The 2008 All-America City of Gladstone, Missouri continues to demonstrate what being a designee is all about. I was in Gladstone last week working with their city council in their 2011 goal setting retreat and heard some remarkable news in light of today’s tough economic environment. This past August, the city brought two bond elections (one for roads and another for sewer/infrastructure) and a ¼ cent sales tax increase to city residents to address public safety and communication needs. The bond elections passed with 88% and 86% respectively. The sales tax increase passed with 79% of the vote. These startling percentages are indicative of the high level of citizen participation/partnerships and the intentional and deliberate communication loops between the city, community organizations and citizens. As a result, Gladstone residents understand the intent of the bonds and sales tax increase and trust that their government will follow through appropriately.
Category: Civic Life
They say you can’t fight city hall, but in El Paso, Texas, you may not have to. The city’s local and appointed officials have gone out of their way to seek input from the city’s 67 neighborhood organizations, and if a neighborhood doesn’t have an association, the city’s Neighborhood Services division will help them organize one.
In the past, existing neighborhood groups tended to get engaged when a “hot button” issue was before the council. Otherwise, the residents weren’t particularly active, and some parts of the city had no neighborhood associations at all. Local leaders realized they needed to provide more opportunities for citizens to be active in government and worked to develop specific strategies to help educate, organize and empower citizens.
The program dates back to 2003, when then mayor Joe Wordy and the El Paso City Council passed the city’s first Neighborhood Recognition ordinance. The city hired a neighborhood liaison to help set the wheels in motion.
“We decided to set up a structure where you would have recognized neighborhood associations,” said El Paso Mayor John Cook, a city council member at the time. “Not just people who got together because their garbage wasn’t picked up or something like that but (people who) really wanted to improve their community.”
Around the same time, El Paso was switching from a council-mayor form of government, to a council-manager system, and when Joyce Wilson, the new city manager came on board, she spearheaded a visioning process to identify challenges and policy goals. A Neighborhood Services division was created to formalize the new emphasis on neighborhood power.
In 2006, an improved Neighborhood Recognition ordinance was adopted to further define neighborhood boundaries. The city identified those neighborhoods that weren’t represented and started looking for ways to bring them to the table.
An annual Neighborhood Leadership Academy was convened to provide citizens with the direction and savvy they need to navigate city processes and to become neighborhood resources and ambassadors. The academy seeks out nontraditional leaders to ensure that all members of the community are represented.
The city is also putting money behind the new empowerment ethos. A Neighborhood Improvement Program gives residents opportunities to submit their own neighborhood-driven small-scale capital projects. During the first two rounds of the program, $850,000 has been expended and 21 projects completed.
“You can give people an open (microphone) all you want,” said Cook, “but if you don’t give them any money to really make a difference in their community, they’re going to get frustrated and the apathy kicks in once again.”
The number of neighborhood associations has increased from 35 to 67, and citizens feel they have more say in the decision-making process. “The city council now asks if the associations are aware of regulatory changes and they ask for our feedback,” said Lynn Coyle, president of the Newman Park Neighborhood Association.
Mayor Cook said the city’s citizen engagement program has buy-in from all the city council members who actively go out and speak in neighborhoods to try to get people more actively involved.
“You’re a wonderful community,” said Sharon Metz, foreperson of the All-America City Award jury after the El Paso delegation presented its case at the 2010 award program in Kansas City. “I’ve always said if people in the community do not care who gets the credit and just work together you can do amazing things, and obviously your community is an example of that.”
We’ve redesigned the National Civic League website.
Link here to give it a spin.
We wanted to make it more user friendly and emphasize community success stories.
Most of our success stories will come from National Civic League programs, especially the All-America City Award, but we would like to hear from you if you know of other stories. Feel free to e-mail them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, take a look at some of our featured success stories, for instance, the one on Flowing Wells, Arizona. Flowing Wells was one of the stars of the 2007 All-American City Awards, which was a pretty good year. It was a neighborhood or area, really, half inside of Tucson and half in unincorporated Pima County. Community organizer Ellie Towne led and effort to clean up the meth labs and bring in new a bunch of amenities, for instance, a new community center, a health clinic and a couple of parks.
“We had no services in the area,” recalled Ellie Towne when we interviewed her in 2007. “Our children had no place to play. Neither did anybody have a place to go to have fun their families. It was just a desert area. I was standing at my back fence and I was so disgusted with what was out there—people racing around in their vehicles, drug activity, kids building those dirt mounds to go over on their bikes. There were fires. Grass would grow and weeds and nobody to take care of it. Now it is so much nicer. There are football fields, a walking path, people jogging or riding their bikes.”
