In my role as an associate professor at the School of Government, I often find myself leading discussions with various groups on the topic of public engagement. Just within the last couple of months I have spoken with numerous current and future government officials about public engagement practice, including:
a local elected official here in Chapel Hill,
several local government staff members from various communities here in North Carolina,
dozens of MPA students, many of which are current public service practitioners, and
a group of government officers from India.
I also read a lot about and conduct research on various aspects of public engagement. With that in mind, there are some overarching observations or principles that I keep coming back to that I’d like to share here on the blog. Continue Reading
People seeking to improve their communities through dialog and understanding are doing important work. Their missions and approaches vary widely; community groups, advisory panels, faith groups and others are tackling plenty of diverse issues that are specific to their circles.
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.
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
“We are speaking up for what we want—and what we don’t want—in our neighborhood”, stated Verna Torain, president of Cottage Grove Neighborhood Association, whose house was crushed by the tornado.
HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson was in her neighborhood on June 1 to kick off National Healthy Homes Month. Matthew Ammons and Michelle Miller, director and deputy director of HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes, joined Secretary Carson for the meeting with Ms. Torain, fellow neighborhood leader Almetta Tennie, hospital leaders, and Greensboro healthy housing advocates. Community leadership is rising to the challenge after an April natural disaster.
How do individual virtues relate to community action? Can we follow in the footsteps of Ben Franklin and work to improve ourselves and our communities?
I’m glad to re-post a nice reflection from Victoria Fann which first appeared here and I learned about it via the NCDD blog.
A bit of background: “Ben Franklin Circles are about bringing people together, face-to-face, to improve ourselves and the world around us,” per their mission statement. Victoria first attended a couple meetings of a Ben Franklin Circle (BFC) in Asheville starting in September, 2017. Her circle has 8-10 people and meets monthly, Saturday mornings, rotating among people’s homes.
The circles discuss 13 virtues — similar to Franklin’s own circle of friends — to learn and support each other to be more virtuous. The thirteen virtues include silence, sincerity, humility, frugality and justice.
Here is Victoria’s post:
My Ben Franklin Circle in Weaverville, NC has been meeting since November 2017. Since I have been facilitating groups of various kinds since 1989, stepping into the role of facilitator for this group was easy for me. We met for the first four months with me asking most of the questions, reading the quotes and gently steering the conversation if we strayed away from the topic.
This seemed to work well, but something was missing. I had a gnawing feeling that there was a better way to structure our little group. Based on some words from his autobiography, I knew that Ben Franklin would heartily agree. For example, he writes, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Involvement was precisely what we needed!
The first small step in this direction took place at our February meeting. Instead of discussing the virtues in the order listed on the Ben Franklin Circle website, I decided to write each one of the remaining virtues on small slips of paper and fold them up. I brought those papers to the meeting and placed them in a hat. At the end or our discussion, I asked a member to draw out one of the slips of paper, saying that we would discuss whatever virtue was chosen.
This felt good—so good, in fact, that at the March meeting, I decided to take this idea a step further. Prior to the meeting, I wrote out that month’s virtue questions and quotes provided by the Ben Franklin Circle website onto small slips of paper, folded them and placed them into a bowl at our host’s house. I then invited members to draw one out and read it aloud to the group to prompt our discussion. I also encouraged members to add their own questions.
Franklin’s very own group, on which the BF Circles are based, encouraged a similar involvement from the members of the group as he writes here: “I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the JUNTO; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”
What we discovered during that meeting was that having the members chose the questions at random and read them to the group led to a much deeper level of conversation. I suspect this was because the playing field had been leveled and everyone felt more engaged and involved than when I was the one asking most of the questions. My leadership role softened as I yielded to this more community-based approach. Our trust of each other and our willingness to explore the outer edges of the virtue increased exponentially. Plus, there was almost a palpable feeling of relief among all of us once we shifted into this more egalitarian way of relating to each other. It was clear we’d been seeking it all along.
The lesson for me was a reminder of how important it is to tune into the specific needs of a situation without assumptions, agendas or formulas, but rather an open mind and a willingness to learn.
Though initially my “expertise” proved to be a hindrance, the group process itself became the catalyst that allowed the solution to emerge effortlessly.
Thank you, Ben Franklin.
Victoria Fann is a writer, transformational coach, group facilitator and workshop leader. She hosts her own Ben Franklin Circle in Weaverville, NC each month.
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My P.S.: There are about 40 Ben Franklin circles and their locations are shown here.
Many of us were following the Facebook hearings this April in which nearly 100 members of Congress questioned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The hearings came after news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign, accessed information from as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge.
While the outrage focused primarily on consumer privacy, it also elevated interest in Facebook’s impact on civil discourse and domestic institutions around the world. We are learning more about the addictive nature and manipulative strategies of Facebook and other social media. Continue Reading
Gloria was worried about her blood pressure but with no insurance she didn’t know where to turn. Her neighbor said, “Go to Mustard Seed Community Health” just 3 blocks from her apartment. Dr. Mulberry listened to her and explained the benefits of nutrition and physical activity so now Gloria’s blood pressure is manageable.
Community emergencies are obviously challenging and stressful, and yet they can also be opportunities for local governments to earn trust and boost engagement.
Dangerous weather is something that all people experience — together. What we learn from our organization’s ability to share information, listen, empathize, encourage and respond during a weather emergency Continue Reading
Five months after the Charlottesville rally and protest, the debate over what to do with numerous Confederate statues which pepper much of the South remains as strong – and as polarized – as ever before.
Just days after the massive protests and violence in the Virginia city, four Confederate monuments in Baltimore and three on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin were taken down by city authorities, with another in Durham toppled by protesters. In October, the scene was repeated in Lexington, Kentucky. Last month, two statues were removed in Memphis, while the infamous “Johnny Reb” statue expelled Continue Reading