff in cities, counties, and towns in their local food system, both as citizens and as professionals. Continue Reading
This report comes from Janet Owens, Executive Director of the Jacksonville, Florida Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)
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The word “resilient” is embodied in the mural above from Eastside Jacksonville—workers on the waterfront conducting trade and the checkerboard symbolizing the challenges they must overcome. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines resilient as “able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” It can also mean “beginning again when a first attempt doesn’t achieve the desired outcome.”
At this moment for East Jacksonville, “resilient” embodies the passion, drive and spirit of a coalition of residents, businesses, and community organizations in Jacksonville’s Eastside neighborhood. Together, they are charting a new course for their community–marshaling relationships and assets, bringing resilience and restoring hope to this once bustling neighborhood.
From Ranata Reeder, an update on the City of Greensboro first Participatory Budgeting process. See her first post.
In April, the last step in neighborhoods choosing particular spending priorities was conducted. Before I reveal the outcome of the vote, it is important to see the whole process of local government budget outreach.
In August 2015, the City of Greensboro embarked on its first Participatory Budgeting process. Not only was this a first for Greensboro, it is the first Participatory Budgeting process in the south. Greensboro officially made it to the PB map!
Greensboro residents proposed ideas, developed proposals, and voted on how to spend $100,000 in each of Greensboro’s five city council districts, totaling $500,000. Continue Reading
Every April, the university organizes a 3.2-mile run to memorialize the 32 students and faculty members killed in 2007 by a student who’d chained the doors to Norris Hall shut and sprayed classrooms with bullets. The Virginia Tech massacre remains the largest mass shooting in the country, evoked every time another monster murders a lot of people, which is far, far too often.
In Blacksburg, April 16 is a day that will live in infamy.
There are residents who still can’t help but give a PTSD-fueled shudder when they hear a cavalcade of ambulance sirens. Continue Reading
Due to so many people living in urban areas, we often get stuck in a rut of only focusing on community programs within the city… Well, what about outside of the city limits? There’s a whole new world to explore, and programs to attend (Cue Fields of Dreams music). Now, just like in the movie, imagine corn fields all around you and visualize what I am about to say in a whisper, If you provide it, they will come. What do you mean?… If I provide what, who will come?… (Once again, you hear in a whisper)… If you provide it, they will come.Continue Reading
In my last post I proposed a vision for open budgets and identified some of the gaps between that vision and the situation today. With the goal of increasing the legitimacy and effectiveness of public spending, I defined an open budget as one that is created through a process that ensures that it reflects the values and priorities of the whole community and designed to make a clear connection between allocated resources and expected outcomes. The post sparked a lively discussion in the comments that ranged from the serious obstacles communities face to some awesome tools and approaches.
In this post I want to reflect on how communities can make practical progress toward this vision. Rather than focus on specific tools or approaches, I will outline four guiding principles that I believe are critical to real progress. My hope is that they will spark further discussion about the best way forward.
It’s a great icebreaker for public servants. The next time you’re talking with someone who works in local or state government, ask about unrelated phone calls and emails. Almost every week (or day in some cases), public sector employees will field requests for information that have no connection to their organization.
The first time I heard of this was in the 1990s when some 911 dispatchers in a rural county near Raleigh told me how busy Friday nights were. For the most part, the calls weren’t emergencies; they were mostly questions about high school football scores. Driving directions were also a popular request. Continue Reading
I have the tremendous pleasure of working with the Cottage Grove Neighborhood Association and Community-Centered Health Partners as they revitalize the community, engaging outside resources to support that vision rather than to dislocate neighborhood residents. Meet some of the amazing leaders whose energy is guiding that process to transform the neighborhood.
Photo above, left to right: Laura Tew (Cooperative Extension Master Gardener), Rev. Marvin Richmond (New Hope Community Development Group), Shorlette Ammons-Stephens (NC A&T, Center for Environmental Farming Systems), and Barry Campbell (New Hope Community Development Group).
From Decline to Rebirth
Imagine reclaiming your community’s identity after decades of being defined by others. The Cottage Grove neighborhood in southeast Greensboro bustled with shops and professionals in the 1950’s and 60’s; in 1976 the main street was renamed South English and became a cut-through from East Market to Lee Street. Business closings, little investment, and many broken promises later, neighbors formed the Cottage Grove Neighborhood Association and adopted the theme “Cottage Grove for LIFE!” to proclaim the new energy for a healthy place to live. Now they are holding outside groups—and themselves—accountable to make that happen, together.Continue Reading
“To achieve positive and enduring change, public and nonprofit leaders must create community engagement strategies that are as robust as the data-driven solutions that they hope to peruse.” Continue Reading
On March 15th the city of Fayetteville votes on the Parks and Recreation Bond Referendum. The referendum is for a 35 million dollar bond and intended to improve the city’s infrastructure by renovating recreation facilities across the city. Continue Reading
As we’re constantly told, this is The Age of Big Data, and tapping into that monstrous yet murky term indeed has the potential to revolutionize the way organizations function, particularly when it comes to finances. Local government and other public entities are no exception.
