Active Engagement for a Common Cause

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

Variety is the Spice of Government: Diversity & Inclusion

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?
  • Can a person represent more than one category?
  • How do we avoid tokenism?

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Impacting the Community One Haircut at a Time

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.

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The University as Community Partner: Translating Research

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.

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Community Organizing Meets Local Government Engagement

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.

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More Engagement Than We Give Credit For: The Case of Citizen Co-Producers

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.

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Engaging Youth with Deliberative Problem-Solving

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

Engaging farmers: A Neglected Aspect of the Local Food Movement’s Community Engagement Strategy

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?

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Leading By Stepping Back

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.

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Resident Representation and Power: More than Just a Seat at the Table

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).

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Civic Health – 2015 NC Civic Index

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.

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Beginning a Conversation with your Local Government

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.

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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

Dare to Think Differently

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.

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Structuring Community Involvement – Anti-poverty work in Durham

Durham Mayor Bill Bell announced an anti-poverty initiative in early 2014, and then focused some of it on Northeast Central neighborhoods (per the map above)

http://www.heraldsun.com/news/x2025289216/North-East-Central-Durham-target-of-poverty-fight

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.

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Innovative Practices for Citizens Academies

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.

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How far down has your community engagement trickled?

This in-your-face blog post about “Trickle-Down Community Engagement” has been a favorite topic of conversation among my fellow students and co-workers lately. It’s a great piece on the problem at the bottom of community engagement: it can’t be done effectively from the outside in.

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

Staying Civically Engaged in Divisive Times: A Case for Anti-Racism Training

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.

March - NC - Respect our Vote

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

Assessing Free Online Civic Engagement Tools – Three Examples

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.

Nextdoor

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

Connecting the People through Affordable Housing-Transportation Choices

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.

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Engaging Through Art

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.

In September, over 3400 public sector professionals and colleagues attended the 100th Anniversary Conference of the International City/County Management Association here in Charlotte- Mecklenburg County. The 100th Conference was a time to reflect on the achievements of public management professionals and to celebrate the continued strength of a profession that prides itself on knowing the pulse of the local community and finding ways to strengthen that community.

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The Dialogue/Action Dilemma

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.

Here is the dilemma as I have experienced it.

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Partners Against Crime: Hard work in Durham for true citizen ownership

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.

Getting Started:

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

Creating Sustainable Civic Participation

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

Filling the empty rooms

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 and Civic Infrastructure

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