By Alexa Bush and Kate Catherall
Increasing civic engagement is a core principle of Reimagining the Civic Commons. It can be seen in more vibrant public life, increased levels of trust, and in advocacy and stewardship of civic commons sites. Civic engagement is not only a desired outcome of the work, but also a critical component of the process.
Here are three key principles that we believe are fundamental to building a culture of civic engagement through our civic commons.
1. Meet people where they are.
“If you build it, they will come,” is a phrase we hear uttered ubiquitously in conversations about engagement. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true. One of the key mistakes that we tend to make in local government is to expect residents to come to us. We tend to forget the many barriers that prevent people from doing just that. Truly effective engagement efforts take a different approach – they consider the context and daily lives of the people they wish to engage, and meet them on their terms, in their language, and in their communities online and offline.
In Detroit, we’ve found this principle to resonate. Our team continues to try new methods of outreach and collaboration, from meeting at the local school to setting up shop on vacant lots in the neighborhood with boards, tents and a grill. Getting outside in the neighborhood allows us to meet passers-by who might not come to a meeting, but can spare a few minutes to talk and engage with what is happening.
Furthermore, seeing activity in the neighborhood advances outreach in a way that door-to-door efforts might not. With a group gathered around for food and conversation, William Whyte’s observation holds: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
Workforce development initiatives are another civic engagement opportunity. Several residents have gone through trainings or participated in the Detroit Conservation Crew in the neighborhood, clearing and maintaining vacant lots ahead of redevelopment. Armed with information, many of these residents have become our best ambassadors, working in the neighborhood daily.
Engagement must be about more than meetings, period.
Detroit Conservation Crew
2. Empower leaders to be multipliers.
How do we go from 15 residents volunteering at a library to 100 or 500 or 1,000? How do we get more than the same 30 people to show up to community events? How do we scale civic engagement?
At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet. But scale depends on your ability to reach people, and reach requires both capacity as well as trust.
The way to best position your initiative to reach a great number of people with trusted messengers is to identify leaders in the communities you wish to engage, and empower them to take ownership of the project. In community organizing, we use distributed leadership models, whereby leaders with clearly defined roles and responsibilities recruit and activate others to take specific actions. The most prominent of these models is called the “Snowflake Model.” Variations of this model have been used in labor organizing and social movements all over the world. The Obama campaigns used this model to develop neighborhood teams who would execute the campaign’s activities – phone banking, door knocking, voter registration, and data entry. Organizers would recruit and train volunteer team leaders to take ownership over these efforts in their neighborhoods, and those neighborhood team leaders would then recruit volunteer captains for each program (door knocks, phone calls). Those volunteer captains then recruit and manage volunteers to execute the programs (door knockers, phone callers). In this model, each person is a multiplier for the initiative, thus allowing the initiative to scale.
There are a few practical considerations to keep in mind when building this model:
– This doesn’t happen overnight.
Organizing is all about relationships, and relationships don’t materialize out of thin air. It takes lots of conversations and 1:1 meetings to identify and build relationships with prospective leaders.
– The people who raise their hands are not always the best leaders.
We define leadership as the ability to move others to action. The loudest voices in the room are not always the people who deliver the best results. Instead of asking people to take responsibilities as leaders early on, test them. Ask them to host a house meeting, organize a build day, or recruit neighbors to attend an event. See how they do. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
– Have clear asks.
This model only works when it’s driven by collective action. What are you asking people to do? How will their actions add up to create an impact? Your asks need to be clear, specific, and connected to your theory of change. Before you can determine the roles you need people to fill, you need to know what specific asks you’re making of them and what specific asks they’ll be making of others.
Kate Catherall presenting the Snowflake Model at Civic Commons Studio #2
3. Make it personal.
When it comes to engagement, human-to-human connection is paramount. There is a tremendous body of research on how organizations can nudge people to take action, and while context rules, the one overarching theme seems to be that personalization makes a difference. Whether it’s turning people out to vote, inviting people to attend meetings, or persuading people to take a position on issue, behavioral science keeps leading us back to what we already know intuitively: humans respond to other humans.
Detroit’s appreciation dinner
In Detroit, residents have dedicated an incredible amount of time to improving their community and to participating with us in the Civic Commons efforts. In recognition of this, we held an appreciation dinner as a way to personally acknowledge these community members and leaders. It offered an opportunity to be in a social setting and reflect, together. Held in a building still under renovation, the dinner provided a sneak preview of a fabulous space while showing the potential of transformation through attention and care. We asked each participant to write their goals for the coming year on an index card, which we hung up as our “laundry list” for the year to come.
As we move into the second year of our work, we continue to learn from the community and to build the human relationships fundamental to true civic engagement.
Alexa Bush is a Landscape Architect for the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department.
Kate Catherall is a community organizer with nearly a decade of experience working with candidates, causes, and companies to build their engagement strategies. Most recently, she founded CHORUS Agency, which provides pro bono support to exceptional civic leaders running for office.