How “Thick” or “Thin” is Your Civic Engagement Project?

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One useful way to look at different methods of civic engagement is the division between “thick” and “thin” efforts. In the words of 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.

Portsmouth Listens is often cited as a textbook illustration. Continue Reading

Public office terms: What is most beneficial to Fayetteville?

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.

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Engaged neighborhoods can attract business – A Richmond, VA Success

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.

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Remembering the Past, Impacting the Future in Charlotte

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

Local Elections: Bringing Communities Together

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

Turn to the Creative Conquerors

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.

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Gentrification and Collaborative Engagement: What If?

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.”

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