Indeed, many are increasingly publishing reams of financial data, like procurement contracts, salaries, and details of their various budgets. Some of this is still done in old-fashioned ways – many of us know how frustrating it is to mine data from PDFs of scanned documents, for instance. Yet even when Big Data is made available by governments in a standard format, with accompanying APIs for coders to freely draw from, and with aesthetically pleasing visualizations, is that enough?Continue Reading
Have you ever met a fascinating person who engages you with probing questions, thoughtful commentary and interesting facts? The two of you then embark on a lively conversation where you might gain or give a different perspective and learn something new. When parting ways, you’ve probably said, “Let’s keep in touch” and exchanged contact information. This is the dynamic that the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) looks to create with the public. Continue Reading
The presidential primary season has drawn considerable attention to the issue of young voters and what appears to be their overwhelming support for Bernie Sanders. On my campus students are engaging in debate watch parties, are organizing voter registration drives, and a small group of around twenty students, both Republican and Democratic, are having the experience of a lifetime in a program called Wake the Vote, which has taken them already to Iowa and New Hampshire and later in the year will give them the opportunity to attend the conventions. These kinds of experiences translate into participation at the polls. An organization that studies the political participation of young people (CIRCLE) reports that 70% of the youth votes (18-24) cast were cast by young people with at least some college experience. Clearly, activities that provide students with the opportunity to get engaged in the political process are powerful motivators for voting.
In December, my colleague here at CELE, Brian Bowman, wrote an excellent piece about how technology can help make government more transparent and accessible. With data from the Pew Research Center, he then explored how often citizens are able to access government information on the Internet – and the many underserved groups who don’t yet receive the full benefits of technology (including older people, non-English speakers, and colorblind individuals).
The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), an international federation of public participation practitioners including a USA affiliate, has developed a spectrum of community engagement techniques. The spectrum ranges from “informing” to “empowering” the public.
These are wonky practitioner words; however, they actually mean a world of difference. Informing is focused on one-way communication, whereas empowering is literally giving the power of decision-making to the public.
I’ll describe a project on community empowerment, and some key lessons. First, I’ll address why empowerment is scary, often promised but not fulfilled in particular cases, and basic guiding principles for overcoming the challenges of community empowerment projects. Continue Reading
In the traditional system, homeless individuals are moved through levels of housing that will eventually lead to independent housing. For instance, from the streets to the shelters, and from the shelters to a housing program, and from a housing program to an independent apartment. In the housing program, treatment is given to battle some factors surrounding homelessness like, substance abuse, mental health, job training, and domestic violence.
Over the last few years, there has been a mini-explosion of websites that use visualization and interactivity to make government budgets easier to understand and navigate. In North Carolina, 2015 saw sites go live for Asheville, Raleigh, Cary and Buncombe County. Across the country, efforts have ranged from volunteer-led open source projects like Open Budget: Oakland to government-led efforts built on commercial platforms, like Chattanooga’s Open Budget App or Ohio’s Open Checkbook. Cloud services for open budgets have been launched by commercial ventures like OpenGov and Balancing Act, and by my own non-profit organization, DemocracyApps, which developed the CommunityBudgets.org platform that hosts the Asheville, Cary and Buncombe County sites. There has also been significant legislative activity, including the Data Act at the federal level and a new North Carolina requirement (section 7.17) that local governments publish budget and spending data to a central state transparency website.
All these initiatives are very much to be celebrated. They are the leading edge of a powerful and growing trend toward greater openness in local government and promise better citizen access to the critical financial information and decision-making that underlie nearly everything city and county governments do. However, it’s important to ask just where we’re going and how we’ll know that we’ve arrived. How do we ensure that open budget efforts actually improve community engagement and outcomes over other means for learning citizens’ priorities?
Let’s begin by examining just what a public budget is and what makes it good or bad.
The highway overpass that funnels vacationers like me toward the high-end shops and million-dollar mansions of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, soars a hundred feet above a very different kind of neighborhood, a part of the city known as the Upper Peninsula. The homes here are small, interspersed among warehouses and union halls, and lived in primarily by low-income, African-American Charlestonians. With three thousand residents spread across 800 acres, the streets have a worn, slightly abandoned feel.
This is a part of Charleston that’s expected to change dramatically in the next five or ten years. As people and businesses are crowded or priced out of other parts of Charleston, the Upper Peninsula will, it’s hoped, get the spillover. Already new restaurants are being built and businesses are moving in. It’s the city’s wild frontier, and as Rachel Parris, director of development and community relations for the placemaking nonprofit Enough Pie (because they believe “there’s enough pie to go around” for everyone in Charleston), explains, “Right now we’re looking to mold that growth and shape it in a way that’s really inclusive. That’s where creative placemaking and community engagement come in.”
We have gained many followers since the blog began in December 2014. In the spirit of looking back at this time of year, here is a “holiday sampler” of blog posts – many of which were authored early in the blog’s existence.
Happy holidays, and enjoy the “nibbles” of ideas, viewpoints, and challenges from the CELE blogging team.
In the past 12 months, roughly one in three Americans has used the Internet or a smartphone app to access government information. The Pew Research Center says this access extends to all levels of government: federal, state, and local. As residents have secured improved broadband connections, and as government websites and apps have added features and improved usability, the numbers of people communicating with government online have risen accordingly.
