How Can Local Government Earn Trust in the Era of Fake News?

Rebuilding trust in American democracy was a central theme among public communicators who gathered at the City-County Communicators and Marketing Association (3CMA) www.3cma.org conference Sept. 6-8 in Anaheim, Calif.

#3CMAAnnual: “How can local government earn trust in the era of fake news?”

Explaining the “why” as part of a sustained story is a better strategy than regular blurt-outs to engage with the public, said Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole in the opening conference session. Invest in the time to develop key messages. Think about the way people feel about their government. He urged local government communicators to Continue Reading

Community Engagement Transforms Housing

Tenants have courageously started to reverse the downward spiral of the Avalon Trace Apartments, with the support of Greensboro organizations. In December, they told their stories cautiously, anonymously, to university students in the compelling video (view video here). “If you could hear our voices, would we matter?”, describing the deteriorating physical conditions and negligent landlord response. But well-founded fear of retaliation and of being displaced from their homes had silenced most complaints.

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Cottage Grove neighbors are educating college students

Community residents Theresa Gregory and Sel Mpang and Community-Centered Health Coordinator Josie Williams introduce students from NC A&T State University, UNCG, Greensboro College, Elon University, and Guilford College to Cottage Grove with the absolute ground rule: the neighborhood decides. The rest of us can learn and can share but no outside organization or institution can impose what we want on the community.  Community-centered health means community led. Period.

And students are using what they learn to make enormous differences.

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Welcome to the city! Here’s your hat

Moving to a new city is a little like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone. In my ideal (read: imaginary) world, all the other partygoers would shout, “We’re so glad you’re here!”, then fight each other for dibs to be my new best friend. Generally speaking, this does not happen, and instead I find myself hovering near the hors d’oeuvres table, wishing someone would acknowledge my existence.

You may feel similarly lonely and awkward after a move. Over time, place attachment tends to grow naturally, yet those first few uncomfortable weeks or months can form a lasting first impression of a city. “Not very friendly,” we conclude. “Not sure I like it here.”

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Dual Capacity Building: Preparing Community and Institutions for Engaged Decision Making

As 2017 begins, preparation is on my mind. My husband and I are expecting our first child, and we’re thinking about the preparations required for the new baby. Some days, we feel dizzy when we consider the areas where we need more training and education to feel truly prepared to welcome and care for this new family member.

Significant preparation is also required for meaningful community engagement. I’ve written before about the importance of going beyond asking residents for their feedback and input, and instead shifting the power balance and engaging community as equal partners and experts in work that affects them. In my work with MDC, I am working together with other colleagues to review best practice on parent leadership programs–programs that prepare parents to be strong advocates for themselves, their children, and their communities. We have identified strong programs: Parent and Family Advocacy Support Training (PFAST) and Parent As Leaders Academy (PAL) are offered here in Durham by the Strengthening Families Coalition and are focused on school-based advocacy, and Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors (APOD) is a national popular education model that cultivates advocacy and leadership with Latino families. Continue Reading

Book Recommendation for Better Community Engagement

Looking for a last minute holiday gift? Or maybe just a book for yourself to enjoy during whatever holiday break you may have? I’d like to give my enthusiastic recommendation of This is Where You Belong, a recently published book by our fellow blogger, Melody Warnick. Her book, written for a general audience, offers a fantastic runway to fulfilling community engagement for any and all readers. And for the readers of this blog, particularly local government and other community-based organization practitioners, her book is full of ideas for ways that you can help make community feel like home for your constituents.

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Housing or Food – How Does Our Community Solve The Puzzle?

Would you tell your children there is no food because you gave all your money to the slumlord?  Or would you buy groceries and risk another eviction, knowing that each time the money doesn’t stretch far enough to pay the full rent, that it is harder and harder to get housing?

That is the agonizing dilemma of thousands of mothers and fathers and grandparents raising grandchildren as they experience the “persistent shortage of safe affordable housing”.  Eviction, if they don’t give every penny to the landlord. Homelessness, because they can’t find anything else when wages are low and rents are rising and eviction records are counted against them. Plus, landlords may not want families with children; that is illegal discrimination but common practice.  Substandard, because that may be all someone will finally agree to rent to them.cele-child-picture

If our community had more housing, in decent condition, with rents affordable for families, then children could eat and not change schools four times a year and not go to the hospital in asthma crisis.  And parents could smile instead of being depressed and stressed as they have to choose food OR roof OR health but not all three.

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Communicating Connections Between Ideas and Actions

The reporting-back communications loop in community engagement is more important than ever. If public participation means to involve those who are affected by a decision in the decision-making process, then participants need to know how their input has affected change. The outcome of their engagement gives meaning to their participation.

The Town of Chapel Hill (pop. 59,000) embarked on a new era of community engagement when it launched the largest community planning efforts in its history in 2010 with the development of the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan.  The plan is a reflection of the people’s values, aspirations and ideas. The outreach was excellent with having achieved the goal of touching 10,000 people during the yearlong visioning process.

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The Power of Empowerment

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), an international federation of public participation practitioners including a USA affiliate, has developed a spectrum of community engagement techniques. The spectrum ranges from “informing” to “empowering” the public.

These are wonky practitioner words; however, they actually mean a world of difference. Informing is focused on one-way communication, whereas empowering is literally giving the power of decision-making to the public.

I’ll describe a project on community empowerment, and some key lessons. First, I’ll address why empowerment is scary, often promised but not fulfilled in particular cases, and basic guiding principles for overcoming the challenges of community empowerment projects. Continue Reading

Housing First Models vs. Transitional Housing Progressions

In the traditional system, homeless individuals are moved through levels of housing that will eventually lead to independent housing. For instance, from the streets to the shelters, and from the shelters to a housing program, and from a housing program to an independent apartment. In the housing program, treatment is given to battle some factors surrounding homelessness like, substance abuse, mental health, job training, and domestic violence.

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Local Elections: Bringing Communities Together

My colleague Melody Warnick wrote an excellent post recently  about the unique role of local elections in communities. I was so pleased to read it, recognizing myself in the lady she writes about who comes huffing and puffing up her driveway to ask her to vote for her husband for sheriff.

My husband is running for a Town Board seat in the small town where we live. It’s a non-election year, so we’re expecting about 200 people to actually vote – a little under 10% of the town’s population. We’ve made a few yard signs, put out some postcard flyers, and set up an email account…but in small town elections, it’s the other, less professional engagement activities that make local elections so different and so fun.

That’s why I believe it’s important for more people – especially younger people – to rethink local government and how they can contribute. Continue Reading

Turn to the Creative Conquerors

Who do these people think they are?! Why would citizens want to change something that works perfectly well, and has for years! Why waste time and money on something silly like a festival, or art project that will only last a day, week or month? We have bigger issues than worrying about one neighborhood’s wants. We know what’s best for our citizens and they will see it our way, or learn to deal with it.

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Gentrification and Collaborative Engagement: What If?

The following post is a short conversation between Rick and Cate, who both like to think about how broken patterns of engagement might be fixed or improved. In this case, Cate asks us to think about what gentrification might be like with authentic, collaborative engagement of long-time residents with the gentrifiers. Thinking of old and new in terms of “we” rather than “us-them.”

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Homeless Challenges: Magnanimity and Responsibility increases Effective Engagement

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?

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Have a Seat, Let’s Chat – “Parklets” in Charlotte

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.

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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

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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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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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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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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