Filling the empty rooms

This entry was contributed by on December 3rd, 2014 at 8:00 am and is filed under .
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This site welcomes a variety of viewpoints and perspectives on community engagement. Ideas shared here should not be considered as being endorsed by the UNC School of Government in any way as the School is nonpartisan and policy-neutral.

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.

There isn’t anything wrong with county and town meetings, exactly; the issues are important, albeit minor, and writing about speed bumps, scholarships, trash pickup and parking is almost a public service in and of itself. No, it was really just the public comment sections that got me down.

In North Carolina, each meeting of a local government opens with a public comment period. Even reporters who are paid to listen don’t like to be there. The “usual suspects” come up – what we called the same three or four people complaining about the same three or four issues – and that was on a good night. On a worse night, though, you’d hear the chairman ask if there was any public comment, his voice echoing as he looked expectantly out at…your duly elected representatives, your town manager, your public works director, your attorney, and your reporter. No public comment. Next item of business.

Not long after that, I gave up on becoming Mr. Hersh’s successor and started working in local government. Only then did I realize what an uphill battle faced us when trying to get people involved in the things that most affect them. Even in popular, politics-neutral projects, like a long-requested Greenway trail, I had to be creative in planning workshops and meetings – practically begging the local churches to put an announcement in their services, varying times and locations. It is, unfortunately, entirely possible to spend weeks advertising, ordering hand-made refreshments and coffee, and preparing your maps and markers, only to show up to an empty room. It was almost, as many people told me at the time, more trouble than it was worth.

As the youngest member of this group, with some government and nonprofit experience, I’m midway through my Master’s degree. I want to learn from others about new methods, harnessing social media and online community engagement tools, and making our agencies responsive and resourceful. In whatever field I work in, I want to see people in line to speak up – I want to be able to fill the empty room, so to speak, in all the projects I do. I’m curious about how others with more experience have overcome the “empty room” phenomenon.

There is so much apathy and despair for politics at the higher levels, especially in my generation. Yet there’s also so much potential for a rekindling of involvement at the local level. Hopefully, through this group, we can all learn from one another on how to bring people back to a place where they are invested and involved.

Have you ever been the one to help that transition from the empty room to a meeting that got people involved and invested? I’d love to hear your story!

3 Responses to “Filling the empty rooms”

  1. John Stephens

    Emily – just three quick thoughts; I do not have a “success story” to tell, but am trying to link some ideas of my own and others on this blog.

    1. You mentioned social media and other online tools. I think the big question is how much these methods can help _while_ knowing that the quality of interaction will be different in a face-to-face setting. People can participate “more easily” online in some ways – at the time of their choosing, and not waiting in line at a meeting. However, these online platforms can privilege those with more tech savvy, the money for a fast Internet connection at home, etc. As with the more obvious way of asking “Who is not in this room?” we should also ask, “Who is not in this online discussion?”

    2. Broad factors like apathy and distrust often keep people away from public meetings. You note “despair for politics at the higher levels,” and I connect it to Shawn’s comment on apathy and distrust in the Creating Sustainable Civic Participation post. He offers the idea of “community service programs like Citizens Leadership Academy, Neighborhood College and Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) which act as information incubator[s]” so that there is communication and exchange, but – my opinion here – not focusing on bringing people to public meetings.

    3. I like Cate’s thought on “turning things around” on who is educating whom. As a comment in the Creating Sustainable Civic Participation post, she asks “Could the same model [of community service programs like Citizens Leadership Academy, Neighborhood College and Citizen Advisory Councils] be used to allow community residents to educate public officials and city or nonprofit staff about their local communities, and about the struggles, successes and history of government and nonprofit interaction with their communities?” This seems very pertinent given Stephen’s post Partners Against Crime: Hard work in Durham for true citizen ownership about strong community engagement giving way to loss of neighborhood control.

    My short point is: taking the time to listen, understand and respect different viewpoints, histories, and levels of trust, is a big challenge. The conundrum is that you need to build up trust in small ways, over a long period of time, and then it can be lost very quickly.

    Reply
    • Emily Edmonds

      “The conundrum is that you need to build up trust in small ways, over a long period of time, and then it can be lost very quickly.” – John, this is a perfect summary of what I was trying to get at in this post.

      Your points about social media are spot-on. In the rural area where I live, we don’t have great internet, much less cell phone service, where we are; there’s a very traditional discomfort with new technologies. As an example, we avoid bringing in guest lecturers via video conferencing for the trainings we do at the Appalachian Farm School – despite the cost savings and the difficulty of scheduling the Raleigh-based experts we need to teach. The level of discomfort with that kind of technology is simply too high, even though the potential benefits are tremendous.

      I don’t really even think that social media is the answer – although, as others have mentioned here, the speed of Twitter, the network of Facebook, and the images of Instagram can all be useful for local governments. However, the new slate of tools being developed every day for use in public spaces – gathering feedback and comments, mapping service problems, tracking emergency response locations, and more – offers up a wonderful opportunity for local governments to streamline their own civic engagement efforts and allow themselves to be the bridge over the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

      Reply
  2. Brian Bowman

    Thank you for your insight on this, Emily. I would add that this lack of engagement may be a reflection on human nature as much as local government. Often, our brains focus on the urgent issue of the day and lose sight of things that are more important. If a topic doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat, we may even ignore it entirely.

    As you said, the challenge is connecting with the people we serve. Local government plays an important role in the lives of its stakeholders -more so, I would suggest, than elected officials at the national level.

    One approach is to foster discussion in the places our stakeholders already frequent. Some of my favorite haunts are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. While my community may have very few comments in the Council meeting, people are often eager to comment on posts to these outlets.

    Each is distinct: Facebook is effective for posting events and for getting feedback to posts. Twitter is great for urgent topics. Instagram helps to paint a positive impression of a community.

    As John stated well, while numbers are good, we have to keep in mind who is not part of these discussions. Twitter and Facebook typically reach different audiences, and work most effectively when managed separately.

    Your point is well taken: residents are busy with families, careers, and many other things. It’s difficult to create interest in a media-saturated environment. I encourage you to keep up the good fight. As John stated, keep telling the truth using the most effective tools you can find. You’re making a difference even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

    Reply

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