A Pew Research survey says people are usually trying to accomplish one of six tasks:
Learn about government recreational activities
Renew their driver’s license or auto registration
Research government benefits
Pay a fine
Apply for or renew a government-issued hunting or fishing license
Report a problem that needs repair, such as potholes
As these popular tasks show, government websites and apps are much more than one-way sources of information; they provide the opportunity (usually free of charge) to complete tasks that used to require a trip. But as websites improve in functionality, public communicators should remember that there are some populations who may need additional consideration.Continue Reading
First used in many Brazilian communities, and more recently used in St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, New York and Vallejo (CA), PB in Greensboro is occurring through May 2016, with a recommendation to the City Council in time for their action in June on the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget (FY16-17).
Volunteer budget delegates have community conventions to develop specific proposals,
Residents attend expos and vote, and
The top projects win funding.
Each of the five council districts in Greensboro has reserved $100,000 in FY 16-17. Participants in those districts will gather and decide how to spend money from a list of projects in their district.
Right now, groups are learning about the PB process and beginning to generate ideas for how to spend the money in their respective districts. Community members can also submit their ideas on ideasgreensboro.org.
Two of the leaders of Greensboro PB are Ranata Reeder and Wayne Abraham. They offer answers to three questions:
One useful way to look at different methods of civic engagement is the division between “thick” and “thin” efforts. In the wordsof Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Public Agenda, thick engagement “[enables] large numbers of people, working in small groups, to learn, decide, and act together,” while thin engagement involves people “as individuals rather than in groups.”
I don’t think it’s as simple as thick always being better than thin. Civic engagement is not a slice of cake. In fact, some of the best projects combine both styles of engagement, as I’ll illustrate below.
Thick vs. Thin
Thick engagements generally incorporate face-to-face meetings where participants share experiences, a number of policy options are presented and discussed, and concrete actions are subsequently planned.
In Fayetteville, North Carolina there has been discussion on whether or not to expand the city council and mayoral terms from two years to four. Sitting city officials have brought up the matter at public forums. They cite the difficulty of accomplishing the city’s goals in two years, particularly for new councilmen who have a learning curve when taking office. The Cumberland County Commissioners have four-year terms and they believe that it is appropriate to mirror their structure.
Some in Fayetteville believe that extending the two-year city council terms to four years makes sense. Councilman Larry Wright of District 7, has publicly voiced his concern that a two-year term is not enough to learn the ropes of city council and then launch and fund a re-election campaign.
Councilman Mitch Colvin of District 3 stated that taxpayers make an investment to train incoming council members because they have to travel out of town for training and state conferences. So it would not make sense financially to train a new councilman every two years.
T.J. Smith is a senior majoring in Politics and International Affairs and minoring in Biology and Spanish at Wake Forest University. He is from Greensboro, NC and is highly engaged on campus and in the Winston-Salem community. In this post, he responds to our invitation to provide a student voice in the discussion about the role higher education institutions can play in civic life.
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As a guest author, I would like to write from the student perspective in discussing civic engagement. I will be responding to Dr. Harriger’s post on the teaching mission of the university and the university’s role in community-engaged research. In particular, I hope to use my own experience as a Wake Forest University student to illustrate two things the university can provide students in order to advance civic engagement.
First, the university must offer service learning but within the proper framing. I agree with Dr. Harriger’s post that too often college students are engaged in community projects that do more harm than good so I would like to offer a solution.
When people find a purposeful passion for an issue, they are more likely to engage in matters related to that issue, both socially and politically.
As communities become more competent and public awareness is raised, there are moments when there becomes a need to create programs that challenge public policies perceived to marginalize the disadvantaged.
I recently read a book by Leonard Jason, Principles of Social Change, where he provides five principles for social change that transform passion into action which include:
In the summer of 2014, San Diego-based Stone Brewing Company sought to find a site to open an east coast production and distribution facility. Stone targeted a few cities in Virginia, Richmond being one, as possible locations.
The City of Richmond Economic Development Office, city officials, local politicians and many others worked to lure Stone Brewing to one of the two Richmond locations in which the company had shown an interest.
But it was neighborhood residents who caught the attention of Stone’s team, and who ultimately impacted the company’s decision.
On the heels of the June 2015 Charleston racially motivated massacre, that left 9 dead and one injured, there has been much discussion about the use of historical symbols by government entities. The overarching idea is that the government should not appear to be biased and should represent the interest of the entire community and not certain segments. The Market House in downtown Fayetteville is one of those symbols up for debate.
The Market House is rich in history and southern heritage. According to Barksdale (2015), the original building that sat where the Market House sits now, once served as the State House in which the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. When that building burned in the Great Fire of 1831, the Market House was erected in its place in 1832 . The site also hosted a Civil War battle in which Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton killed 11 Union soldiers and captured a dozen more.
The unique architecture employs a town hall-market scheme found in England and is the only National Landmark in Cumberland County (National Park Service, 2008). The second floor of the structure was used as the town hall and a general meeting place. On the first floor vendors came to sell meat, produce, and the occasional human.
