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).
How healthy is civic life in North Carolina? Unlike testing blood pressure, or logging exercise time as measures of physical health, making a measure of civic connectedness and activity is tricky.
I am glad that the NCSU Institute for Emerging Issues took on this effort by producing the NC Civic Health Index, 2015.
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.”