Witnessing Deliberative Democracy Up Close

We are glad to share the reflections of Billi Jo Maynard, who worked at Public Agenda this past summer. Public Agenda is a national, non-partisan group which seeks to forge common ground and improve dialogue and collaboration among leaders and communities. They focus on critical issues, including education, health care and community engagement. The post originally appeared here.

Here is Billi Jo’s Post:

Throughout my undergraduate studies as a political science major, I have come across the subjects of community engagement and public deliberation before. However, until this meeting in Canarsie, I had never had the privilege to witness them firsthand.

Late on a Monday evening in July, roughly 30 people gathered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church to discuss the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie. Canarsie is a culturally vibrant community that for decades has welcomed many immigrants from the Caribbean. The participants at the meeting had come together to address a range of environmental and economic challenges facing their neighborhood, especially the long-term impacts of Superstorm Sandy and attempts to prepare for future disasters. Throughout my undergraduate studies as a political science major, I have come across the subjects of community engagement and public deliberation before. However, until this meeting in Canarsie, I had never had the privilege to witness them firsthand. Continue Reading

Housing is the Prescription for Healthy Communities after Disaster

Weather disasters are ripping through communities in North Carolina and all over the world, dislocating people and devastating buildings and forests and farms. Each time, after the emergency response to dangers of injury and contamination and emotional trauma, the community is changed. Sometimes what is left is neglect and abandonment, so that unhealthy conditions become worse. Sometimes what happens is gentrification, so that dislocated residents cannot afford to come back to trendy buildings. But sometimes it can be community leadership, so that neighborhoods can rise stronger and healthier than before. This is the story of strong community and healthy housing six months after tornadoes shredded a path through east Greensboro.

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Emergency Communications on Facebook

This past August and September my community was tense from consecutive emergencies. There were four demonstrations on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus — and then Hurricane Florence hit, bringing flooding from more than nine inches of rain.

It is a distant memory when we did not have social media tools to relay urgent emergency information to the community. The Town of Chapel Hill marks a 10-year anniversary of @ChapelHillGov Facebook this October. An “early adopter” of local government on social media, we continue to learn new strategies to expand our reach and improve engagement. Continue Reading

Fostering Civil Dialogue in Polarized Times: A Case Study from Denver

The first time I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was captivated. The fact that my high school civics teacher would show a dated, black-and-white film to a classroom of rowdy high school juniors enjoying the onset of a much more fast-paced, digital age was always going to be an ambitious choice, but I absolutely loved it. My growing fascination with politics found a fitting companion in the classic plot of an idealistic simpleton taking on a corrupt Senate. I too wanted to be Jefferson Smith, in the 23rd hour of his arduous filibuster with seemingly the entire country against him, fighting the good fight. The bad guys in that movie were emblematic of a system, and not limited to the “R” or “D” denoting one’s party affiliation.

Today, however, our information-saturated age, widespread social media usage, and the increasing ideological echo chambers most of us (myself included) largely live in, mean that series featuring crude, ends-justify-the-means anti-heroes like House of Cards are the apex of political drama. That is, of course, during the few times when those of us on different sides of the political aisle are even watching the same show. Screaming heads on MSNBC and Fox News paint incredibly different pictures of America, as do slickly-made but nuance-free clips from the Young Turks or PragerU, or unabashedly partisan hit pieces from Mother Jones and the National Review. Sadly, in spite of alarming statistics on our growing levels of political polarization by researchers from Pew and other organizations, Americans have become used to demonizing the “other”.
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A Better Group Experience

How can we gain more from group interactions? We’re happy to repost a reflection to help answer this question written by Victoria Fann and originally posted here.

Also, check out another one of her reposts where she discusses her Ben Franklin Circle here.

Here is Victoria’s Post:

As Ben Franklin discovered hundreds of years ago, something magical happens when a group of people get together to engage in meaningful conversation: that circle of individuals becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts. A powerful, dynamic energy emerges from the group collective and creates access to all the combined energy, tools, inspiration, the information, wisdom, insights and resources of that group of people.