Yes, I said human. Slaves were auctioned primarily under estate liquidation or to pay a debt. The actual number of slaves sold is ambiguous, but it happened, on the steps surrounding the structure.
Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Willie Ratchford, executive director of Community Relations for the City of Charlotte. Willie just celebrated 40 years working with the city, and I wanted to get his perspective on how community relations and engagement have changed throughout the years. I was also curious to get his take on the current role of local government considering the drastically different community landscape.
When Willie started with the city, the year was 1975. During that year Microsoft was founded, “Saturday Night Live” premiered, the Thrilla in Manila took place and the blockbuster hit “Jaws” was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. We may have social media and 3D video games today, but one of the most popular (and odd) gifts for kids during the holiday season in that year was the Pet Rock. So yes, times have changed. Significantly.
Willie has seen a lot throughout his life and career – from the desegregation of schools to his involvement in the administration of Charlotte’s fair housing law in 1988. In 1994, Willie became the executive director of Community Relations. He felt that this role was a defining moment in his career because he had the opportunity to impact race relations in Charlotte. He firmly believes that it is the responsibility of local government to promote community harmony.Continue Reading
My colleague Melody Warnick wrote an excellent post recently about the unique role of local elections in communities. I was so pleased to read it, recognizing myself in the lady she writes about who comes huffing and puffing up her driveway to ask her to vote for her husband for sheriff.
My husband is running for a Town Board seat in the small town where we live. It’s a non-election year, so we’re expecting about 200 people to actually vote – a little under 10% of the town’s population. We’ve made a few yard signs, put out some postcard flyers, and set up an email account…but in small town elections, it’s the other, less professional engagement activities that make local elections so different and so fun.
That’s why I believe it’s important for more people – especially younger people – to rethink local government and how they can contribute.Continue Reading
Who do these people think they are?! Why would citizens want to change something that works perfectly well, and has for years! Why waste time and money on something silly like a festival, or art project that will only last a day, week or month? We have bigger issues than worrying about one neighborhood’s wants. We know what’s best for our citizens and they will see it our way, or learn to deal with it.
The following post is a short conversation between Rick and Cate, who both like to think about how broken patterns of engagement might be fixed or improved. In this case, Cate asks us to think about what gentrification might be like with authentic, collaborative engagement of long-time residents with the gentrifiers. Thinking of old and new in terms of “we” rather than “us-them.”
The other afternoon, a woman knocked at my door. Her forehead was dewy with sweat, her chest heaving a bit with the exertion of tackling the hill in front of our house. “My husband is running for county sheriff,” she gasped, “and I hope you’ll consider voting for him.” After quickly outlining the man’s fine, electable qualities, she pressed a postcard into my hands and thanked me for my time.
No, seriously. Thank you, lady. Because unless your husband turns out to be in league with the Devil, he gets my vote.
I have a simple rule about elections: If I meet you in person, or if you send a personal emissary to my door, nine times out of ten I’ll vote for you. Human contact wins me every time. Does that make me a ridiculously easy sell? Undoubtedly. But the Doorstep Test also gauges what I feel is an important quality in a candidate: desire. I want to know how badly you want to be elected. If you’re hoofing up my street at dinnertime, the answer is probably “pretty badly.”
While it often seems that the primary purpose of higher education has become only job preparation, there is another movement afoot that focuses on restoring the civic mission of higher education. When the first universities, both public and private, were established in the early days of the republic, a significant emphasis was on preparing students for life in a democratic society.
The question I’d like to discuss today is what it is institutions of higher education, whether they be community colleges or four year institutions, should be doing to prepare their students to be engaged citizens after the graduate? What skills, habits, and dispositions would those of us living in these communities want them to have and how might we best teach this?
According to the Continuum of Care Report (2015), there are 1,220 homeless, sheltered, and chronically homeless individuals residing in Cumberland County, North Carolina. Further, the statistics are broken down into every demographic you can dream up. In 2014, there were 1,229, so in a year the numbers have decreased only by 9. Thousands of dollars are poured into the homelessness issue in Cumberland County annually, without making a much of an impact. This begs the question, how can we as a society bring about meaningful, lasting social change?
The nation is in the middle of a serious, sometimes heated discussion about law enforcement practices and procedures. The last year of news coverage has included disturbing accounts of violence that have left all sides looking for answers.
There are some 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and some are using local citizen advisory boards to establish and nurture relationships with their communities. There are several examples in North Carolina, including the City of Asheville, the City of Greensboro, the City of Burlington and the newest board in the Town of Knightdale. The Raleigh-area suburb is starting a police advisory board in January.
“Our primary purpose for this is seeking citizen input to make sure our community policing initiatives are addressing real needs and solutions,” said Knightdale Police Chief Lawrence Capps.
I am involved with a new group forming called The Durham Innovation Council. It’s a national movement to help small businesses and people of color who want to start new businesses ,or have innovative ideals for new businesses, get support and access to services that they have had problem getting. What is different about what we are proposing to do from what other business support groups are doing is that we are a four city collaboration that shares best practices and ideals that are proven to work in poor and low income communities in the four partnering cities. We also help bring capital and mentorship to the table. The four cities are Durham, Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans. Continue Reading
In a day where social media rules and comments are limited to 140 characters, the actual art of conversation seems to be fading. That’s why the unique idea to create parklets was quite intriguing. I’m sure you are wondering… what exactly is a parklet? Well, in a nutshell a parklet is a small public park. Part of a growing trend across the county, parklets are an extension of the sidewalk over an on-street parking space and are usually no more than two parking spaces long.
