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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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