A great story about community organizing and public/nonprofit partnerships.
December 15, is the deadline to nominate a group or individual for the E Pluribus Unum Prizes, a national awards program that provides four $50,000 prizes annually to exceptional initiatives that promote immigrant integration. The awards recognize outstanding immigrant integration initiatives of all types, whether led by nonprofit or community organizations, businesses, public agencies, religious groups, or individuals. The awards program is coordinated by the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, a hub for those who seek to build their knowledge and skills in the area of immigrant integration. Information about the E Pluribus Unum Prizes can be found at www.integrationawards.org.
Ryan Lundquist of Rancho Cordova’s All-America City Award-winning Project 680 has launched a new website called GoodneighborTV. In Ryan’s words, the site will be a place to share “tips, interviews, resources and discussion on neighborhood life and common issues we all face.”
Here’s a sample:
One of the biggest challenges facing communities in these tough economic times is just paying for basic services. Things we used to take for granted like a city baseball program for kids suddenly become unaffordable. It’s that or closing a fire station, etc.
That’s where the public/private/nonprofit partnerships really come in handy. The Lynwood Sports Association (LSA) is an all-volunteer organization that started off as a baseball program and evolved into a sort of adjunct parks and rec department, offering a full menu of academic, social and sports activities for 15,000 kids a year, who somehow manage to share the one large and four smaller neighborhood parks in Lynwood.
For instance, the organization partnered with the city to field a “mobile recreation team” that roams the city offering drop in programs for kids who live to far away to walk to the main city recreation/community center. Typically, these are what we often refer to as the “underserved” neighborhoods, some of the toughest, lowest income most crime ridden streets of Los Angeles County.
LSA is an important part of the community’s successful efforts to reduce crime and gang activity in the area.
Interesting post from Richard Harwood on why he doesn’t use the term “civic engagement” in his work at the Harwood Institute.
Meantime, we find ourselves in endless, mind-numbing meetings where we examine every element of our civic engagement work. But the real work doesn’t happen in our conference rooms, but in communities. And yet such navel gazing can blind us to the realities of communities, the challenges we must take on, and the true power we must exert to create a new force for change in communities. Endless talk and countless deliberations won’t get us there.
In my own work, the focus is on deeply understanding about people’s lives and the context of communities so people can be more strategic in their efforts to spark and mobilize change. It is about the dynamics of communities and the very conditions that enable or stymie change – such as the leaders, networks, relationships, norms, and boundary spanning organizations that underpin change. It is about how each of us must step forward to root our efforts in community and stay true to ourselves.
That and the fact that some people’s eyes glaze over when you use the term, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Any ideas about a better way of saying it?
By Tanja Aitamurto
Want to find out how to raise $1.2 million to build a baseball field for children with special needs? Ask the city of Acworth, Georgia. Community leaders, area businesses and state and local government united to raise the money and make the field happen.
Lynwood, California, used technology and civic engagement strategies to dramatically reduce the local crime rate. Again, the problem was solved by uniting the community and various local agencies.
A drive to collect socks for the homeless children in Rancho Cordova, California, led to a permanent program to provide clothing for homeless students and raised community awareness of the problem.
All of these success stories in the recently awarded All-America Cities were possible only by communities coming together and residents being deeply engaged in efforts to work through the problems.
This country is full of similar success stories, large and small. However, it is rare that cities are recognized for their success. More often they are seen through their problems.
The 2010 All-America Cities have been recognized on the basis on their community improvement successes. The All-America City Awards, the oldest civic recognition award in the country, is given to ten communities each year by the National Civic League. This year, the three-day event took place in Kansas City, Missouri, a five-time winner of the award.
This is what the participants told me when I asked them why they came to compete with 24 other finalists:
“I’m proud of my city. We made the change happen by collaboration. I want to share that story with everyone.”
“My town used to be the armpit of the state. It is not anymore – it has turned into a pleasant place to live. It is an excellent example of change done together in community.”
“Our youth leadership program has really changed lives of many kids. I want to share our experience with others so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
After hearing these answers and getting an inkling of the large amount of civic knowledge that exists in communities, I have only one question: How can we share this knowledge and link people with questions to those who have answers, in the most efficient way?
Would this be the time for a civic knowledge network, which functions both on a virtual space, and through real-world events? Interested, anybody?
Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a new media adviser for non-profits. She has been working with National Civic League to create a new media strategy to the organization, including this blog. More about her here.
Interview with Don Wise of Park University, Kansas City, and his student Erica Rockley. Wise is Hauptmann School Fellow for Nonprofit Leadership in Park University, and he attended the All-America City Awards to do observations about civic engagement.