Parklets also contain green space and offer a place for the community to stop, sit and yes have conversations. Communities have become more focused on reclaiming space for public interaction and parklets are one way to accomplish that goal.
Social media is a growing part of the civic engagement landscape. We’ll describe how local government, especially law enforcement, could be using it in ways that pose some risk of undermining the trust and effectiveness of online methods for citizen participation.
Imagine this scene: Your 15-year-old daughter is at a local music festival, Carolinaville Lollapalooza . She’s using Instagram and there’s a ‘selfie’ of her having fun with two young guys. You are following her instagram, so you’re a bit uncomfortable. The next picture has one of the guys with a bottle – it looks like beer – and all three of them being even more friendly. You hope she knows when to stop. A minute later, there’s a picture of a police officer and your daughter. Is she being arrested? What’s going on?
If public safety officials are monitoring all the Instagram feeds tagged #CarolinavilleLollapalooza, and they are using geolocation to hunt for suspicious behavior – including underage drinking – this could be the outcome of your daughter’s sharing her fun with her “new friends.”
This may seem like a far-fetched idea, but the technology is already here, and social media is raising issues about privacy, consent, and government monitoring.
For strong civic engagement, there need to be safe ways to speak out and protections from government officials poking around to “find you” for no good reason.
A year ago I was visiting family in the Bronx, NY, and we were heading out for lunch. Someone asked, “Are we taking a cab, or the train?” Fast forward to this past weekend, and those same family member are visiting N.C. This time, when we left for lunch, the question was, “who is driving?”
The story was more than just a display of the difference in the two cities, but a difference in the culture. Transportation is as much a part of the cultural DNA, as any other facet of life. However, because the transportation culture isn’t often challenged, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Quotes and sayings that reference the importance of non-verbal communications are common, i.e., actions speak louder than words. However, in communities where large numbers of people speak different languages, finding solutions for communicating effectively across language barriers is important.
East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI), Old East Durham Communities in Partnership (CIP) and other East Durham-focused groups are working toward building community among and English- and Spanish-speaking children and families. Continue Reading
In American media outlets, there is no shortage of news about politics at the national level. Candidates for high-profile offices do their best to be noticed by news and opinion outlets, and those outlets are happy to oblige. This symbiotic relationship leads many media consumers to pick a side and cheer for a team, much like sports fans. Positions are often painted as absolutes with few nuances.
While national politics demands much of our attention, it arguably has less effect on us than we might think. Local issues are much more likely to affect us directly.
We as residents have several opportunities to learn more, be heard, and to shape the communities in which we live.
Running for local office or sitting on a decision-making board may be the perfect way to serve as a public official.
There are strong feelings and many ideas about what to do with Confederate flags and memorials in the aftermath of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church murders. The Confederate battle flag and flagpole were removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds on July 10th, after emotional debate in the S.C. Legislature.
On the other hand, the N.C. Legislature seeks to preserve a range of memorials and markers by restricting what state agencies and local governments can do about current statues, memorials or monuments on public property (S.B. 22 – Historic Artifact Mgt. and Patriotism Act). [Update – on July 23, 2015, Governor McCrory signed S.B. 22 into law.
Having the “Right Conversation”
While the Confederate flag is a potent symbol, an equally important way to express community values is to seek respect and understanding as a city or state decides what to do about local memorials and displays of the Confederate flag at government institutions.
Engagement and commitment are intangibles; they come from within. It’s the culmination of the psychological, social and intellectual connection one has with matters that affect their communities.
This connection is what motivates and is ultimately the driving force behind productive, progressive change. Giving people freedom to make decisions engages and empowers them and within the local community this has to occur through mutual respect, caring and group participation. The process of empowerment does not happen alone; it’s accomplished with others. So as citizens collectively engage, change becomes a part of the culture rather than temporary solutions to permanent problems.
Active community engagement represents a certain optimism that one’s effort and dedication can and will improve the social and economic infrastructure necessary for communal stability. Continue Reading
I believe that including a diversity of opinions in the decision making process leads to better outcomes for governments and their citizens. And, I think that many of my colleagues share this belief. The challenge arises when we try to define “diversity” and set performance measures to determine if we have been successful in reaching and engaging our diverse residents.
When I talk with people about diversity, I hear a lot of questions.
Do we limit ourselves to the standards of age, gender and ethnicity?
Do we expand our understanding to include sexual orientation, income levels, and marital status? Is it important to have a mixture of parents and non-parents?
What participation ratio is desirable for each group?
When we think about community engagement, many times we immediately go to the lighter side of engagement-parks, area plans, trails, and things most communities would love to discuss. But what happens when there is a need to tackle a tough and sensitive issue? Are we just as committed to engaging the community? Well, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) is certainly showing this commitment. With the recent initiative, Cops & Barbers, CMPD created a forum for open, honest dialogue on police and race relations in the African American community. The idea was simple. Meet people where they are and where they routinely go (the barber shop) and start a conversation between officers and people of all ages in the community. The response was overwhelming and exemplified community engagement at its best.
