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