In this context, people are able to share great levels of wisdom, become vulnerable with each other, establish a higher level of trust than they would in a social setting and have a deep level of intimacy with people they barely even know very quickly.

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NYC November Ballot Initiative: Create a Civic Engagement Commission and have Citywide Participatory Budgeting

A short highlight about a simple – and yet complex – question for NYC voters:  Do you want to establish a new engagement body, within city government, and a specific kind of outreach and participation – on a slice of the overall city government budget?

Here is the start of the ballot question:

Question # 2: Civic Engagement Commission

This proposal would amend the City Charter to:

Create a Civic Engagement Commission that would implement, no later than the City Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 2020, a Citywide participatory budgeting program established by the Mayor to promote participation by City residents in making recommendations for projects in their communities;

A report by the New York City Charter Revision Commission covers this question and two other ballot questions for this fall.

The advocacy group Participatory Budgeting Project offers a summary and support the ballot initiative.  Unsurprisingly, there was a public hearing process about the ballot question proposal, including this local press coverage of a June public gathering.

We’ll find out how New York voters decide. But for now, should this kind of decision be left to voters? Is this a good way to use ballot initiatives to both set up a new piece of the city’s engagement approach AND to specify a particular area – the city budget – for a new form of engagement?

Citizens Academies and Civic Infrastructure

When we talk about infrastructure we are usually talking about things like roads and water pipes. But communities also need to be concerned about their “civic infrastructure.” A recent article by University of San Diego professor Keith Pezzoli defines civic infrastructure as “formal and informal institutional as well as sociocultural means of connectivity used in knowledge–action collaboration and networking.”

The William Penn Foundation suggests the concept of civic infrastructure links social and cultural capital in communities with built capital, in that public spaces in communities also can be understood to be an integral component of bringing people together and creating the kind of capacity for collective action that is what civic infrastructure is all about. A recent report by the foundation argues that “Civic infrastructure encompasses the physical spaces, buildings, and assets themselves, as well as the habits, traditions, management, and other social, political, and cultural processes that bring them to life—two realms that, together, constitute a whole.”

Building civic infrastructure requires a multi-pronged approach. It involves placing greater emphasis on public or civic spaces. It involves creating meaningful opportunities for civic dialogue and learning to take place. It involves creating opportunities for public work. It involves investing in civic institutions and efforts to build a strong community culture. It certainly involves work across the public, private, and non-for-profit sectors.

One way local governments have been working to build civic infrastructure is through offering citizens academies. Continue Reading

Reconnecting with the Queen City through the Charlotte City Council

Editor: Rita Venant is a student at Wake Forest University and reflects on her summer internship.

The Queen City is no longer a place I recognize. Growing up just 25 minutes from Uptown, the heart of the city, I have personally witnessed Charlotte’s rapid growth. I have seen the creation of the Light Rail, the construction of the BB&T ballpark, the expansion of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and many more additions.

It was not until I went off to college at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem that I realized the positive development of Charlotte let alone truly appreciate her beauty. Because of my experiences in college–living in another city for the first time in my life that I was old enough to remember and spending a semester living and working in Washington, D.C. — I was eager to find a political and/or communications focused internship in Uptown for the summer. I am pleased to intern for at-large Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera this summer. Continue Reading

Social Street – A Hybrid Approach to Neighborhood Engagement

As we look to build community and solve problems together, we learn quickly that communication can be an asset or a challenge. Good communication can lead to dialog and understanding, while poor communication (or none at all) can be neutral or even damaging to relationships.

For communication nerds, the term “noise” is used to describe anything that interferes with proper reception of a message. Think about how you watch video. Noise can be an interruption in your Wifi, a weather event that disrupts the signal or even a talkative person who prevents you from hearing what’s said. Continue Reading