Several months ago I wrote about some of the opportunities and challenges that exist in university efforts to engage with the public and with public issues. Around the same time fellow blogger Shawn Colvin wrote about the importance of being able to translate academic research into what he called “results-oriented solutions.”
This post continues that conversation. I see rich opportunities for us to explore, across sectors, how to improve our communities by improving our communication with each other. I will also reflect on how we might overcome the barriers that get in the way of that communication.
As a community organizer part of my responsibility is keeping the community updated of job opportunities that might come available for them. In order to do that, I must have the best information out there about the jobs, the applications and the hiring process. I must rely on city and county employees to give me the information and know that information is correct. I also must, when working with them, depend on them to do what they say and mean what they say. An example: There are some job opportunities coming to Northeast Central Durham with the construction of the East End Connector. I was told of the process and that there would be some help with the application process along with some screening for these jobs. I carried this information to the community in Northeast Central Durham and invited people to this event.
There is a somewhat widespread notion that citizens by-and-large just aren’t that engaged in community affairs, particularly local government affairs. I often hear local government observe that when they try to engage citizens they only see a small handful of people and that there is a “silent majority” that they rarely, if ever, see. But what if engagement is more widespread than we think? I’d like to suggest that perhaps that is the case, particularly when you stop to consider co-production as a form of deep community engagement with local government.
The importance of engaged and informed citizenry in a democracy is undeniable. Throughout the last several years, there has been a push for more deliberative problem-solving tactics in communities across the country. Some in the deliberative community have had conversations about helping to build a collection of what we call “super citizens”; folks who have a clear sense of what deliberation is and are energized and passionate about making democracy work on a community level.
I have been part of a faculty-college student deliberation research and action group at Colorado State University. I’m pleased that in the last year we have worked with high school students to build their interest and skills in deliberation and democracy. Continue Reading
As spring arrives and we begin stopping by our farmers’ markets and roadside stands for the early local harvest, it’s a good time to revisit how community engagement is both limiting and expanding efforts to build stronger regional food systems. I will focus on an obvious – but all too often missing – link in engagement efforts: local farmers.
There’s a lot of information out there about how to engage the community in farm and food initiatives, even on my own organization’s web site: best practices for supporting farmers’ markets, the impact of CSA (community-supported agriculture) purchases, strategies for involving youth in the local agriculture arena, and building strong networks of diverse stakeholders. These efforts have raised the level of awareness about local food in many useful and relevant ways, increasing our communities’ participation in and understanding of the importance of regional agriculture.
But there’s one thing that we hardly ever see, and that’s the flipside of the local food movement’s engagement strategies: how do we make sure that the farmers who actually grow the food are being heard in these discussions?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?’” As humans we instinctually want to help people. We do it every day… give a friend a lift the airport, watch a neighbor’s pet while they are on vacation, or volunteer for a local cause. We don’t do these things for money, we do these things because we know it will make us feel good, and it will strengthen our friendships. Then why is it so much harder to get people to help society on a larger scale and strengthen a community through projects?
Community leaders across the country are often discouraged about the community projects they lead saying, “I have to do all the work by myself”. These leaders often take on the majority of the responsibilities and drive to see the endeavor finished. No one should feel that they have to shoulder the burden alone when it comes to community activism, but sadly that is how things get done in most communities. You do it, or it doesn’t get done. Fortunately, there is a trend that allows community leaders to flourish, let other community members lead, and not have the project get stifled in the muck and mire.
As outreach staff at an East Durham nonprofit, and as a member of the leadership team of a community-led organization in East Durham, I think often about community engagement. I think about getting the word out about existing opportunities in the community, recruiting residents and neighbors to participate, and finally, I think about how to develop opportunities for residents to increase and sustain their engagement and to be a part of decision-making structures of these organizations.
While I have noticed a shift in focus toward increased emphasis on participant feedback and community-identified needs, there seem to be few accessible opportunities for meaningful, sustained engagement within traditional organizational structures (i.e., nonprofit, university or government).
The report identifies “broad lessons” based on comparing North Carolina’s civic health to national data. It highlights “trends and divides” for subgroups – especially youth and racial and ethnic minority groups — having lower measures than older, Caucasian NC residents, and concludes with a “Call to Action.”
Since the Index surveys the whole state, there are certain to be varying results from community to community. Just because some things may look better than the national average, we probably still have plenty of areas to improve (i.e., get out and exercise more!).
I’ll get straight to the results. Further down, I provide a little context about other states’ civic indexes and compare the 2010 and 2015 NC Civic Health Indexes.
Local government is invisible to many Americans. As long as services are provided efficiently, many of us feel no need to visit our city or county offices. On those infrequent occasions when we need to connect, we may not know where to start. Community engagement with local government may not always seem intuitive, but in most cases officials are happy to provide the information you’re looking for.
