Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2018 issue

Community Assemblies Educate and Build Citizen Engagement

By Marisa Helms

Brooklyn Park resident Xiongpao “Xp” Lee found inspiration and momentum for a life in public service after taking part in the Minnesota Community Assembly last winter.

During eight days spread over three weekends in November and December 2017, Lee and a diverse group of 44 other participants came together for a series of workshops designed to give them a broad understanding of how local government works and how they could make it better.

The Brooklyn Park group is one of four such assemblies organized through the Minnesota Community Assembly Project, led by Hamline University Political Science Professor David Schultz.

When they started, some in the Brooklyn Park group had such limited experiences with government that they had never met an elected official and didn’t know they could visit City Hall any time or call their mayor directly.

Group members heard lectures from experts about the differences between city, state, and local government and, with the help of facilitators, they broke into small groups for discussions about election and decision-making processes and concepts like equity, transparency, and accountability.

In the end, Lee and the assembly participants came away with a strong grasp of their roles in the local democratic process. They presented their recommendations for reform to the City Council on March 12.

‘Transformative’ experience

Lee says working with the other residents and hearing from city officials who presented during the assembly helped him understand how much opportunity there is for people from all backgrounds to get involved in their community.

“The word I use to describe the experience is: ‘transformative,’” says Lee, a Hmong refugee who came to the U.S. when he was a baby.

Lee’s enthusiastic response to the assembly was nearly universal among the Brooklyn Park participants, says Mayor Jeffrey Lunde. As a city official, Lunde did not take part in the assembly, but he says he was impressed with the group’s sophisticated comments when they presented their recommendations to the Council.

“From what I saw, there was lots of excitement and a clear sense of purpose,” Lunde says. “We’re big on engagement, and the assembly organizers and speakers did a great job. They didn’t tell participants what to think, but helped them make informed recommendations.”

The Brooklyn Park assembly recommendations included expanding the mayor’s hours from part-time to full-time, reconstituting a “Welcome to Brooklyn Park” kit that helps connect new residents to services and resources, making the police department more diverse, and providing access to capital for local small businesses.

Brooklyn Park’s assembly is a true success story and a great model for other cities, according to assembly project manager Schultz.

“Cities can really learn something from these assemblies about how to do community engagement for comprehensive planning or other activities,” Schultz says. “When you provide an opportunity for residents to talk with one another and receive good information about what local government does, they get excited and come up with great ideas.”

A focus on nontraditional communities

Schultz secured $500,000 from The Joyce Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to conduct the assemblies in four cities. Red Wing, Willmar, Brooklyn Park, and Maplewood were the cities chosen.

The grant was split among Hamline University, Jefferson Center, the Wilder Foundation, and Northwestern University’s ForgeWorks. The Jefferson Center facilitated eight-day assemblies in Red Wing in June and July 2017, and in Willmar in September and October 2017. The Wilder Foundation facilitated in Brooklyn Park and in Maplewood, where a shortened, two-day assembly took place in April. ForgeWorks produced the project website (www.mnassembly.org) and instructional videos.

Schultz chose the four cities in consultation with the League of Minnesota Cities because he wanted to make sure they each met specific criteria. He wanted cities that had home-rule charters and citizen-led referendums, and that represented different images of Minnesota.

“Red Wing is a politically and racially homogeneous city,” explains Schultz, “while Willmar and Maplewood’s demo-graphics are dramatically transitioning, and Brooklyn Park is the state’s largest near-majority nonwhite city, and it represents where the state is going.”

Cities hosted the assemblies at no cost. All project expenses—including training, meals, and a $1,200 stipend and childcare reimbursement for each participant—were paid for by the grant.

Schultz and his team helped the cities publicize the assemblies and recruit participants, putting particular emphasis on reaching out to populations that don’t typically show up at city hall. In addition to mailing flyers and using social media to get the word out, Schultz and his team had face-to-face meetings in places like mosques, community centers, and barber shops.

“If you really want to reach the nontraditional communities, you have to find out who the leaders are and spend lots of time talking with them and winning over their confidence,” Schultz says. “They’re potentially the new future leaders for their cities.”

The strategy worked. In each city, hundreds of people applied for just a few dozen spots in the assembly.