A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 72% of respondents said they trusted their local governments (the percentage dropped when respondents were asked about State and Federal governments). Local employees and officials are unusually accountable. I can’t tell you how many times a NC mayor or city councilor has told stories of impromptu “meetings” at the grocery store.
While local governments vary due to location and size, we have more ways than ever to begin a conversation. This post will not address public records law; however, it is designed to help you begin the process of getting help or information from local officials. I will address how to get started, using social media, smartphone apps, call centers and whom to contact.
How to Get Started
If you are simply looking for information, you may never need to visit a local office. Most every town, city, or county in NC has a website that provides a wealth of information. These sites usually include financial documents such as budgets and bid opportunities; job openings; recreational opportunities; news releases; and contact information for town staff and elected officials. Continue Reading
How can academic research translate into action-based, results-oriented solutions to issues central to local community development and public engagement? When it comes to policy making, the voting public should be able to actively engage informed experts within the academy to help them participate in and shape policies that matter to them. Citizens could more effectively engage local government if academic research were more accessible so that a more educated citizenry could then apply the research to problems in their respective communities. For example, Citizen Advisory Committees (CACs) meetings are great forums where academics can connect with concerned citizens and offer insight on matters where data collected from studies conducted in other regions may offer guidance on local community relations or conflict resolution among grassroots organizations and local government. Oftentimes, the will to improve conditions exceeds the know-how of pragmatic solutions to lingering issues that encumber communities and pass from generation to generation.
Partnerships between the public and the academy based not only on the dissemination of information but on actual conversations with stakeholders form mentoring relationships so that citizens utilize practical knowledge to formulate immediate and long-term solutions. Continue Reading
It’s a great thing when community engagement is a primary focus of many organizations. However, the challenge for some may be changing the engagement status quo into what it can be in the future. With the abundance of tools available and the desire to do more engagement, there is an opportunity for creativity and innovation. So, how does this all come together to build something that can impact not only a community but those in public service as well?
For local government, employees at all levels across an entire organization can play a key role in developing new ways to engage the public. Four city of Charlotte employees were recently selected as finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge, a national call for new ideas that would make communities a better place to live and work. Two of the employee ideas focused on engaging the community in a very unique way.
The employees are pictured above: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, Alyssa Dodd – in the left photo, with Carlos Alzate; and Sarah Hazel (holding the “No Barriers” sign).
Alyssa’s idea is centered around city employees taking 10 minutes once a week to have a conversation with a member of the community to discuss how we can make our city a better place to live, work and play. Just think, if every employee did this, we could collectively engage more than 364,000 people a year in one-on-one conversations. These conversations could lead to new relationships being formed with the community and have a lasting impact on the employees who participate. The city could gain new perspectives and fresh ideas from residents. In turn, residents could feel a stronger connection to the city and its employees.
Over the last several decades there has been a civic engagement movement, of sorts, on college and university campuses across the country. Perhaps the most significant measure of the extent to which this movement has become a mainstream part of the discussion in higher education was the White House conference sponsored by the Department of Education and the American Association of Colleges and Universities held in January of 2012 to announce the release of a report entitled “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.” As the title implies, the report argues that the long term health of American democracy depends on a higher education system with “civic learning and democratic engagement an expected part of every student’s college education.”
The section of North-East Central Durham (NECD) the mayor is targeting is home to about 3,466 people. It has a 61.4 percent poverty rate, with annual incomes there averaging $10,005 per person. Mayor Bell suggested organizing community members and leaders into task forces to gather information about any shortcomings in education, health care, employment, housing and public safety in the target area. Bell wants all of Durham’s key governmental, education, business and nonprofit institutions to play a part.
Here are some ideas shared by me and some residents in the neighborhoods about how to organize the work to reduce poverty in the targeted area.
This strategy focuses on making sure recommendations address the current and projected needs of existing residents. While it is important to attract additional residents into the neighborhood to improve income base strength, the plan is sensitive to minimize resident displacement and target solutions needed to meet the needs of the current residents.
I was pleased to moderate a panel discussion of four citizens academies coordinators a few weeks ago (February 5) at the North Carolina City & County Management Association’s Winter Seminar held in Durham. The panel consisted of: Mable Scott (Rockingham County Citizens’ Academy), Peter Franzese (Concord 101), Lana Hygh (Cary School of Government), and Deborah Craig-Ray (Durham Neighborhood College). This group represented many years of experience running successful citizens academies and the resulting discussion yielding many great insights that should be useful to others that offer (or plan to offer) a citizens academy in their community.
The blogger is Mr. Vu Le, based in Seattle. He is Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a start-up nonprofit with the mission of cultivating leaders of color to develop the capacity of ethnic-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.
So what is trickle-down community engagement (otherwise referred to here as TDCE)?
As Mr. Le says, “this is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.”
How many people felt that simultaneous laugh and grimace when you read that, because you know how true it is? Continue Reading
As individuals, and as members of communities, we are often asked to be more engaged. We’re asked to join committees, boards, to sell donuts and coupons books to support the band and the chorus. We’re asked to pass out fliers, to share things on Facebook and to tweet. We’re asked to take surveys, to participate in neighborhood clean-ups, to register people to vote. We’re told that we shouldn’t complain unless we go to the ballot box, even as North Carolina and 21 other states have recently passed restrictions making it more difficult to vote. Curbing early voting hours, voter ID laws, and same-day voter registration, the restrictions make it more difficult for some to be engaged, and to make their voices heard in local and national conversations.
In the face of urgently needed reforms across many of our systems, it can be both overwhelming and frustrating to maintain engagement as an individual citizen or even as a group. Continue Reading
While the need for community engagement remains constant, we have more tools than ever with which to promote it. There are many free applications available to educational institutions, local governments, and non-profits that your stakeholders are using right now. The good news is that participants check these sources regularly; even holidays, nights, and weekends are fair game.
There are plenty of proprietary online engagement tools if your budget allows, but this post focuses specifically on those you can use today at no cost.
A website that is gaining traction for hyperlocal activities is Nextdoor. Users can access it through the company’s website, Nextdoor.com, and through its app which is available at no cost to Apple and Android subscribers.
Nextdoor is unique in that it focuses on individual neighborhoods. I’ve seen people use it for everything from reporting suspicious activity to making neighbors aware of a well-known person’s death. The site also sends a notification to users any time one of their neighbors creates an account. They can “welcome” the person virtually to the discussion. Continue Reading
Advancing social and economic equity means creating a participatory environment where we can share our ideas and establish a level of cooperation that will allow for greater productivity both individually and collectively. For many Triangle residents, civic engagement and awareness of policy matters related to issues such as the correlation between transportation and affordable housing is critical in promoting quality of life. City leaders, developers and citizens must engage in productive dialogue to address the needs of working families, particularly those of low to moderate income. Therefore, as future investment decisions regarding mass transit take shape, community members must be given the opportunity to provide their personal input in local and regional governmental decisions regarding access and mobility.
Can “bureaucrats” turn art and joint art-making into community collaboration? I enjoyed being a part of a recent experiment which left me with ideas for how local government managers can do this in their communities.
This blog is about “civic engagement” when most engagement is considered “normal” or “orderly” efforts to hear citizens and respond to their needs. Is there a sharp line between political protest and civic engagement? Is there a useful way to address the protests about police killings?
I’ll offer a few thoughts.
Protests about the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Eric Garner in New York – and others– have taken many forms. Groups of North Carolina residents responded in several towns to the decision of a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown; and the decision of a NYC grand jury not to issue charges against the police officers who arrested Eric Garner. For example: Asheville, Charlotte , Durham(and in mid-December, Durham mayor reminds citizens of protest rules) and Raleigh.
Over the years I have been involved with a number of deliberative dialogues in both the community and on campus. It is also a subject about which I teach and write. Since the purpose of this blog is to share our experiences and to learn from each other, I thought I would write about one of the biggest challenges I have encountered in doing dialogue work – it is what I call “The Dialogue/Action Dilemma.” Recent efforts at my university to engage students, faculty and administrators in dialogues about campus climate have raised again the issue for me.
This is about community engagement at its core, with the community being a full partner. The process worked at the start, even if it wasn’t sustained.
The Northeast Central Durham Partners Against Crime (NECD) started with 8 Durham neighborhoods; Edgemont, Hyde Park, Albright, East End, Hoover Road, Y.E. Smith, Wellon Village and Sherwood Park. The driving force behind NECD was Calina Smith & Willard Perry, from the Community, Carl Washington, the City’s liaison to NECD, and Michael Page, the County’s Human Services Coordinator. As conversations began in the neighborhoods, most of the leaders along with Chief Jackie McNeil bought into the Weed & Seed Concept; which was that Law enforcement would help weed those neighborhoods of most of the criminal’s elements in the area & the City & County along with the neighborhoods would sow seeds of prosperity. Continue Reading
Full disclosure – I grew up in a large family with lots of extended relatives. On one side we could trace our roots back to tiny villages in Italy and on the other side we still had relatives living in Beirut, Lebanon. If you have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding then you will have some idea of what growing up in a family like mine entails which is lots of expectations, relatives who are not afraid to share their opinions on areas of your life that you didn’t realize they had a say in, and tons of delicious food. Continue Reading
Local governments are working to find ways to create sustainable civic participation.Some have taken steps to create programs and initiatives that gain the sentiments of their respective citizenry.However, sustainable civic participation is more than gaining the sentiments of citizens, or the perspectives of activist.Obtaining sustainable civic participation comes from inclusive and interactive engagement.Continue Reading
Covering town and county board meetings for the local newspaper might be one of the most boring jobs in the world. Convinced I could be the next Seymour Hersh, I took a job as a reporter when I was 23, in the county of less than 35,000 people where I was born. It took exactly one school board meeting, two town meetings and one county meeting to utterly disabuse me of that idea. Continue Reading
Citizens academies are educational programs conducted by cities and counties aiming to create better informed and engaged citizens. These programs involve ordinary citizens participating in several (usually between six and twelve) sessions taught by local government officials on the wide range of local government services and operations. Programs are usually taught to cohorts of 20-25 residents and end with a graduation. Participants not only learn about their local government, but also learn about how they can be directly involved in it by, for example, serving on citizen advisory boards or committees.Continue Reading