‘Powerful’ project

Each of the assemblies included instruction in the eight qualities of good government: accountability, transparency, equity, trust, strategic vision, effectiveness and efficiency, and consensus orientation. Participants also studied election processes, ethics, and other topics and then voted on recommendations for change.

The recommendations made by Red Wing’s 36-person assembly included establishing an ethics commission, strengthening financial disclosure requirements for city officials, and increasing public engagement through electronic communications. The assembly also studied the city’s election process and learned about ranked-choice voting and the differences between at-large and ward elections. The group presented its recommendations to the City Council in September 2017.

Red Wing Council Administrator Kay Kuhlmann says the city is studying each of the assembly’s recommendations, and has already moved toward implementing a strategy to increase digital engagement.

The assembly project was “powerful,” Kuhlmann says. “The more we can get residents involved in decision-making early in the process, the better the decisions will be.”

Since the assembly, one participant has joined the city’s Human Rights Commission and has expressed interest in running for a board or commission spot in the future, she adds.

Coincidentally, the city recently increased its commitment to outreach by creating a new position for a community engagement specialist, who started at the city just as the assembly got underway last summer.

“There’s no downside to this kind of engagement,” Kuhlmann says. “It’s our civic responsibility.”

Residents find their voice

In Willmar, 32 residents participated in an eight-day assembly last fall and made their recommendations to the City Council in November 2017. The group asked the Council to adopt better public meetings and increase its digital citizen engagement, as well as consider ranked-choice voting and investigate a ward versus at-large system for Council positions.

Assembly participant Dale Boxrud says the project helped him understand that he has a voice.

“The national political environment is so terribly frustrating, and the average person feels absolutely powerless to change what’s going on in Washington,” Boxrud says. “I learned that, at least on the local level, a small group of people can change things.”

Willmar Mayor Marvin Calvin says the assembly process has reinforced for him the importance of reaching out to the city’s increasingly diverse residents, including Hmong and Somali immigrants.

“[The assembly] has had a tremendous impact,” Calvin says. “These groups are not used to having their voices heard, and it allowed some of our citizens to find out they have more in common than apart.”

The City Council is still reviewing the assembly’s recommendations, Calvin says, but a couple of the proposals have coincided with improvements already in the works, including updating the city website, which became a priority after the assembly called for increased digital engagement. He adds that two assembly participants have expressed an interest in running for City Council, and another joined the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“If a community is thinking of doing something like this, they should roll up sleeves and go after it,” Calvin says.

Maplewood City Manager Melinda Coleman agrees, calling the assembly process in her city “a very positive approach to community engagement.”

At the end of the two-day Maplewood assembly in late April, Coleman and two councilmembers heard the group’s six recommendations, which included specific ideas aimed at building trust, equity, and transparency in the community. The 21 assembly participants will formally present their findings to the full City Council sometime this summer.

“Listening to their recommendations made it apparent to me that people love to be asked to participate,” Coleman says. “I also learned we have to figure out how to create trust for residents and find ways to communicate in a way that’s meaningful to the different populations, residents, and businesses in our neighborhoods.”

Assemblies inspire tomorrow’s leaders

Schultz says host cities were good partners, and city officials were willing to listen to what the assembly participants had to say.

He learned that engagement efforts like the Minnesota Community Assembly project cannot use a “one-size-fits-all” approach to outreach. Since many residents, particularly immigrant populations, may know very little about how their city is run, outreach has to be tailored to the uniqueness of each community with a significant effort to meet the residents where they are.

Another important outcome of the project is the understanding that outreach efforts like the assemblies are effective tools for building leadership among residents and finding a future mayor or city councilmember among younger and increasingly diverse populations.

Back in Brooklyn Park, resident Xp Lee, embracing all that he learned from his assembly experience, applied for an engagement position with the city. He started in his position as the city’s newest community liaison in February.

Lee says he and the rest of the assembly participants continue to meet monthly to discuss and refine their recommendations and strategize about how to get them implemented.

“Before the project, I was just a concerned citizen,” Lee says. “But after I went through it, I have become more of an engaged resident who has the skills and information to participate [in local government].”

Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

Read the July-Aug 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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